California, America's 3rd largest state, is one of nation's most popular holiday destinations, known for its countless outdoor activity options and home to many great Pacific shore beaches including some frequently featured in Hollywood movies and TV series such as Venice Beach and Coronado Beach.
Since more than half of the state's inhabitants lives within 100 km of the coast, traffic in the high holiday season can be a smoking, steel-belted nightmare; if you value your elbow-room, both on beaches and roads, it's wise to visit in low season. See our Pacific Coast Highway Map.
California's southern end beaches are
wide, warm, sunny and sandy while those on the northern coast tend to be windy and rocky but curvaceous, tree-hugged and more scenically attractive.
Pacific Ocean water is nothing like clear Caribbean blue, more of a dark green while sand quality is not as fine as that on the east coast, usually beige or golden colour with coarse grains, and often unmanicured so if you're looking for isolation then seaweed, flotsam and jetsam is part of the deal, especially on state park shores.
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Best sunbathing and swimming beach months:
In the north of the state it's just July and August except around San Francisco where fog can arrive anytime and spoil the party.
In the south the season stretches from May to October though San Diego suffers frequent 'June Gloom' when a sea mist covers the coast until midday and the Pacific waters are pretty much always chilly.
Most Californian beaches experience strong rip currents due to the Pacific waves, but provide brilliant surfing conditions and an immense contribution to the state's multi-billion dollar surfing industry. The downside is non-surfing smaller kids need to be constantly monitored unless there's a lifeguard nearby - so families, pick a guarded beach and park yourselves within sniffing distance of the lifeguard's tanning lotion.
Here are some of the best beaches from around 500 along more than 1,000 miles (1600 kms) of Pacific shore.
Beaches are listed from South to North California
Coronado beach, San Diego
Note that while San Diego has one of the USA's best climates with summer highs of 75F (24C), lows of 65F (18C) and very little rainfall, May is a notoriously grey month and June even greyer due to heavy coastal cloud that develops every year, though 5 miles inland may be sunny and bright.
The best time to visit San Diego beaches is July-October.
Coronado Beach, San Diego
Located on the ocean side of Coronado Island, Coronado beach is wide, sandy and just a short ferry ride or car trip across the San Diego Bay Bridge from downtown. It is great for families, with a wide variety of facilities, amenities and activities available. The island parks also offer plenty of fun stuff such as events and fairs and
whale watching is possible in season, January-March.
Downsides are jet noise due to the Naval Air Station on the island, parking problems due to its popularity and possibly stingray hazards in summer time.
Ocean Beach (OB), San Diego
OB is a laid-back beach boasting the longest concrete pier on the west coast and is an essential part of city life as liberal locals get a tan, surf, fish, sail, shop, dine, play volleyball, stroll romantically, stroll doggedly and do many more unmentionable things.
Pacific Beach and Mission Beach are favoured by tourists due to their resort hotels and easy access north of San Diego downtown, but OB is the winner for overall atmosphere.
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Huntington Beach, Orange County
Huntington Beach, aka Surf City, 40 miles south of LA
Situated in Orange County, Huntington Beach is famed for its regular rollers/swells that enables self-promotion internationally as 'Surf City USA'.
The largest stretch of beachfront on the west coast (8.5 miles/13.7 km), Huntington provides a wide choice of activities but be warned - the surf is often less-than-gentle and not brilliant for beginners or the faint of heart.
Entertainments include sporting events such as the Surfing US Open, AVP Pro Beach Volleyball and the Surf City USA Marathon. Check out the International Surfing Museum, too.
The beach is the core of life here, a long wide stretch of golden sand pummeled by surf and conveniently bordered by a cycle path and then the palm-tree-lined Pacific Highway. In season the sand is manicured early every morning and monitored all day by hunks on high. The chilly water generally require a wet suit.
Huntington Beach, PCH and Main Street. Photo by Chris Yarzab.
The town of Huntington Beach is lively, fun and unpretentious with a clientele leaning heavily towards surfers, aging hippies and teenagers.
It's typically American with plain value-for-money architecture and on a different style planet from the much more up-market, up-the-road Newport Beach.
Sidewalks are lined with palm trees, cafés, shops selling or renting surf gear and Harley choppers at the kerb, while a curious mix of ancient surfer vans and luxury cars cruise cruise by.
Tuesday is Surf City nite when the streets close to traffic, market stalls pop up and street entertainers get down.
At sunset groups light bonfires in firepits that stretch down the beach to picnic and party.
The beachside cycle path up to Newport Beach is a gem, loaded with stunning sights both on the beach, on the path and beside it, as multi-million dollar properties slip by like models at a fashion show. But entry is free, no invites required!
The best time to go to Surf City USA is June to October. It's located 40 miles south of Los Angeles, not far from Long Beach.
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Avalon town, Catalina Island
Emerald Bay State Park, Catalina Island, off the Los Angeles area coast
This is one of California's off-shore beauties, a protected place of grand natural beauty. The island has several picturesque sandy beaches and the crystalline water, though not warm, is excellent for scuba diving and snorkelling.
Avalon is the only city on Santa Catalina Island and many of the island's million tourists a year head there for Avalon town beach and entertainments, though Emerald Bay on the north coast is far prettier and less busy.
Two beaches on the ocean side of Catalina offer good surfing waves, Shark Harbor and Ben Weston Beach.
Catalina is about 22 miles to the south-west off the Los Angeles coast and can be reached by ferries from Marina del Rey, Long Beach and San Pedro (Los Angeles County) or Dana Point and Newport Beach (Orange County). The trip should take about an hour.
Hiking and mountain biking are also popular activities though both require a permit
from the Island Conservancy office; the biking permit costs a modest amount, helmets mandatory.
Catalina is a UFP 'hotspot', so take binoculars along too!
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Venice beach, Los Angeles
Venice Beach, vast and flat, scattered with palm trees and bordered by separate walk and bike trails, includes apparently modest (actually very expensive) housing and eateries off the 'boardwalk', a Skate Dancing plaza, beach volleyball courts, high level basketball courts and of course the famous Muscle Beach - with its outdoor gym and extraordinary steroid-packed hulks. These are all a part of this sunny, active and colourful environment, though we think the lively and loony tunes locals are the area's biggest attraction.
The Venice Breakwater is the best local surf spot, with varied breaks depending on swell intensity, direction, tide and time of the day. It's located north of the Venice Pier and south of the Santa Monica Pier. This spot is sheltered to the north by an artificial breakwater.
For a clearer idea of this entertaining area see this Venice Beach Video.
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Santa Monica beach, Los Angeles. Picture by Dekh.
Will Rogers State Beach - Torrance Beach
They may not be America's best beaches but we have to mention this 22-mile South Bay Bike Trail from Will Rogers State Beach to Torrance County Beach which takes you along some of the most entertaining seashore in the world including Baywatch's Santa Monica Beach and pier and Venice beach.
Carpinteria State Beach. More Carpinteria beach pictures
Carpinteria State Beach, near Santa Barbara
Carpinteria SB is a mile long
natural (i.e. unmanicured!) strip of beige sand, backed by shrubs, trees and grassy dunes, dotted with occasional child-friendly tidal pools and wildlife sightings - seals, sea lions and whales pop up December -May.
Carpinteria has decent facilities including campsites and a visitor centre, with accommodation and eating places nearby.
It's 12 miles south of the stunning adobe-style town of Santa Barbara and can be reached via U.S. 101. Take the exit at Casitas Pass Road, go down Casitas Pass Road to Carpinteria Avenue and make a right at the signal and a left on Palm. It's at the end of Palm Ave.
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Carmel beach, also at top of page.
Carmel Bay State Marine Conservation area, near Monterey, just south of Santa Cruz
Carmel City Beach is coated with soft white sand and very popular for surfing, walking and sand castle construction, even hosting annual sand castle competitions, though swimming is not ideal due to a strong undertow and currents. The neighbouring Carmel River State Beach, with lagoon and marshland, is a great nature area for hiking and kayaking. The town of Carmel-by-the-Sea, glittering with celebrity second homes, is a worth a visit, as are local golf courses if you prefer greens to golds.
The most picturesque beach can be found at Point Lobos Natural Marine Reserve, offering superb coastal scenery, wildlife, walking trails and water sports including scuba diving. Point Lobos has been described as 'the crown jewel of State Park System'.
Carmel is about 100 miles south of San Francisco and just a step south of Santa Cruz. From San Francisco and San Jose take Highway 101 south to Prunedale;
then take Highway 156 west (see Monterey Peninsula sign).
At Castroville, stay to the left. The road becomes Highway 1 heading south and gets you to Carmel.
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Santa Cruz Beaches
Pretty little Santa Cruz is famed for its liberal, alternative cultures as well as its beach boardwalk (an extensive oceanfront amusement park) is near several good beaches, such as New Brighton SB, part of a 92 acre state park with soft beige sand and backed by a forested bluff, hiking trails, biking and camping in the trees overlooking Monterey Bay.
The beach is in the town of Capitola, just south of Santa Cruz and can be reached by taking the New Brighton/Park Avenue exit off Highway One.
In addition there's long, sandy Twin Lakes Beach which is a terrific swimming location and Pleasure Point or Lighthouse Field Beaches if you are looking for surf action.
Santa Cruz is 72 miles (115 kms) south of San Francisco.
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Drakes beach, Point Reyes
30 mile north of San Francisco, the dramatic peninsula of Point Reyes is a superb place for nature lovers with thousands of plant species and quite a bit of wildlife - seals, sea lions, whales, bobcats, coyotes, raccoons and varied birds.
Hikers love the wild splendour too as it offers nearly 150 miles of marked trails within the park. As for beaches, such as Drakes, they are dark, sticky sand and tend to be windy and chilly, not ideal for swimming but ideal for anoraksic sand sculptures.
America's best beaches | dedicated Florida and Hawaii pages
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