From Malibu to the Big Sur, California’s Pacific seaboard is one of the world’s most iconic coastlines, with prestigious cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco rubbing shoulders with remote beaches and dramatic coastal cliffs. Surfers, bathers, walkers and wildlife enthusiasts flock to the state’s famous coastline, drawn to the ocean’s edge by the prospect of soaring swells, rare wildlife and, of course, some of the world’s most beautiful beaches.
Take the coastal road between Los Angeles and San Francisco, and you’ll be privy to 500 miles of breath-taking natural scenery, interspersed with countless sandy bays buffeted by the roaring Pacific. But with so many gorgeous beaches to choose from, it can be tricky to choose one on which to lay your beach towel — and that’s where we come in, with a look at 10 of the most beautiful beaches to visit in California.
Pacifica State Beach
Though Pacifica State Beach lies within a 17-minute drive of San Francisco, it remains quiet even in high season, making it the ultimate respite for those hoping to escape the clamour of the city. Pacifica features a crescent moon of sand bordered by high coastal cliffs, so it’s a popular spot for beginner surfers thanks to the semi-sheltered aspect. There’s plenty of sand to go around however, so you can sunbathe and picnic without feeling crammed in.
Montara State Beach
Montara Beach is typical of northern California — think golden sand, big swells, craggy sandstone cliffs and a backdrop of emerald spruce trees and magenta ice plants. Due south of San Francisco, this mile-long stretch is perfect for a peaceful afternoon of sunbathing, or else a more stimulating nature walk in the surrounding tidepools and woodland. The trees and shrubs which encircle the sand provide decent shelter against the wind, making Montara a serious sun trap on the hottest days. If you plan to surf, Montara’s choppy breakers mean the beach is fit for advanced wave riders only.
Carmel River State Beach
Amid the spectacular beauty of the famous Big Sur is the Carmel River State Beach, a mile-long ribbon of sand fringed by wetlands, lagoons and steep sea cliffs. While it is possible to sunbathe at the Carmel River beach, most visit for its kayaking, diving and birding opportunities, as well as its rare wetlands ecosystem. The area is renowned for its prolific birdlife, as well as its underwater kelp forests, which prove popular with scuba divers. Many kayakers also launch from the bay thanks to its shape, which acts like a natural harbour, sheltering the shallows from the Pacific’s swirling currents. The Carmel River beach lies just outside the suburbs of Monterey, and can be reached on the famous Cabrillo Highway.
Moss Landing State Beach
For uninterrupted views and a large swathe of sand all to yourself, make for Moss Landing State Beach. This vast bay comprises of lofty dunes stretching down to meet the ocean, and stretches as far as the eye can see along the coast of Monterey Bay. Fishing, surfing, windsurfing and horseback riding are all popular at Moss Landing, as is birding, with the beach attracting rare wildlife like sea ducks, loons, gulls and grebes. Swimming isn’t recommended at the beach due to the strong rip currents, though it’s still safe to paddle in shallow waters.
Regularly rated among North America’s best beaches, Carmel Beach is a popular spot for holidaymakers — though this shouldn’t put you off visiting. The beach is located close to a resort town of the same name, so there’s plenty of nearby amenities for those who want to assemble a picnic before hitting the sand. The beach follows a horseshoe bend in the coast, and is bordered by the Scenic Bluff Path which leads walkers past beautiful woodlands and sea cliffs, with staircases offering regular access to the sand below. While some of the beach is pebble, most is sand, so you’re bound to find a sun-drenched spot for sunbathing.
Leo Carrillo State Beach
Tucked beneath steep cliffs close to the famous Pacific Coast Highway, the Leo Carrillo State Beach is an exquisite Santa Monica beachfront offering over a mile of soft golden sand and a string of fascinating sea cliffs and tide pools. The beach is named after Leo Carrillo, an actor who served as a preservationist for the California Beach and Parks Commission for 18 years, and there is a visitor centre where you can find out more about Leo’s legacy as well as the beach’s native wildlife. Leo Carrillo beach is perfect for a relaxing coastal hike, allowing you to soak up the arresting beauty of the area.
El Matador Beach
Strewn with limestone rocks and secluded well away from the main tourist trail, El Matador beach in Malibu could well be the most beautiful Californian beach on our shortlist. The water here is among the clearest this side of the Big Sur, and the waves are powerful, adding a tangible sense of drama to El Matador’s vista. Access to the beach is down a rugged path, so it’s not suitable for those less mobile. If you are feeling fit, however, you’ll be gifted with an unbeatable sunbathing spot, or else the world’s finest coastal walking opportunities.
Santa Monica Beach
It may be crowded, but no visit to California would be complete without sinking your toes into the warm sands of Santa Monica Beach. Located on the north side of the historic Santa Monica Pier (which is, itself, well worth a visit), the beach stretches for two miles, so there’s plenty of space for a game of volleyball or an afternoon of bathing. For an iconic LA experience, rent a bike and cruise the Santa Monica Beach cycleway, which follows the length of the beach and is a great way to get a handle on your surroundings.
A popular spot for families and travellers touring the Pacific Coast Highway, Cabrillo Beach has everything you need for a relaxing day at the coast — including amazing views, softly sloping sands and essential amenities like a public toilet, café and shop. The beach itself is split into two: one side for surfing, which opens on to the Pacific, and the other for bathing and fishing, opening out on to the harbour. After a couple of hours topping up your tan or paddling in the cool water, make for the nearby Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, one of LA’s most comprehensive wildlife centres, with a range of exhibits including tidepool touch tanks.
Abalone Cove Ecological Reserve
While the Abalone Cove Ecological Reserve isn’t the classic beach towel and sunscreen destination, it’s easily one of the most scenic spots on LA’s South Bay. After descending the steep, craggy path down to the beach, you’ll be met by a rocky shore leading to a string of coastal hiking trails that ascend into the surrounding sea cliffs — offering uninterrupted views. As you’d expect, the Abalone Cove Ecological Reserve offers plenty of opportunity for close encounters with native wildlife, and there’s a string of tidal pools and caves to explore for those feeling adventurous.
Join Scenic for a luxury escorted tour on the USA’s sun-drenched west coast, and you can look forward to laying your beach towel on some of California’s finest beaches, or else strapping on the walking boots for an invigorating coastal hike. To book your dream trip to California, click here to browse our collection of upcoming tours or call 0808 115 0652 for more help and information.