Photo: Marc Pagani Photography/Shutterstock

15 of the Best Beaches in California

California Insider Guides
by Katie Scott Aiton May 1, 2017

Editor’s note: These spots are all taken directly from travelstoke®, a new app from Matador that connects you with fellow travelers and locals, and helps you build trip itineraries with spots that integrate seamlessly into Google Maps and Uber. Download the app to add any of the spots below directly to your future trips.

1. Gold Bluffs Beach

Picture California’s North Coast, and beaches might not be the first thing that comes to mind. Hence the underrated status of Gold Bluffs Beach, a 10-mile stretch of pale sand halfway between Eureka and Crescent City — as far north in the state as you can go before the Ataris write an album about it.

But what you do expect from the North Coast — mist and mystique, smaller crowds, and redwood groves — is all here in abundance.

 Stout Grove TrailheadCrescent City, United StatesOne of my favorite trails I walked in the redwoods. Felt like walking among giants. #hiking #redwoods #forest

Hang a left off the 101 onto Davidson Rd, just north of Orick, and continue for a few miles as the pavement turns to dirt and the tall trees thin as you reach the Pacific. If you take the time to camp and explore, you’ll find elk wandering along the foggy shore.

2. China Beach

 China BeachSan Francisco, United StatesSmall gem of a beach on the western side of the Golden Gare Bridge. More protected than Ocean Beach and great views!

3. Manchester State Beach

Manchester State Beach wasn’t built for surfing or swimming — nor sunbathing. Manchester, off Highway 1 just north of Point Arena in Mendocino County, is located in a catch basin of currents, making the water itself haphazard and murky. But it’s in that swirling vortex of hydrodynamics that the magic is found. The catch basin offshore means these five miles of sand are littered with perfectly polished driftwood and other marine artifacts, which makes walking the sand continuously fascinating.

4. Marshalls Beach

 Marshall’s BeachSan Francisco, United StatesGreat view of the Golden Gate Bridge from both higher and lower elevations, depending on how far you want to walk. #sunset #bridge #view #goldengate

5. McWay Falls, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

 McWay FallsBig Sur, United States#hiking

It’s easy to get what Jack Kerouac saw in Big Sur.

 Big SurBig Sur, United StatesI love ocean views.

When life started moving too sedately for the writer only comfortable with transience, he retreated to the shores of the Central Coast, spending his days searching for his sanity by kicking the sand and wandering the forest. The area is quiet, and though it shares the foggy ambiance of the North, there’s much that’s unique to the region: tiny beaches at the bottom of the cordillera that cuts across the coast; foaming outlets for the creeks.

Bixby Creek is the most famous, with an iconic bridge standing over it, but it pales in comparison to the beauty of McWay Falls, a small beach on the shore of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, some 40 miles south of Monterey.

Here, while the creek winds into the water like a snake, another stream falls with a slap onto the sand. A large sentinel rock stands nearby, creating a closed area where the sound of the waves echoes into the silence.

 Julia Pfeiffer Burns State ParkBig Sur, United StatesIf you’re looking for easy access to beautiful redwood forests, Julia Pfeiffer Burns state park is my go to spot. Within moments you’ll be in the midst of a huge grove of redwoods. I recommend using your time here to wander rather than to hike. Logs criss-cross the creek and lead to spots off the beaten path. For me, this area is about taking it all in and having a moment in these ancient trees. There are other spots to go if your goal is to go far. Bring a picnic basket and relax here for a while. #hiking #accessbigsur #redwoods #wandering

McWay Falls are featured in an untold number of screensaver-postcard-pics, and thus this beach really isn’t “underrated” — but being hard to get to turns many people away. Hike the trail to the viewpoint above, winding through the forests that have made Big Sur famous, and you’ll feel not unlike the bohemians who made the trek before you — alone in nature.

6. Millerton

 Millerton PointMarshall, United StatesSmall beach on Tomales Bay great for kids and dogs.

Tomales Bay has a few great beaches and the water is warmer and much safer than the ocean if you’re visiting with kids. Check out Millerton and Heart’s Desire.

7. Guadalupe-Nipomo / Pismo Beach

Guadalupe-Nipomo (just south of San Luis Obispo on the Central Coast) is the place to be. It’s the largest remaining coastal sand dune group south of San Francisco, making it not just a place to roll — go ahead and bring a snowboard if you’ve got the agility. If you don’t, head north. The northern tip of the dunes is known as Pismo Beach, and it’s become a hub for motorsports, with cheap rentals of ATVs and even monster trucks.

8. Lost Coast

 Lost CoastWhitethorn, United StatesMulti-day backpacking along a rugged stretch of CA coast #hiking #camping #extreme

Lost Coast is a backpacking trip full of beaches in a location too rugged for roadbuilding.

9. Two Harbors

Usually, finding the besthidden beaches can be as simple as driving the PCH and pulling over when you spot a place worth stopping. But if you only go that route, you’ll miss one of California’s worst-kept secrets: Santa Catalina Island (just call it Catalina), 22 miles offshore of the greater LA area — catch a ferry from San Pedro, Long Beach, Newport Beach, or Dana Point.

Catalina is a tourist hotspot, and Avalon (the only real city on the island), despite having a decent beach, is packed full of tourist candy shops and hotels. Few people venture outside this first port of call. Meanwhile, on the other side of the island is Two Harbors, a settlement on the island’s isthmus. With 90% of Catalina’s population in Avalon, Two Harbors is quieter and more natural, and though there are still plenty of boats docked just offshore, the lower visitor population means you can use more of the beach. On the off chance it does get crowded on one side of the isthmus, well…there’s a reason it’s called Two Harbors.

Either community on Catalina will have locations to rent kayaks, which means the entire island is yours to explore — there are more beaches than Two Harbors, and some are worth packing a lunch and getting lost for a day. And who knows, if you get really lucky, some of the island’s 150 bisons may join you.

10. Bean Hollow

 Bean Hollow State BeachPescadero, United StatesA small, very peaceful beach.

Heading south from San Francisco, Bean Hollow is a tiny beach on the San Mateo Coast with white sand and plenty of sea life.

11. The Wedge

When surfing is involved, there’s no such thing as an underrated beach. Any break of decent quality has been tracked and categorized by the army of surfing fanatics along the coast, making liberal use of the “dibs” system. Maybe that’s what makes the Wedge underrated, in a sense — it’s almost too overrated for exclusivity.

 Newport Beach PierNewport Beach, United StatesI live here!

Located smack at the end of the Balboa Peninsula in Newport Beach (a short drive south of downtown LA), the Wedge, watersports-wise, is something only the experienced should try. The waves there routinely reach into the 15-18ft range (or more), and the intense shore break means even skimboarders can get gobsmacked by a giant. Normally, this would mean only the experienced would even bother to go, but the mainstream location makes the Wedge a great place to watch the athletes without worrying about getting in their way.

12. Limekiln State Beach

 Limekiln State ParkBig Sur, United StatesRedwoods, hiking, historic kilns, a clean campground and beach #hiking #camping

Limekiln State Beach, south of Big Sur, is less crowded than other beaches in that area and offers a black sand beach, a great waterfall hike, and clean campground.

13. San Onofre State Beach

Maybe it’s the endearing wild hills that line the eastern side of the 5 here at the halfway point between LA and San Diego. Maybe it’s the giant mothballed nuclear reactor on the shore that looks humorously similar to a certain part of the human anatomy. But more than likely, it’s the magnificent beaches that line the coast of San Onofre. Trestles gets all the fame, being one of the best surf spots in California; Cotton’s Point, a short walk north, also stands to the challenge.

14. Solana Beach

In Solana, you’ll find folks who don’t mind putting in a little effort to find places they enjoy. When the pink morning sun first starts to show above the eastern horizon, there will already be troops of junior guards doing their morning routines, swim groups with their polar bear plunges, and casual joggers whose sneakers don’t even sink into the sand.

15. La Jolla Cove

Greater San Diego’s La Jolla Cove is hardly a beach. When the tide is in, the water laps the bluffs that enclose the coarse, seashell sand. The water is cold, and the floor drops swiftly into a forest of seaweed. Slippery rocks cover either side of the narrow shore. But nothing worth doing is easy, right?

As unconventional as it is, the Cove is the place to be for those in the know. Its true draw is as one of the best access points to the colossal marine reserve jutting into the La Jolla coastline. Here, where all but kayaks are banned, swimmers can throw on a snorkel and find themselves in an alien world of garibaldis, bat rays, nurse sharks, and jellyfish.

On the other side of the sand, up the stairs and back into the town of La Jolla, there’s a large park dotted with giant Torrey pines. When the sun begins to set and the tide closes out the beach, you can escape to the green grass just in time to watch the Green Flash over the horizon. By that point, the park will be inundated:: families packing up, couples surreptitiously uncorking a bottle of wine, young adults jogging with their dogs. It’s a microcosm of the entire population of California.

Discover Matador

Save Bookmark

We use cookies for analytics tracking and advertising from our partners.

For more information read our privacy policy.