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. 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. Manchester State Beach
Manchester State Beach wasn’t built for surfing or swimming. Nor sunbathing, really. But if every beach were, they’d get a little dull, don’t you think? 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.
Oh, and inanimate objects aren’t the only things getting caught in the currents. Bring a pole and tackle. Hell, bring a string with a bottle cap attached to the end. You’ll be going home with a few days’ worth of fish tacos either way.
3. McWay Falls, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
It’s easy to get what Jack Kerouac saw in Big Sur. When life started moving too quickly for the man only comfortable with transience, he retreated to the shores of the Central Coast, spending his days searching for his sanity by kicking through the sand and wandering the forest. The area is quiet, and though it takes foggy cues from the North, there’s much that’s unique to the region: tiny beaches at the bottom of the cordillera that cuts across the coast; 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 outlet 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.
The falls feature in an untold number of screensaver-postcard-pics, and thus this beach isn’t “underrated” per se — but the fact that you can’t really get to it 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 storied bohemians who made the trek before you — alone in nature.
4. Guadalupe-Nipomo / Pismo Beach
If you want crystal clear water, try the bathtub. A great beach is all about the sand. Running in the water and then corndogging yourself in silica is a rite of passage for every child at the beach. And while everybody loves to brag about how powdery a beach’s sand is, how white it is, the real fun is the interaction.
If that’s what you’re looking for, then 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.
Of course, the beach is great where the sand meets the water as well, and there’s generally a disconnect between the people frolicking up the hills and the people relaxing at the bottoms. Take your time on either side. You’re gonna need the dip to cool off after an afternoon of sandy shenanigans.
5. Two Harbors
Usually, finding the best-hidden 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 candyshops and hotels. Few people venture outside this first port of call. Meanwhile, on the other side of the island is Two Harbors, an unimaginatively named 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 rare company 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 bison may join you.
6. 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.
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 skim boarders 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.
7. 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.
You may have heard of this section of California coast before. It’s the location of La Casa Pacifica, also known as the Western White House, where Nixon retired. He didn’t pick the location at random. The beaches in the area have a powdery white comfort to them, and combined with the nearby lazy beach town of San Clemente (try the zucchini fries from Mr. Pete’s on the way out), there are certainly worse ways to spend a post-Presidency.
8. Solana Beach
When I was a kid, my parents placed me in a junior lifeguards group on Solana Beach. I spent every morning of every summer running up and down the compact sand of the low tide. It was often cloudy, and the water wasn’t typically as warm as other spots along the South Coast. When the tide was high, it went right up to the bluffs that line the beach.
These details keep many casual visitors away from Solana, a small coastal community just north of San Diego. Instead, you’ll find folks who don’t mind putting in a little effort to find places they enjoy — particularly the dawn patrol who like to catch a little pre-daylight exercise. 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.
It’s certainly not for everybody, but then, the best places in life never are.
9. 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. It’s 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 with all types: families packing up, couples surreptitiously cracking a bottle of wine, young adults jogging with their dogs. It’s a microcosm of the entire population of California. Though, given how great the beaches in the state are, that’s hardly unique to the Cove.