Beach Vacations

The 8 Best Beaches in California

Last updated 19th December 2023

With 840 miles of coastline, California beaches are known to be some of the country’s greatest. From north to south, we’ve rounded up some the best stretches of sand the Golden State has to offer vacationing families.

MacKerricher State Park, Fort Bragg

The large and dramatic dunes here, particularly on a moonlit night, make this one of the West Coast’s most photogenic beaches. The camping is superb and the birdwatching and seasonal whale-watching are other bonuses. Recreational opportunities include ranger-led tours, hiking and cycling.

Big River Beach, Mendocino

One of Northern California’s most breathtaking beaches, this is a great spot for a picnic on a sunny day or a campfire on a foggy night. Set beneath the village of Mendocino, Big River Beach can be accessed by a meandering cliff-side hike from town or by parking on the eastern side of Big River Bridge just south of town. While the ocean water is cold for swimming, a lagoon often forms at high tide that’s perfect for a dip.

Stinson Beach, Stinson Beach

Stinson’s white sands and great location by the eponymously named town make it a tempting vacation destination or just a day trip from the Bay Area. Take advantage of the picnic tables: Grab some sandwiches at the deli or cook out on some grills. Parents can even enjoy an adult beverage, though no glass containers or kegs are allowed on the beach. A dog-friendly section is designated for families with a pooch. Lifeguards are typically on watch from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and a snack bar runs during the summer months by the main lifeguard tower.

Natural Bridges State Beach, Santa Cruz

The 65-acre park is named for an iconic natural arch across part of the beach. The beach is renowned as a main thoroughfare of monarch butterfly migrations from October through early February, and tide pools, birds, seals and sea otters add to the wildlife watching opportunities. The beach is also a hub of swimming, surfing, hiking and picnicking.

Julia Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur

Pfeiffer Beach stands out even in a locale known for its natural beauty, due to its purple sands and eye-catching rock formations. Tide pools can be explored at low tide, and the beach is a photographer’s dream, particularly at sunset. The hallmark of the beach is Keyhole Rock, which has a natural arch at the base where ocean waves and the sun’s rays burst through. While rough waves don’t make this the best swimming beach, its natural beauty and unique topography make it a must-see.

Crystal Cove State Park, Newport Coast

An Orange County treasure, Crystal Cove shows off seductive sands, a smattering of 46 vintage rustic coastal cottages, and one of the best lunch spots in the region. Grab an outdoor table at the Beachcomber for some elevated pub grub, look for playful dolphins that often frequent the beach, and then take a stroll down the sand or above the bluffs on a scenic paved pathway.

La Jolla Shores Beach, La Jolla

Families with younger children will savor this beautiful beach, with its mellow surf, lifeguards on duty, picnic tables and bathroom and shower amenities. There’s even a large playground handy at neighboring Kellogg Park, as well as several fire pits. Vacationing families able to splurge can stay right on the beach at the La Jolla Shores Hotel or the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club, which even has its own private beach area.

Mission Beach, San Diego

Kids will love the sand and swimming at Mission Beach, and probably enjoy the adjoining amusement park, Belmont Park, just as much. Lifeguards, public showers and restrooms, and proximity to all sorts of shops and restaurants make this a convenient family destination. Kids will also enjoy watching the many surfers in action who often ride the waves here.

By Zach Chouteau