Few regions of the world have been idealized and mythologized as much as California – yet it seldom fails to live up to the hype. Among the finest jewels in the state’s crown are its magnificent beaches. There’s no better place to soak up the near-endless sun than along the coast, whether you’re there for the surfing, nature or just pure relaxation. Here, we’ve picked 10 of the best beaches in California from north to south. If you’re looking for sun, sea, sand and scenery, read on.
Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park
Seven miles south of Crescent City, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park is worth visiting less for its redwood forests than its fantastic beach area and hiking trails, most of which are an easy two miles or so along the coastal ridge where the redwoods meet the sea. From May to July, wild rhododendrons and azaleas shoot up everywhere, laying a floral blanket across the park’s floor. Del Norte is the least visited of the Redwood national and state parks – pure bliss for anyone looking to get off the beaten track, though the seas can be rough so if you’re after the best beaches to swim in California, carry on.
Manchester Beach, Mendocino County
The coast of Mendocino County, 150 miles north of San Francisco, is a dramatic extension of the Sonoma coastline – the headlands a bit sharper, the surf a bit rougher. Sea stacks form a dotted line off the coast and there’s an abundance of tide pools, making the area a prime spot for exploring the secrets of the ocean, either on foot or in diving gear. This is one of the best beaches in California for surfing, and there are delightful sandy beaches to be found between Gualala and Albion, such as the largely deserted strand of Manchester Beach State Park.
Mavericks Beach, The Peninsula
San Francisco sits at the tip of a five-mile-wide neck of land commonly referred to as The Peninsula, home to old money, new technology, and some excellent beaches. Mavericks Beach is among the most splendid and boasts the largest waves in North America. It attracts some of the world’s best (and craziest) surfers when conditions are right; just watching them can be an exhilarating way to spend an hour or so and hundreds of people do just that every day.
Natural Bridges State Beach, Santa Cruz
Seventy-five miles south of San Francisco, the edgy – and maddening – city of Santa Cruz is a difficult place to pin down. A classic California seaside promenade where carnival food, amusement arcades and a rickety old wooden rollercoaster all make for irresistible fun, but if you venture further west you’ll be rewarded by Natural Bridges State Beach. It’s famous not just for the four delicate wave-cut arches that once stood here but the annual gathering of monarch butterflies which arrive each winter. Kids will love the tidepools here; that, coupled with the attractions in Santa Cruz, make this one of the best beaches in California for families.
Carmel Beach, Monterey Peninsula
Set on gently rising headlands above a sculpted and largely untouched rocky shore, the village of Carmel fans out from a few neat rows of just-so shops along Ocean Avenue to reveal assorted posh mansions; think of it as the West Coast’s middle-aged answer to New York’s Hamptons. Inarguably its best feature is its largely untouched coastline, among the most beautiful in California. City-managed Carmel Beach, in particular, is a tranquil cove of emerald-blue water bordered by soft, blindingly white sand and cypress-covered cliffs.