California’s best beaches

By Hannah Louise Summers

Photography by Kathryn Donohew Photography/Getty Images.

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Whether you’re looking to spot wildlife, want to catch some waves or ride a rollercoaster from dawn until dusk, there’s a beach for every type of traveller in California, says travel writer Hannah Summers.

Santa Monica, Los Angeles

A day at the beach doesn’t have to mean hours lazing in the sun. A case in point is LA’s 5.6km-long Santa Monica Beach. In fact, this stretch of sand is home to the original Muscle Beach, which has made a name for itself as the city’s most popular outdoor gym (and the second home of celebs and bodybuilders, including Arnold Schwarzenegger) since the 1950s. Today you can try out the bicep-quivering equipment yourself, or just head along for a spot of people watching. The big draw though is the colours, lights and old-school atmosphere of the Santa Monica Pier. Test your nerves on the roller coaster, indulge in gigantic ice creams, or ride the 13-story Pacific Wheel – the world’s first and only solar-powered Ferris wheel.

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  • La Jolla Beach, San Diego © Ron and Patty Thomas/Getty Images.

    The jewel of San Diego.

    A 1.6km stretch of pristine white sand, La Jolla is ideal for soon-to-be sunkissed sunbathers, while the more adventurous can take a kayaking trip to La Jolla caves.

La Jolla, San Diego

La Jolla is known as ‘the jewel’ of San Diego, and it’s easy to see why with its white-sand beaches, towering sea cliffs and turquoise coves. Most beaches here are tucked into rocky coves, but for a 1.6km-long stretch of palm-backed sand, try La Jolla Shores Beach, the perfect patch for soft surf and sunbathing. For something a little more hardcore, join one of the many kayaking trips leaving the beach and heading out to La Jolla Caves – it’s a rocky beach that’s hard to access on foot, and your efforts will be rewarded with spectacular cliffs and perhaps a sea lion or two.

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At Carmel Beach, the Pacific Ocean takes on a turquoise hue and the water is speckled with surfers, otters and even dolphins.

San Gregorio State Beach, San Francisco Bay Area

For a combination of wildlife and walks, try San Gregorio State Beach, which sits in a valley 15km south of Half Moon Bay. This is a rustic beach at its best, so instead of ice-cream shops and fairground rides, expect a golden sweep of sand dotted with logwood, driftwood and birds. Picnic tables also dot the bluff – bring your favourite food and drink down and enjoy it with the views – then work it off with a walk. Head south and you’ll take on a cliff-backed stretch to Pomponio State Beach, or head north to explore caves, fossils and sandstone cliffs.

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  • Dogs on Carmel Beach © Pgiam/Getty Images.

    It’s a dog’s life

    One of only two central California beaches where dogs are allowed off the lead (the other is Avila Beach), Carmel Beach is also a great place to spot dolphins, otters and the not-so-hidden Californian surfer.

  • Keyhole Rock at Pfeiffer Beach © alyfromuk2us/Getty Images.

    Through the keyhole

    From late November through the month of January, you can catch the natural phenomenon of Keyhole Rock, where the sunset bursts through the rocks natural archway creating an other-worldly passage of light.

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  • Santa Barbara’s Leadbetter Beach © Mike Perry/Alamy.

    Did you know... ?

    If you’re after hosting Leadbetter beach bash, contact Santa Barbara’s Parks and Recreation department and simply ask if you can reserve a spot. You’ll be able to bring your own alcohol, just as long as it’s not in a glass.

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Leadbetter Beach, Santa Barbara

It’s impossible not to fall for Santa Barbara, the laid-back and cosy beach town boasts top-draw beaches, pretty buildings and a booming food and drink scene. It’s also been a long-standing surfers’ hangout, and if you fancy trying it for yourself then there’s no better place than Leadbetter Beach, a favourite of local families and students from the college over the road. You’ll find hardcore surfers at other beaches in Santa Barbara (try Rincon Point) but Leadbetter, with its gentle waves, is a great place to get to grips with a surfboard or try a stand-up paddle boarding session.

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Zuma Beach, Malibu

Zuma Beach in Malibu has had its fair share of publicity – Pamela Anderson ran these sands while filming Baywatch (and allegedly lives nearby), while Don Henley reportedly wrote his hit The Boys of Summer on this very beach. Malibu locals find its wide sands and gentle surf (perfect for boogie boarders and body surfers) hard to resist, while others love the lively beach atmosphere – from hot dog stalls to groups of surfers hanging out listening to music. Satisfy your stomach at the Reel Inn, an informal restaurant, kitted out with wooden sharing benches – it serves up plates of fresh fried and grilled fish.

  • A surfer at Zuma Beach, Malibu © National Geographic Creative/Alamy.

    Surfing up an appetite 

    Pristine white sands and great surf are complemented by Zuma’s The Sunset Restaurant, home to exceptional seafood. Try one of the holy trinity: lobster linguine, seafood rissotto, or classic crab cakes.

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Carmel Beach, Central Californian Coast

Forget people watching – at Carmel Beach on the central Californian coast it’s all about dog watching. In fact, this is one of the only beaches in the area where dogs are allowed off the lead, so expect a full-on show from the pups. Here the Pacific Ocean takes on a turquoise hue, and the water is speckled with surfers, otters and even dolphins. If you’re a big kid at heart, the annual Great Sandcastle Contest takes place every October, while you should also set aside some time to explore the romantic beach town of Carmel-by-the-Sea.

Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur State Park

Big Sur features on most people’s Californian must-visit lists and with good reason – as far as dramatic coastlines go, this is the best you’ll see. At the heart of the region is Pfeiffer State Park, where hiking trails thread their way through 1,000 acres of redwood groves (try the 2-mile round-trip hike to the Pfeiffer Falls for some of the best holiday snaps around). Pfeiffer Beach, however, is really the big deal here. The combination of offshore stacks and rocks, deep blue ocean and purple sand make for a simply unforgettable combination. Stay for sunset and you’ll see some of the best beach views California has to offer.

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