California’s best beaches

By Hannah Louise Summers

Photography by Kathryn Donohew Photography/Getty Images.

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With nearly 900 miles of prime Pacific coastline to its name, California is a beach-lovers dream. It’s a surfing paradise, but riding waves isn’t the only shoreside distraction. You can find beaches where you can roll down rollercoasters, beaches where you can spot dolphins, and even the beach where Baywatch was first filmed. Travel writer Hannah Summers picks the best of the bunch.

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 130-foot high Pacific Wheel – the world’s first and only solar-powered Ferris wheel. Book onto the hop-on hop-off Los Angeles bus to reach it all with ease. And stay in the area in style, thanks to the art deco elegance of Hotel Shangri-La, which is right across from the beach near the famous pier. Otherwise, book into the Viceroy for its fancy furnishings, including chic monochrome cabanas at the pool.

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Huntington City Beach

It’s super-famous and super-busy, but rightly so: the city of Huntington Beach has the nickname ‘Surf City’ and the 9.5 mile stretch of beach in its front yard truly is a paradise for surfers. Cycle along the strand in front of the beach and you’re bound to overtake a few long-haired surfing types, carrying their boards with ankle-straps trailing towards the nearest wave. In winter and spring you might be able to spot graceful Gray Whales as they migrate along the coast – and your best chance to see them is to ditch your bike and to the end of the 500 metre long Huntington Beach Pier. There are plenty of great hotels around, no matter when you visit. The Hyatt Regency has ocean-facing balconies so you can suss the surf conditions from your suite whilst the Kimpton Shorebreak Hotel is a monument to surfers, with battered old boards mounted on the walls, and communal firepits on the patio.

  • 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.

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La Jolla, San Diego

La Jolla (pronounced ‘La Hoya’) 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. With a large pool, tennis courts and South California cuisine, the Hyatt Regency La Jolla is a solid choice for your San Diego stay.

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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 beach is simple and rustic, so instead of ice-cream shops and fairground rides, expect a golden sweep of sand dotted with driftwood. 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.

    Zoom in on Zuma

    Rock up the Pacific Coast Highway from Malibu to bag your spot on Zuma Beach: a big, popular beach with plenty of facilities and restaurants. It’s easy to spend a lazy day here.

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  • 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.

Leadbetter Beach, Santa Barbara

It’s impossible not to fall for Santa Barbara, the laid-back and cosy beach town boasts top-drawer 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.

    Zoom in on Zuma

    Rock up the Pacific Coast Highway from Malibu to bag your spot on Zuma Beach: a big, popular beach with plenty of facilities and restaurants. It’s easy to spend a lazy day here.

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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. This isn’t the place to swim, as there are strong rip currents – but the shore has plenty of distractions. 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 California bucket lists – and with good reason – as its dramatic coastline is one of the most beautiful in the world. 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). But it’s Pfeiffer Beach that’s the real star of the park. Thanks to a deposit of manganese garnet in the rocks, parts of the beach have amazing purple sand. Combine that with a deep blue ocean and the effect is staggeringly photogenic. Stay for sunset and you’ll be treated to one of the best beach views California has to offer.

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