9 Great California Beaches for a Relaxing Day on the Coast
Blessed with more than 800 miles of Pacific coastline, California has a wealth of beaches, from broad sandy expanses to cozy coves hemmed by rocky cliffs. So, you’d be forgiven for assuming that Californians spend every spare moment splayed out on a towel, sipping a cold-pressed juice to the tune of crashing surf.
However, a recent report by UCLA and San Francisco State found that locals are hitting the beach less, deterred by the cost of getting there and the gamble of trying to find a reasonably priced place to ditch the car once they do. Still, there’s no need to forsake sun and sand altogether.
Scattered up and down the coast, these easy-access California shores are reason enough to stop making excuses and start packing your beach bag.
Fort Funston, San Francisco
San Francisco’s coastline is less about bikinis and beach blankets and more about blustery walks admiring the raw power of the Pacific. Just south of Ocean Beach, Fort Funston ticks all the right boxes: ample free parking, wide swaths of sand backed by 200-foot bluffs and a network of trails that zig-zag across the dunes. Part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, it’s also one of the few national parks that allows dogs off-leash, so expect plenty of pups romping in the waves.
Russian Gulch State Park, Mendocino
The small but spectacular beach inside this state park looks more like Big Sur than Northern California thanks to its turquoise cove framed by tree-topped cliffs and the elegant bridge that spans the gorge 100 feet in the air. And that stunning spot is just one of Russian Gulch’s charms. Hike through a verdant canyon to a 36-foot waterfall, visit the famous Devil’s Punchbowl or take a stroll along the gusty headlands, then hop in the car for local fare and libations in nearby Fort Bragg or Mendocino, just 15 or 5 minutes away, respectively.
Santa Monica State Beach and Pier, Santa Monica
Come for the three miles of golden sand, stay for the bike paths, sunsets and the historic pier, where visitors catapult on a coaster above the waves, and a solar-powered Ferris wheel turns into an Instagram-worthy photo opp after dark. And forget parking. In 2016 the L.A. Metro extended its Expo Line all the way to Downtown Santa Monica, so for the first time in a half-century you — and your surfboard — can ride the rails straight to the sea.
Crystal Cove State Park, Laguna Beach
A true gem of the state park system, Crystal Cove is what would happen if someone made a greatest hits list of beach enticements and then put them all in one place. Surf breaks, tide pools, swimming areas and scuba spots accommodate aquatic recreation of all sorts, while onshore there are 15 miles of trails to explore before tucking into steak chilaquiles and Bloody Marys at the Beachcomber. Sound like paradise? Guests who want to spend the night can book a campsite or bed down in one of the historic cottages. Though parking is a bit pricey at $15 per day, a handful of lots means you’ll spend less time driving in circles and more time lounging on the sand.
Natural Bridges State Beach, Santa Cruz
While the crowds jostle for parking spots and real estate on Cowell’s or the main beach in front of Santa Cruz’s iconic boardwalk, three miles up the coast a wonderland awaits. Study the sea life inside rocky tide pools or snag a patch of sand and watch for whales, seals and otters offshore. The natural bridge that lends this beach its name makes a scenic backdrop, and in winter the park’s trees put on a show when thousands of Monarch butterflies come to roost. The onsite lot charges a small fee, but you can always park for free on neighborhood streets and stroll over.
Rodeo Beach, Sausalito
Thirty-five minutes from downtown San Francisco, the drive to this dark-sand cove is half the fun: over the Golden Gate Bridge, through the rolling hills of the Marin Headlands with panoramic views back toward the city on the bay. Once home to WWII mobilization post Fort Cronkhite, today Rodeo Beach is a destination for hikers and families who take to a web of trails tracing the coast or hang on a crescent of sand flanked by a lagoon on one side and the ocean on the other. Stay for sunset when the rocky outcropping on the far end of the beach makes for an especially photogenic scene.
Ocean Beach, San Diego
Sparkling sand, relentlessly sunny weather, consistent surf and a crowd that’s heavy on the toned and tanned, San Diego’s beaches are rightly famous as one of Southern California’s favorite playgrounds. But scoring a parking spot can be headache enough to keep visitors away. With its historic pier and beginner-friendly surf break, Ocean Beach is a slightly chiller (though no less lovely) alternative to its neighbors. Public lots are free, if you can find a space, and there’s street parking in the neighborhoods for those willing to spend a few minutes on the hunt. Most importantly, when it’s time for a bite, you’re only steps from some of San Diego’s best fish tacos at South Beach Bar & Grille.
Leadbetter Beach, Santa Barbara
This Santa Barbara landmark is a California stereotype in the best possible way: plentiful soft, white sand backed by swaying palms with surfers in the water scoping the perfect wave. The city lot onsite is fairly inexpensive, but there’s free parking just north at Shoreline Park if you don’t mind lugging your beach gear. Reserve one of the grills for a coastal cookout, or head to happy hour at Shoreline Cafe smack in the middle of Leadbetter and the only place in town where you can dine with your toes in the sand.
Limantour Beach, Point Reyes Station
Curving in a narrow crescent along Drakes Bay, Limantour is an out-of-the-way escape, far enough off the beaten path inside the Point Reyes National Seashore that even on relatively busy days its easy to stake claim to an idyllic square of sand. Once you do, start exploring, north on the spit trail along the estuary where birds abound or south toward the tide pools at Sculptured Beach two miles away. If you’d like to make an evening of it, pick up picnic supplies in Point Reyes Station and a beach fire permit at the visitor center, then watch the sun go down over the flames.