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13 Must-See California State Beaches
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13 Must-See California State Beaches

Whether you seek sandy shores or rugged coastline, these breathtaking California state beaches offer something for every type of beachgoer.

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9 min read

December 21, 2020

Blue, glimmering waters; melodic, gently crashing waves; warm rays accompanied by invigorating coastal air—all of this can be found at California state beaches. The undulating waters gently soaking the sand, the sun kissing our skin, and the ocean breeze gently caressing our hair are signs of paradisical lands waiting to be discovered. Many of California’s state beaches include multiple beaches within them, providing you with more coastal areas to discover and explore. Whether the beaches are sandy, pebbly, or rocky, the Golden State has an option for every kind of beachgoer.  

California State Beach Pass

There are multiple California state beach passes to choose from, but the best option is the annual pass, which costs $195. Thanks to the annual pass, Southern California state beaches such as Huntington, Leo Carrillo, and Carlsbad State Beaches—located in L.A., Orange County, and San Diego, respectively—await you. (It’s important to note that this California state beach pass isn’t valid for camping, boat use, or oversized-vehicle fees.)

Other options include the Golden Poppy Annual Pass, which costs $125, and the Tahoe Regional Annual Pass, which costs $75. Both are valid for exploring coveted California state park beaches

The Best California State Park Beaches

From the northern stretches of the Bay Area to the southernmost shores of San Diego, these California state beaches offer spectacular scenery, shoreside activities, and laid-back vibes. You’ll immediately want to add them to your bucket list.

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Northern California State Beaches

When roaming Sonoma Coast State Park, make sure to check out Shell Beach. The sound of the rolling waves will relax you.

1. Sonoma Coast State Park, California

Location: 3095 Highway 1, Bodega Bay

Dogs allowed: On certain beaches

Sonoma Coast State Park has no shortage of beaches. While other state parks have a beach or two, this one has 26 separately named coastal access locations. This rugged stretch of the California coast spans 17 miles from Bodega Head to Vista Trail. The California state beaches here are worth visiting even when its cold.

Tide-pool enthusiasts’ preference is Shell Beach. For a sunny summer beach day, Salmon Creek Beach is a perfect choice. As for catching a glimpse of the migrating gray whales, head over to Bodega Head Beach during the winter season to observe the colossal marine mammals. 

Watch as McWay Falls cascades over the cliffs and into the ocean. Meditate to the sound of the waters.

2. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

Location: 52801 Cabrillo Highway, Big Sur

Dogs allowed: No

Prepare to feast your eyes on the most beautiful sight you’ll ever behold at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park: McWay Falls. The 80-foot tide fall flows year-round, dropping directly into the Pacific Ocean. There are only two tide falls in the Golden State, the other one being Alamere Falls in the Point Reyes National Seashore. 

Unfortunately, this state park’s beaches—Saddle Rock and McWay Falls—are off-limits because the areas are extremely hazardous; however, you can still see the 3,762-acre park’s majestic features via the designated trails. Discover hidden rocky coves at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and dive into the depths of the ocean to view underwater life.

When at Pismo State Beach, disconnect from civilization for a bit and take a scenic walk along the shore.

3. Pismo State Beach

Location: 555 Pier Avenue, Oceano; 25 West Grand Avenue, Grover Beach; 399 South Dolliver Street, Pismo Beach

Dogs allowed: Yes

Extending 17 miles along the Central Coast, Pismo State Beach fronts three of San Luis Obispo’s towns—Pismo Beach, Grover Beach, and Oceano. This California state park beach consists of dunes and walking trails and is home to the Monarch Butterfly Grove, the largest over-wintering colony of monarch butterflies in the U.S. 

Pismo State Beach is where the famous Pismo clam is found—you can easily dig the clams up right out of the sand here (if you have a permit). If you’re looking for California state beach camping destinations, look no further. There are around 200 campsites for you to spend the night listening to the gentle sound of the waves racing to the shore. 

4. Monterey State Beach

Location: Canyon Del Rey Boulevard and Sand Dunes Drive, Seaside; 2600 Sand Dunes Drive, Monterey; Del Monte Avenue and Camino El Estero, Monterey

Dogs allowed: On leash

Spanning from Monterey to Seaside, Monterey State Beach is a popular destination for paragliders. The California state beach consists of two separate units with three beaches: Seaside Beach, Houghton M. Roberts Beach, and Window on the Bay Beach. Del Monte Beach, a hidden gem in Monterey, bridges the gap between the northern and southern sections.

Monterey State Beach is a hot spot for surfing, kayaking, surf fishing, swimming, and scuba diving. Nature lovers and beachcombers can explore tide pools or search for sea glass and other treasures of the California state beach. No matter what your hobbies are, there’s always something to do here, making Monterey State Beach one of the best beaches to visit, even in the winter

Are there any waters more majestic than those at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve? See these glimmering azure waters for yourself.

5. Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

Location: 62 Highway 1, Carmel-by-the-Sea

Dogs allowed: No

Regarded as the “crown jewel” of the California State Park System, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is unlike any other place in the Golden State. Comprising eight different beaches in small coves, this California state park has unmatched natural wonders. Everyone’s go-to spot here is China Cove. The emerald green oasis is a tiny pocket beach surrounded by rock walls. 

If you’re looking to lay on the sand and soak up the sun, Gibson Beach is your best option. The southernmost beach of Point Lobos is by far the most popular one in the area—it gets packed very quickly. As for viewing wildlife, observe migrating whales and sea lions at Sea Lion Cove. 

Southern California State Beaches

Spend the day with your family at the marvelous Doheny State Beach in Dana Point.

6. Doheny State Beach, Dana Point, CA

Location: 25300 Dana Point Harbor Drive, Dana Point

Dogs allowed: Only at the campground and picnic areas

Doheny State Beach in Dana Point, CA, is a popular destination in Orange County, attracting around 1 million visitors annually. The California state beach includes two separate beaches and day-use areas: the North and South Beaches.

North Beach has a large grassy park equipped with picnic facilities and sand volleyball courts. Visitors come here for swimming, surfing, and exploring tide pools (when it’s low tide). At South Beach, you’ll find a large campground with 121 campsites and an extensive day-use parking area. Some of the campsites are only steps away from the beach. There’s also a freshwater lagoon that separates South Beach from North Beach.

Doheny State Beach is a wonderful place to experience California state park beach camping, too—blast your beach day playlist on full volume by the firepit, and you’ll soon realize you’ve found your happy place. 

Dip your toes in the cool waters and bask in the Southern California sunshine at Crystal Cove State Beach.

7. Crystal Cove State Park in Southern California

Location: 8471 North Coast Highway, Laguna Beach

Dogs allowed: No

Encompassing 3.2 miles of Pacific coastline, Crystal Cove State Park is Southern California’s favorite place to visit. The state park has 400 acres of bluffs, 2,400 acres of canyons, multiple beaches and tide pools, and even a 1,400-acre State Marine Conservation Area. 

Visiting Crystal Cove State Park in Southern California is truly a wonderful experience. Expansive sandy beaches, concentrations of tide pools, deeply wooded canyons, and mildly slanted hills provide the perfect setting for taking a break from the nearby bustling cities. Pelican Point, Reef Point, and Moro Beaches are by far the most frequented at this state park, so get there early if those are the places you want to visit. 

8. Huntington State Beach, California

Location: 21601 Pacific Coast Highway, Huntington Beach

Dogs allowed: No

Starting at Beach Boulevard and stretching two miles towards the Santa Ana River Channel, Huntington State Beach, California, draws thousands of visitors annually. The 121-acre California state beach can be accessed from four different locations—there are entrances at Beach Boulevard as well as at Newland, Magnolia, and Brookhurst Streets. 

Skaters, cyclists, volleyball players, and basketball enthusiasts flock to Huntington State Beach to enjoy a fun and adventurous beach day. The area is equipped with firepits, paved bike paths, picnic tables, and basketball and volleyball courts—you basically have everything you need for the ultimate beach day. 

You won't want to miss the unparalleled beauty of golden hour at San Onofre State Beach.

9. San Onofre State Beach

Location: Old Pacific Highway, San Clemente

Dogs allowed: Only at the campground

Surfing, sunbathing, hiking, kayaking, cycling, and camping are among the outdoor activities you can enjoy at San Onofre State Beach. Measuring 3,000 acres, this Southern California state beach is one of the top five most-visited state parks in the Golden State. San Onofre State Beach consists of three different beach areas: Trestles, Bluffs, and Surfing Beach. 

San Onofre State Beach is also one of the best places to go RV camping in SoCal. There are two campgrounds and 309 campsites with basic amenities. If you visit this California state beach at the right time, you might see a dolphin or two swimming in the water during your stay.

Lookin' to chill at one of L.A.'s most iconic beaches? Search no further. Santa Monica State Beach is where it's at.

10. Santa Monica State Beach

Location: 2600 Barnard Way, Santa Monica

Dogs allowed: No

Perhaps the most iconic California state beach, Santa Monica State Beach attracts visitors from every corner of the world. Stretching across smooth sands for three miles, the beach is abundant with outdoor activities—playing volleyball, surfing, stand-up paddleboarding, swimming, and biking are all possible here. 

Santa Monica State Beach has multiple volleyball courts, a paved bike path, several playgrounds, and even a large human-scale chessboard. The state beach boasts dazzling views of the historic Santa Monica Pier, too—it’s one of the best places to watch the sun go down in California


California State Beaches for RV Camping

Spend a weekend camping beside this beautiful beach. The gentle crashing of the waves will have you feeling relaxed in no time.

11. San Clemente State Beach Camping

Location: 225 Avenida Calafia, San Clemente

Number of campsites: 160

Amenities: Picnic table, fire ring, full hook-ups, piped water, Wi-Fi, amphitheater, shower and restroom facilities.

Dogs allowed: Yes

If you’re thinking about where to travel in your RV this winter, a San Clemente State Beach camping experience might just be what you’re looking for. The California state beach provides two campgrounds—one for RVs and trailers, the other for tents and small vehicles only.  

San Clemente State Beach is as picturesque as it gets. Here, you’re surrounded by gorgeous mountain views and Spanish Colonial-style architecture. The mile-long beach is also one of the coolest places to watch the sunset in SoCal

12. South Carlsbad State Beach

Location: Carlsbad Boulevard and Poinsettia Lane, Carlsbad

Number of campsites: 223

Amenities: Picnic tables, fire ring, store, drinking water, firewood amphitheater, dump station, shower and restroom facilities.

Dogs allowed: Only on the campground

One of the best beaches in San Diego is South Carlsbad State Beach. The three-mile stretch is famous for its long expanses of warm sand and endless sunny days—it’s undoubtedly the ideal California state beach for RV camping

South Carlsbad State Beach’s campground is perched atop a bluff; the wooden stairs by the campground provide direct access to the beach. Visitors can spend their days swimming, surfing, scuba diving, kayaking, surf fishing, and beachcombing. Featuring fantastic views and a number of outdoor activities, this beach is always ready to offer an unforgettable experience.

Take a break from the hustle and bustle of the city and head to the magical Montaña de Oro state park.

13. Montaña De Oro State Park

Location: 3550 Pecho Valley Road, Los Osos

Number of campsites: 60

Amenities: Picnic table, fire ring, drinking water, firewood, equestrian trails, nature center, restrooms

Dogs allowed: Only on the campground

Composed of cliffs, shimmering shoreline, plains, streams, canyons, and hills, Montaña de Oro State Park offers 8,000 acres of adventures and exciting activities. Seven miles of shoreline are at your fingertips—the 1,347-foot Valencia Peak keeps an eye on you at all times.

Nature lovers adore coming here in their RVs. The most popular beach at this state park is Spooner’s Cove, a picturesque spot close to the campground. This pebbly California state beach has many tide pools and caves to explore, as well as unique rock formations that are perfect for climbing.  

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