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The Golden State is, hands down, one of the best places in the world for a road trip. The miles of varied terrain, beautiful coastlines, and sweeping vistas are just a few of the many reasons why a beach road trip in California is a bucket-list item.
Whether you’re looking for the best beaches in California to view the sunset, embarking on the ultimate Pacific Coast Highway road trip, or bonding with your partner by taking a romantic drive, you can’t go wrong with a road trip to the beaches of SoCal. After all, the best way to explore the California coast is by car.
The best coastal drives to plan next
From Santa Barbara to San Diego, these Southern California destinations are must-sees on any Southern California beach road trip. Whether you visit them all on one trip or break it up by county, you can expect beautiful views, relaxed vibes, and of course, incredible beaches.
Santa Barbara County
Put on your California road trip playlist, gather your closest friends, and fill up your tank—we’re starting our journey from charming Santa Barbara County and heading south. Get ready for the best beach road trip on the West Coast.
Stop #1: Gaviota
The gorgeous, 76-mile-long Gaviota Coast is the perfect starting point. The largest undeveloped stretch of coastline in all of Southern California, Gaviota offers rugged beaches, postcard-like vistas, and staggering biodiversity. Fun fact: There is a trestle at Gaviota State Park Beach that has been nicknamed “Ghost Bridge” because of reports that the ghosts of two young girls roam Gaviota Beach and the campground at night. If you’re into the paranormal, stay the night and see if the rumors are true.
Stop #2: Goleta
Drive about 15 minutes south to reach “The Good Land,” a.k.a Goleta. This easy-going beach town attracts outdoor enthusiasts from all over the state year-round. Between its nature preserves, beaches, and foothills, Goleta offers abundant opportunities for exploration and recreation. You’ll spend a lot of time in your car on the rest of this beach road trip weekend, so get out of your vehicle, rent a bike, and follow the 21-mile Obern Trail for a grand tour of the area.
Stop #3: Summerland
Nestled between Montecito and Carpinteria, Summerland is a little pocket of paradise well worth exploring. This stop on your beach road trip offers a taste of slow-paced living as well as wonderful shopping opportunities. Stop by the namesake Summerland Beach for a barbecue by the water, or head to the popular Loon Point Beach to catch some swells. Aside from boasting pristine beaches, Summerland is also the only place in Santa Barbara County where you can go horseback riding along the beach. Sound like something you’d enjoy? Los Padres Outfitters has you covered.
Ventura is not commonly found on lists of the best SoCal coastal drives—but it very much should be. This vibrant beach town is an unexpected stop that’ll make your beach road trip all the better. Here are other places during this part of your journey.
Stop #1: Rincon Beach
This gorgeous swath of sand is located on the Santa Barbara and Ventura County line and is one of California’s best surf spots. Rincon Beach offers some of the area’s biggest waves, drawing surfers year-round with its well-formed waves and long rides. Even if you’re not into riding waves yourself, you’ll definitely still be impressed while watching the pros at this coastal drive destination.
Stop #2: Oxnard
The next stop along this scenic Southern California drive is the seaside city of Oxnard. Take a boat ride from the Channel Islands Harbor, and if you’re lucky enough to take this trip during migration season, you may just spot gray whales traveling through the area. Our favorite stop in Oxnard is Hollywood Beach. This relaxing stretch of sand gets its name from the days when Hollywood A-listers such as Charlie Chaplin and Clark Gable spent time exploring and fishing here. Keep an eye out for dolphins!
Stop #3: Port Hueneme
This coastal city is a true hidden gem packed with plenty of adventure. The scenery and sunset views from the boardwalk simply cannot be beaten. Fishing is considered one of the most popular year-round activities in town, so if you’re looking to add a little more excitement to your beach road trip weekend, cast a line from the Port Hueneme Fishing Pier, and you might get your best catch yet.
Los Angeles County
This famous region is known for its busy cities, but our favorite thing about L.A. County is the fact that you can leave the urban sprawl behind and find yourself surrounded by nature by driving just a few miles away from the hustle and bustle.
Stop #1: Malibu
Wide stretches of pristine sands, stunning canyons, and waterfront restaurants—Malibu is an exciting stop on any weekend beach road trip. If you missed out on taking a private surf lesson in Santa Barbara, you can definitely still seize that opportunity in Malibu.
Want to take a break from the beach? Head to the absolutely stunning Getty Villa situated right off the Pacific Coast Highway. Before departing, grab a bite at the popular Paradise Cove Beach Cafe, a family-owned and -operated restaurant that’s been welcoming Malibu locals and visitors for over three decades.
STop #2: Santa Monica
A 30-minute scenic drive south will get you to beautiful Santa Monica. This coastal city west of downtown L.A. boasts sweeping views of the Pacific and many outdoor adventures. For a fun-filled day in L.A., head to the Santa Monica Pier, which is one of the coolest California boardwalks you won’t want to miss. Whether you decide to explore the amusement park, grab a bite, or peruse the shops, this beach road trip destination offers a guaranteed good time.
Stop #3: Long Beach
A weekend beach road trip in Los Angeles County isn’t complete without spending time in Long Beach. The diversity and excitement of this coastal city have made it a bucket-list destination for people from all over the world.
You’ve been driving along the water for miles now, which might’ve piqued your interest about what’s underwater. You’re in luck because one of the best aquariums in California is right here along your coastal drive. The Aquarium of the Pacific—the largest aquarium in SoCal—is the place to go for a close-up look at marine life. Boasting more than 11,000 exhibits, this Long Beach attraction is a must-see.
Directly south of Los Angeles County is a SoCal paradise known as Orange County. This beautiful coastal destination boasts lush parks, manicured beach towns, and some of the best surf spots in the world. In other words, departing from Orange County won’t be an easy goodbye.
Stop #1: Huntington Beach
You can’t miss Surf City USA—where the summers are endless, the people are warm, and the sun always shines. Surf, sand, sun, and subtle sophistication are what this coastal SoCal city is all about. While at this beach road trip destination, head to Huntington Beach Pier (one of the most photographed spots in town) for great views, excellent food, and good vibes.
Stop #2: San Clemente
Midway between Los Angeles and San Diego is the southernmost city in Orange County: San Clemente. Known for its majestic ocean hues, mountain views, and beautiful Spanish Colonial-style architecture, this SoCal city will have you feeling as though you’ve been teleported to the Mediterranean. To ride some waves, watch amazing sunsets, and relax on the sand, head to either San Onofre or San Clemente State Beach.
San Diego County
Last—but certainly not least—on our best weekend beach road trip is the charming San Diego County. The beautifully scenic drives in San Diego are many, and you can definitely swap out one of our recommended destinations for another on your bucket list. At the end of the day, whichever road you take, you'll surely encounter some of the best coastal drives in the state.
Stop #1: La Jolla
This small yet strikingly picturesque destination is the prime place to kick-off the San Diego leg of the beach road trip. La Jolla is known for its stunning beaches, but La Jolla Cove may just be the best one. Loved by locals and tourists alike, this beach offers everything from beautiful sunsets and frolicking sea lions to waterfront eateries and kids’ activities. Enjoy the elegant (yet laid-back) feel of La Jolla Cove, and take advantage of many of the water activities it offers, such as kayaking, snorkeling, scuba diving, and paddleboarding.
Stop #2: Mission Beach
The serene Mission Beach is a magnet for surfers, volleyball players, sunbathers, and other beachgoers from around the world. Take a break from driving on this SoCal beach road trip, and walk along the nearly two-mile-long Mission Beach Boardwalk. Here, you’ll come across an amusement park—featuring the historic Giant Dipper Roller Coaster—an arcade, eateries, boutiques, and many other attractions.
Stop #3: Seaport Village
You can be sure of two things while visiting Seaport Village—the weather will be amazing, and you’ll have lots to do. Stroll through this waterfront shopping and dining destination for delicious local food, great views of Coronado, and some retail therapy at charming boutiques. History buffs are bound to love the USS Midway Museum, which pays tribute to the over 200,000 servicemen who served aboard the now-decommissioned naval aircraft carrier.
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