Best California Beaches
Plan a Weekend on the California Coast
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At 840 miles long, California's coastline offers beach experiences as diverse as its colorful residents. From private coves perfect for sunbathing to family-friendly public sands complete with concessions, the Golden State has a beach that fits the bill for all its visitors. Here is a sampling of 10 of the best, each offering something different for weekend sun-seeking warriors.
Manchester State Beach, Point Arena
Where: The beach entrance is half a mile north of the town of Manchester on Highway 1.
The vibe: Friendly locals with wind-burned faces beachcombing the many miles of postcard-perfect beach.
Why it's popular: It's breathtakingly beautiful and never overcrowded. There are sandy dunes, grassy flatlands and piles of driftwood that have washed ashore.
Hint: In January and February, the nearby Garcia River is a mecca for local steelhead fishermen.
Rodeo Beach, Golden Gate National Recreation Area at Marin Headlands
Where: Just north of the Golden Gate Bridge on Highway 101. Take the Sausalito exit and follow signs for Marin Headlands and the beach.
The vibe: City dwellers head here, thanks to its close proximity to San Francisco and regular bus service from downtown.
Why it's popular: Although swimming conditions aren't always ideal, it doesn't deter sun worshippers, dog walkers and semiprecious-stone hunters.
Hint: It's the only nude beach in the Marin Headlands that faces the Pacific Ocean.
Cowell's Beach, Santa Cruz
Where: Located on West Cliff Drive near Bay Avenue.
The vibe: More than 15 volleyball courts mean lots of athletic action (and buff eye candy).
Why it's popular: It's a great spot to learn to surf; the waves are small, and locals aren't too territorial about sharing the ocean.
Hint: Park up the road by Depot Park for free.
Point Lobos State Reserve, Carmel Highlands
Where: Enter 3 miles south of Carmel on Highway 1 to get to Point Lobos State Reserve.
The vibe: Fierce winds don't stop casual outdoor enthusiasts from wandering the coastal trails and snapping pictures of tide pools, marine life and wildflowers. The reserve has often been called "the crown jewel of the state park system."
Why it's popular: Diving (both scuba and free) is available at Whalers and Bluefish coves.
Hint: Visit during the spring, when adult and baby harbor seals abound.
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Asilomar State Beach, Pacific Grove
Where: From Highway 1, take Highway 68W. Watch for signs to Asilomar Beach as you near Sunset Drive.
The vibe: Despite frequent fog, the 1-mile strip of sand is a favorite for exploring tide pools, taking long walks and saying "I do" during windy wedding ceremonies.
Why it's popular: Dogs reign supreme. There is a leash law in effect, although few owners seem to abide.
Hint: There are no restroom facilities. If nature calls, walk across the street to the Asilomar Conference Grounds and act like you belong.
Cayucos State Beach, Cayucos
Where: Take Highway 1 to Cayucos at Cayucos Drive. Turn west toward the ocean; the beach and pier are at the end of Cayucos Drive.
The vibe: In-the-know Californians regard this underrated beach town as one of the best getaways in the state.
Why it's popular: Probably best-known for its pier, Cayucos affords incredible views of the area, as well as sightings of sea lions and pilot whales.
Hint: Cure your hangover at the annual polar bear dip. It draws thousands on New Year's Day.
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Rincon Beach, Santa Barbara
Where: Three miles east of Carpinteria, adjacent to the Santa Barbara/Ventura county line. From Highway 101, take the Bates Road turnoff south to the park entrance.
The vibe: Surfers, surfers and more surfers.
Why it's popular: Rincon Beach is widely considered one of the best surf spots on the Central Coast. Winter waves create a rocky shoreline, while summer currents make for pleasant swimming conditions.
Hint: Arrive early on weekends to stake out prime sunning spots.
Dockweiler State Beach, Los Angeles
Where: Located at the last western stop of the Imperial Highway in Playa del Rey.
The vibe: Slightly surreal, attracting a social crowd. The beach is under the flight path of nearby LAX.
Why it's popular: Not the most scenic of beaches, this Dockweiler State Beach, 3-mile shoreline, is best-known for its oceanfront entertaining options — fire pits and barbecues abound.
Hint: It is one of the very few beaches in Los Angeles County that allows bonfires.
El Matador State Beach, Los Angeles
Where: You'll see signs from the Pacific Coast Highway 10 miles upcoast from Malibu.
The vibe: Malibu's celebrity jet set and bathing beauties. It's a photo-shoot favorite.
Why it's popular: Bodyboarders and bodysurfers love El Matador, because it boasts summer and winter swells. Kids love the tide pools.
Hint: It's a steep walk down several flights of stairs to reach the beach, making it, unfortunately, inaccessible for the handicapped.
Coronado Beach, San Diego
Where: From downtown San Diego, cross the Bay Bridge and travel several blocks on Third Street. Turn left onto Orange Avenue, then right onto R.H. Dana Place, which will take you to Ocean Boulevard.
The vibe: Families, locals and tourists alike frequent these friendly environs in droves.
Why it's popular: Coronado is a 1-size-fits-all beach destination that offers swimming, surfing, sailing, volleyball, kite-flying or lazing around and doing nothing at all.
Hint: Park free on Ocean Boulevard, but plan to arrive early on summer weekends to beat the crowds.