K.C. was a featured writer for Yahoo! Travel before joining trips to discover in 2013. She is the author of Best Travel Guide for First Time Visitors to Ireland, an Amazon bestseller every year between 2013 and 2016. She has been a featured expert on Newsweek, Travel + Leisure, Travelocity, among others.
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California is known for its beautiful beaches, but those magnificent stretches of sand are a lot more diverse than you probably realized. Here you can find everything from beautiful beachfront resorts to quintessential Southern California spots filled with sunbathers to remote rugged beaches that can sometimes be enjoyed all to yourself.
One of the top attractions in Big Sur, Pfeiffer Beach is not only surrounded by a breathtaking coastline of soaring mountains, lush pine forests and cascading falls, but it boasts unusual violet and deep-purple-hued sands. The color comes from manganese garnet in the hills, which have been eroded and washed down to the beach from the creek to the Pacific. The largest concentration of purple sands can be found on the northern part of the shore – and, you’re more likely to see greater amounts of purple after a winter storm, which helps to speed the erosion of the manganese garnet. With the cerulean-colored waves crashing against the purple-tinted sands, the contrast is absolutely mesmerizing.
Black Sands Beach, part of the 80-mile-long Lost Coast in Humboldt County, is a result of hundreds of years of erosion from nearby gray-shale cliffs along the shore. Like much of this breathtakingly wild and remote region, it’s a tranquil, secluded beach, ideal for doing nothing at all, as well as for exploring, beachcombing, and even nude sunbathing, with nudists typically congregating near the southern end of this mystical 3.5-mile stretch of sand. To get there, you’ll need to take the scenic hour-long drive on the twisting back roads from Highway 101 toward Shelter Grove.
This beach is located between Santa Cruz and San Francisco at the edge of the Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve. Its hidden sandy coves, marine life-filled tide pools and wide open mile-long shoreline make it one of the best in the state. Getting there is a spectacular journey in itself – no matter which direction you travel on Highway One you’ll take in a series of jaw-dropping views, stopping occasionally at the pullouts to look for spouts from passing whales. Once there, enjoy one of the prettiest beach walks in California and outstanding bird watching at the marsh by taking the North Pond Trail.
Located at the north edge of Fort Bragg in MacKerricher State Park is Glass Beach, a colorful beach that many California residents have never even heard of, though the word has been getting out in recent years. It’s made up of hundreds of thousands of small, smooth, colored pieces of “sea glass.” The site was once the home of the city dump, where from the late 1800s through the 1960s, people tossed their trash. Over the years since, the pounding waves cleaned up the beach, breaking down everything but glass and pottery, resulting in those intriguing tiny pieces that cover it today.
Greyhound Rock Beach, just north of Santa Cruz near Davenport, offers the chance to enjoy some tranquility away from the crowds where people are packed in like sardines. The fact that you can’t see it from the highway is likely why more people don’t congregate here. That and it also requires a steep, but short, walk down a cliff. While it’s easy to navigate for most, it does seem to prevent the beach from getting too crowded. Even during the hectic summer months, there are few others around, with the exception of the occasional elephant seal lying on the sand. Greyhound Rock, which juts out into the Pacific, can be climbed easily and offers an amazing vantage point for watching the dolphins that frequently pass by.
Nestled at the foot of Ocean Avenue on the south side of the Monterey Peninsula, Carmel Beach is an over-mile-long expanse of golden sands that offers everything most California visitors are looking for in a beach without the big crowds. One of the best white-sand beaches in the U.S., its fine powdery sands are framed by gentle sand dunes and majestic cypress trees. If you want to take a dip in the Pacific, you’ll need to have a hearty constitution, or a wet suit, as the water is pretty chilly, but most just enjoy reveling in the impressive scenery and the laid-back atmosphere.
One of the best family-friendly beach vacation destinations, Coronado Beach is the crown jewel of the “Enchanted Isle,” San Diego’s Coronado Island. The mile-and-a-half-long beach literally glistens in the bright California sunshine thanks to its high concentration of mica, a silver, pearly, mineral. Not only does it offer scenic natural beauty, but there are also plenty of things to do, other than lying on the sand. Its gentle waves are ideal for boogie boarding and as it hosts a number of watchful lifeguards, it’s a great place for families to enjoy playing in the water too. If you’re looking for something a little more active, you can learn to surf from the instructors at the highly-rated Coronado Surfing Academy, and just before dark every evening, you can join the crowds to witness an especially glorious sunset.
Located in one of Southern California’s prettiest beach towns at the north end on the border with Newport Beach, Crystal Cove State Park is considered this area’s crown jewel. There are three-and-a-half-miles of pristine, uninterrupted coastline, and the water is so incredibly clear with varying shades of brilliant blue, that you might think you’ve somehow landed in Hawaii. Visitors can enjoy hiking the many trails through the park on the bluff or walking for long distances on the sand. In town, the artist colony of Laguna Beach hosts countless art galleries, an art museum and multiple art festivals throughout the year. There are also a number of rooftop lounges and eateries that are ideal for catching a colorful sunset.
Huntington Beach, tucked between Highway One and the Pacific just southeast of Los Angeles, is often ranked among the best beaches in the country, in fact, Coastal Living once named it the best beach in the United States. “Surf City,” as its known, provides the ultimate SoCal beach experience, with outstanding waves for surfing and miles and miles of sand. It enjoys the area’s amazing beach weather, warm summer water temperatures and it stays open until 10 p.m., which means there lots of time for cookouts after the sun goes down, as well as plenty of fire rings cooking up those dogs and making s’mores.
Santa Cruz is the quintessential California beach town, and while Main Beach located along the famous Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, is usually not the place to enjoy peace and quiet, you will find plenty of opportunities for outdoor adventure, along with live entertainment, numerous shops, great people watching and fantastic scenery. Rent a standup paddleboard, kayak, surfboard or other watercraft and paddle out among the sea lions and otters, or play at the Boardwalk, enjoying a heart-pounding ride on the Giant Dipper, one of the oldest roller coasters in the nation, or an old fashioned spin on the 1911 Carousel. The pier is the place to go for top-notch dining and sea lion viewing, and, on Friday nights during the summer, free live concerts are held right on the sand.
The famous beach town of Malibu is known for being the home of many celebrities, idyllic stretches of sand, outstanding eateries and more. But just north of the city limits along Highway One you’ll find one of Southern California’s rare beaches at Leo Carillo State Park. It features one-and-a-half miles of craggy coastline as well as overnight campgrounds. This is the rocky non-conformist, compared to the area’s better known soft sand beaches, where visitors climb over rocks to explore sea caves and search through tide pools or hit the seven miles of hiking trails. When you’re ready for people watching, drive about 15 miles south to Malibu proper and hit Surfrider beach where you’ll find plenty.