Here are the Golden State strands that attract California’s family vacationers for the same scenery as popular spots but with more value and fewer crowds.
By Mya Miller
It’s no secret visiting California’s famed beaches are at the top of many bucket lists. Though SoCal may be the most raved about, with millions flocking to San Diego, Huntington Beach, and Santa Monica, Northern California has some of the most picturesque coastlines and lots of wildlife.
California’s got hundreds of miles of coastline for families to enjoy. We asked local families to share the beaches that might not be top-of-mind destinations for everyone, but still deliver the “California Beach Vacation” dream.
From south to north, here’s a list of family-favorite Golden State beaches that can help you stay away from massive crowds – and expenses.
Family Favorite Beaches in Southern California
If you’ve ever seen your Californian friends post pictures of bioluminescence – the bright blue algae that sometimes lights up the night sky – there’s a good chance it was taken at Torrey Pines! Come during the late summer months or early fall to see empty beaches and incredible blue water during the day and this unique natural wonder at night. The Scripps Aquarium in La Jolla can let you know the chances of seeing bioluminescence and give you a look at other undersea wonders during your stay.
Located in the quaint beach town of Encinitas, Leucadia State Beach is located about 25 miles north of San Diego, Encinitas is known for its plethora of beautiful strands and excellent surf spots. With its slogan “Keep Leucadia Funky,” the hippy-ish coastal community offers art galleries, restaurants, and unique stores. Leucadia is every local’s secret paradise with only a few tiny “beach access” signs along the highway. If you’re not looking closely, you’ll pass right by! Leucadia is popular for surfing but also perfect for family swimming, a nice long walk, and getting a great tan.
In south Orange County, San Clemente is far less touristy than Balboa, Newport, or Laguna Beach but still hosts the same beautiful scenery, views, and weather. Families love to stroll the pier, watch the surfers, and visit the mission in nearby San Juan Capistrano. The rest of The OC and San Diego is not too far away by car (depending on traffic 😉
In north Orange County, Seal Beach is a favorite with local families. It’s got convenient parking by the pier, mellow waves, and a wide beach. Seal Beach has it all without the overpriced attractions and touristy shops. And you’ll be just minutes from Long Beach and its airport, Catalina ferry, aquarium, and Queen Mary.
The South Bay region of Los Angeles is the ultimate family beach area. Hermosa Beach is the smallest of its three towns (Manhattan and Redondo are the other two). The Pacific Coast Highway runs right through the small town, which only extends for 40 blocks north-to-south and 15 blocks east-to-west. Hermosa means “beautiful” in Spanish and it’s clear to see why: A long paved path runs alongside the beach and is perfect for a family walk, run, or bike ride. The path is known as “The Strand” and continues all the way north to Santa Monica. If you’re looking for a quick LA coastal staycation, Hermosa is the beach for you!
A ways north of Malibu’s cliffs and a ways south of the bigger destinations of Ventura and Santa Barbara, the wide golden stretches of Oxnard beach are classic California coast. We love Hollywood Beach and the Mandalay Bay for a simple sandy, salty vacation spot and a base for exploring the Channel Islands.
The cove of Avila Beach is a central coast favorite, more quaint compared to the larger Pismo Beach to the south. The small streets leading to the ocean are lined with homes, restaurants and tiny hotels. Hot springs are nearby and calm waters are great for kayaking, paddle boarding, splashing, and spotting sea life like otters and whales. Plus, you’ll be near all the San Luis Obispo family fun.
In the wild stretches of Big Sur, coastal access spots are few and far between – actual beaches even less common. The long stretch of Sand Dollar Beach is one of the area’s best spots to surf, kayak and just lie in the sun. Just a ten-minute walk from the parking area leads to a large cove that’s alive with sea birds, seaweed, and sea lions.
Family Favorite Beaches in Northern California
Located in northern Monterey County, Pajaro Dunes is the perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of the tech world AKA Silicon Valley. Only an hour away from San Jose and Palo Alto, this beach community is home to many vacation rentals, Airbnbs, and coastal homes. The area is a simple coastal retreat offering gated-community living, tennis courts, water sports, and much more – all not far from the tourist attractions of Monterey and Santa Cruz.
Just a half-hour south of San Francisco and north of San Jose, Half Moon Bay is a popular destination for Bay Area families. Home to one arguably one of the most beautiful Ritz Carlton Hotels perched on the edge of a cliff, it’s a wonder more people don’t travel here every year. If you’re looking for cheaper accommodation, the Mill Rose Inn is a beautiful B&B close to the water and there’s a hostel nearby. There is a ton to do near Half Moon Bay: explore several other state park beaches to the north and south, spy the massive Mavericks offshore break, or go horseback riding, learn to blow glass, take a goat tour, and go tide pooling.
San Francisco is known for many things but its beaches are probably not one of them. Baker Beach is one of the city’s best-kept secrets boasting the most beautiful view of the Golden-Gate Bridge. While it’s definitely not a swimming beach (you have been warned!), it’s the perfect destination for a picnic and sightseeing. If you’re visiting SF, Baker’s Beach is a must-stop!
NorCal’s Stinson Beach has epic views and surfable waves. Just a 40-minute drive from the edge of San Francisco, Stinson is a very flat and long beach making it perfect for sunset or sunrise walks. The town of Stinson is extremely charming with a few family-owned restaurants and one general store. You absolutely must try a soft serve from the famous Parkside Cafe for the full Stinson Beach experience. You can hike the backside of Mt. Tamalpais in the state park, see Muir Woods on the way, take a dip in the chilly water, or just enjoy some frisbee on the sand. Accommodation is pricey but this strand is doable as a day trip from many parts of the day area.
Dillon Beach is about 30 minutes past Point Reyes National Seashore on the border between Marin and Sonoma counties, about an hour from the Golden Gate Bridge. It is home to the only private beach in California, which means it is dog-friendly. It is also one of the only NorCal beaches with no sneaker waves – making it perfect for swimming if you have a wetsuit or can stand the cold water! The summer months are often foggy but autumn has great best beach weather. The area is known for clamming and fishing. The Dillon Beach Resort has new “tiny homes,” Lawson’s Landing has camping, and private homes are offered for rent via Airbnb.
Mya Miller – July 2020
After growing up in Asia, trekking in the Himalayas, researching whale sharks in Mexico, becoming a certified elephant trainer, and founding a popular IG food feed, it’s safe to say this University of Oregon student has adventure travel in her blood.
© ROAM Family Travel 2020 – All rights reserved
It's not just for billionaires anymore.
Oh the places you'll go... from home!
Locals' favorite family-friendly lakefront destinations
Same coast. More value. Fewer crowds.
25 unique & classic must-drive vacations for families
Incredible golds, oranges and reds of the coast, high desert and mountains.
Gotta get away? Check these ideas for COVID-19 trips
Armchair trips for active families.
Take the grandparents on a cross-state odyssey of Wild West vistas & outdoor majesty
Your one-stop-shop for 2020 family vacation ideas from all the top travel writers.