The 25+ Best Central California Beaches

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  • 1. Bonny Doon Beach

    Bonny Doon Beach
    Nick Amoscato

    Pretty Bonny Doon Beach is a gorgeous sandy cove backed by high cliffs and flower-covered slopes creating a natural amphitheatre.

    Situated just off the Cabrillo Highway near Bonny Doon Road in Santa Cruz, it is part of Coast Dairies State Park with free parking but no facilities. The paved parking lot is open 8am to sunset but it quickly fills up. Beach access involves walking across the railroad tracks… read more »

  • 2. Pfeiffer Beach

    Pfeiffer Beach
    Robert Brett

    Pfeiffer Beach is in the Big Sur area of California. Roughly a mile long, it is located down a twisting and unmarked two-mile paved road that is unsuitable for RVs and trailers as it has only five points at which vehicles are able to pass one another in opposite directions.

    However, this beach more than makes up for the slight difficulty in getting there in sheer beauty. Its main attraction is… read more »

  • 3. Carmel Beach

    Carmel Beach
    © Blake Carroll
    Great for:
    • Surfing

    Located in the town of Carmel-by-the-Sea, in central California's Monterey County, Carmel Beach is formed of a stunning arc of pale sand that runs for close to a mile in length. Edged by vegetation to one side and clear Pacific waters to the other, it looks almost tropical in appearance.

    Despite slightly chilly water temperatures, which top out at around 61°F/16°C, Carmel Beach is a popular surfing spot. It is also… read more »

  • 4. McWay Falls Cove

    McWay Falls Cove
    © Pexels

    Set in the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park this beautiful little horseshoe shaped cove is surrounded by high, tree-lined cliffs. Perhaps the beach's most notable feature though is McWay Falls, a waterfall that vertically plunges 80 feet directly into the aqua-blue waters of the Pacific Ocean. The cove here is one of the undisputed highlights of Big Sur and only a short trip from California's legendary coastal highway, Route more »

  • 5. Santa Cruz Main Beach

    Santa Cruz Main Beach
    David Merrett
    Great for:
    • Fishing
    • Swimming
    • Surfing

    Santa Cruz Main Beach is also known as Boardwalk Beach because it sits in front of the boardwalk amusement park. Dating from 1907, it contains the historic Big Dipper rollercoaster, a swimming pool, mini golf, and restaurants among its attractions.

    On the opposite side of the municipal wharf from Cowell Beach, Main Beach faces south and stretches on to the mouth of the San Lorenzo River. Despite its size, Main Beach… read more »

  • 6. Capitola Beach

    Capitola Beach
    Dale Cruse
    Great for:
    • Fishing
    • Surfing

    Often voted one of the top ten beaches on the US West Coast, this beach of fine sand lies at the northern end of Monterey Bay. It sits in front of the almost-neon homes of the village of Capitola, where you can also find a good choice of restaurants and shops. Very popular on sunny summer days when lifeguards are on duty, Capitola Beach is a south facing beach… read more »

  • 7. Asilomar State Beach

    Asilomar State Beach
    Maxwell Pearl
    Great for:
    • Surfing

    Asilomar State Beach is a beautiful stretch of golden sand located on California's Monterey Peninsula. It is a popular spot for swimming, sunbathing, surfing, and tidepooling. The beach is also home to the Asilomar Conference Grounds, a historic resort and conference center. 

    The one-mile long beach that is made up of both sandy areas and rocky coves and forms part of the Asilomar State Marine Reserve. This means that there are special rules… read more »

  • 8. Seabright Beach

    Seabright Beach
    Mike Fernwood
    Great for:
    • Surfing

    Situated just along the coast from Main Beach and the boardwalk, Seabright Beach runs from the mouth of the San Lorenzo River to the entrance of Santa Cruz Harbour. The beach is accessed via the western end of East Cliff Drive, near the Museum of Natural History, and where there is free parking.

    Seabright Beach is a wide stretch of richly-coloured sands that continue on for around 800 metres, with… read more »

  • 9. Natural Bridges State Beach

    Natural Bridges State Beach
    David Merrett
    Great for:
    • Surfing
    • Kitesurfing

    Located at the end of West Cliff Drive, this sand beach is protected by its status as a 26-hectare California state park and marine reserve. Relatively sheltered, it is named after the natural archways that have formed over time in the rocks, of which only one now remains.

    Its marine reserve status means there's a possibility of observing seals and California's famed sea otters, while tidal pools provide a way of… read more »

  • 10. Morro Rock Beach

    Morro Rock Beach
    © David Mark
    Great for:
    • Surfing

    Nestled in a secluded spot along California's northern coastline, Morro Rock is one of the state's most naturally beautiful beaches.

    The Morro Rock itself stands at around 576 feet tall and was formed millions of years ago from volcanic rock. Until the mid-sixties it was regularly mined, partly for breakwaters, but by the end of the decade it had been recognised as a California State Landmark and a California Registered Historical… read more »

  • 11. Avila Beach

    Avila Beach
    Great for:
    • Swimming
    • Surfing

    This secluded little spot sits on California's central coast, approximately halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

    The beach itself is a stunning unspoilt stretch of white sand and crystal clear water that's around half a mile long, with a near 1700-feet pier at the heart of it that's been standing for more than a century.

    It's partially closed for restoration works so you won't be able to walk all… read more »

  • 12. Gibson Beach

    Gibson Beach
    Eric Chan

    This is a top spot for nature lovers. Gibson's Beach is the southernmost beach in Point Lobos State Natural Reserve and can be reached by car in around 10 minutes from Carmel. The scenic drive alone is well worth the time spent. 

    It's a wide sandy stretch about a quarter of a mile long and access to the beach can be challenging, but the reward of seclusion and some nice wave… read more »

  • 13. Lighthouse Field State Beach

    Lighthouse Field State Beach
    Don DeBold
    Great for:
    • Surfing

    Lighthouse Field State Beach lies at the north end of Monterey Bay in downtown Santa Cruz, and can be accessed via West Cliff Drive. A protected state park covering 15 hectares, it overlooks the famous Steamer Lane surf break, making it incredibly popular with experienced surfers and body boarders.

    The beach itself is formed of flat, lightly-coloured sands surrounded by smooth platforms of sedimentary rock that act as the… read more »

  • 14. Cowell Beach

    Cowell Beach
    Great for:
    • Fishing
    • Swimming
    • Surfing

    Cowell Beach is located on the westside of Santa Cruz's wood-built municipal wharf in the downtown district. Stretching from the wharf to the cliffs overlooked by West Cliff Drive, this broad sweep of golden sand is popular for a number of reasons.

    Beyond the delights of its sands, it is close to the amusements of the boardwalk, and is also popular for those looking to be a little more active than… read more »

  • 15. Pirates Cove

    Pirates Cove
    Sergei Gussev

    Another California gem for naturists, Pirate's Cove is midway between Avila Beach and Shell Beach / Pismo Beach.

    This south-facing cove is sheltered which is probably why it is favoured as a nudist beach. Its secluded position and rocky caves would have made the beach a natural hideaway for smugglers when ships heading to Port San Luis Harbour dropped off smuggled liquor.

    Despite its name and notoriety, Pirate's Cove… read more »