Crescent Bay of Laguna Beach, Orange County, California USA.
CK Foto/

17 Best Beaches on the Pacific Coast Highway

Updated by Dianne Titos on January 16 2024

Located on the West Coast, the Pacific Coast Highway runs through California, and being positioned on the stunning shores of the Pacific Ocean, this legendary drive is dotted with some of the most beautiful beaches in the nation, great for a day visit or a long weekend adventure in the sun.

In this list of 17 best beaches on the Pacific Coast Highway, you will find sandy beaches to work on your tan, waves perfect for surfing, crystal-clear waters to take a dip in, popular beaches for celebrity spotting, and rugged coastal scenery for that perfect photo op.

Read on to find more about what makes each of these beaches special, as well as how to reach them, where to park and amazing things to see in their vicinity if you are looking to extend your visit, along with our travel tips.

For an overview and short descriptions of each of these beautiful beaches on the Pacific Coast Highway, please click here to jump to the bottom of this article.

1. Laguna Main Beach

What makes this beach town special: Laguna Main Beach is known for its beautiful coastline adorned with coves, tide pools, and sea caves, and stands out as a natural jewel on the Pacific Coast Highway that is perfect for relaxation and photo ops.

Located almost adjacent to the beautiful Crystal Cove State Park, the breathtaking coastal views, thanks to the coastal bluffs and pristine sands of Laguna Beach, are undeniably some of the most awe-inspiring in Southern California.

The clean waters of Laguna Beach, thanks to the efforts of the local state marine conservation, make this spot an amazing spot for snorkeling and diving enthusiasts.

You will also find an impressive variety of boutique stores, top-notch restaurants, art galleries, and historic landmarks, making Laguna Beach a perfect destination for a sunny day out.

Golden Hour over the ocean with the empty beach in focus
Located to the southern side of the Pacific Coast Highway, Laguna Main Beach is one of our favorites with its golden sand and open views.

How to get there: The closest major city to Laguna Beach is Los Angeles, which is 50 miles away. Simply get on Interstate 5 (I-5) and then I-605 to drive through the outskirts of Los Angeles and use state highways CA-73 and CA-133 to reach Laguna Beach.

Where to park: While in Newport Beach and are looking for street parking spots, keep an eye out for the blue signs indicating Daily Parking. If you're in town for just a short while, look for the yellow signs which mean Timed Parking.

The downtown area offers metered street parking from 8am all the way up to 9pm. If you find yourself outside this central zone, these meters run until 7pm.

Things to see near Laguna Main Beach:

  • Laguna Art Museum
  • Heisler Park
  • Laguna Playhouse
  • Brown's Park
  • Pacific Marine Mammal Center

Did you know? Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County aired from 2004 to 2006 on MTV, following the lives of several high school students in Laguna Beach. It gained significant attention and was one of the early forerunners of the modern reality show format.

Best time to visit: Laguna Main Beach is accessible year-round.

Arguably the best time to visit Laguna Main Beach is from late spring to early fall, particularly between May and October. During these months, visitors can enjoy the warmest and most consistent weather, ideal for beach outings and water activities.

However, while the weather is at its best, it's worth noting that these months also attract the highest number of tourists, potentially leading to crowded beaches and higher accommodation prices.

The opening hours of this beach are 6am to 10pm.

Things to note: Laguna Main Beach, similar to other coastal areas, can sometimes have rip currents. It's advisable to always swim close to lifeguard stations and heed any warnings or flags that are displayed.

From time to time, one might encounter jellyfish in the waters surrounding Laguna Main Beach, although they're not a constant presence.

Furthermore, the city of Laguna Beach hosts renowned events such as the Pageant of the Masters, Festival of Arts, and Sawdust Art Festival. These events predominantly occur during the summer, leading to an uptick in visitor numbers.

READ MORE - Our Guide to Laguna Main Beach

2. Newport Beach

What makes this beach special: From the adrenaline-charged waves of the Wedge, the place to visit if you are a bodyboarding enthusiast, to the calm seaside and sunbathing experience, Newport Beach truly offers the best of seaside moments.

Surrounded by upscale neighborhoods, high-end boutique shopping, and gourmet dining experiences, you will feel right at home if you are looking for a high-end beach experience. You don't need a membership to one of the yachting clubs in the area to embrace the glamorous lifestyle of Newport Beach.

If you are traveling with family, this beach is also located next to Balboa Fun Zone, which means that you can easily spend a full day here, whether you are interested in swimming in the beautiful Pacific waters, working on your tan or taking a ride on the Ferris wheel.

Newport Beach, California, USA with waves in the Pacific Ocean in the foreground and a view of the beach at sunset.
Beautiful Newport Beach is known for its upscale offerings nearby and its yachting culture.
Jon Bilous/

How to get there: Newport Beach is located to the southeast of Los Angeles. Following I-5 through LA, Anaheim and then taking CA-55 past Santa Ana will directly get you to Newport Beach.

Where to park: Before you set out, we highly recommend visiting the city's official website. Not only does it provide general information, but it also features an interactive parking map.

Among the popular and strategically located parking areas are the Balboa Pier Parking Lot and the Corona del Mar Main Beach Parking Lot. These lots provide not just ample space, but also proximity to key attractions and the beachfront.

Things to see near Newport Beach:

  • Balboa Peninsula & Fun Zone
  • Newport Harbor
  • Balboa Island
  • Upper Newport Bay Nature Preserve

Did you know? Iconic Hollywood actor John Wayne lived in Newport Beach for several years. He had a home in the Bayshores community and kept his yacht, the Wild Goose, docked in Newport Harbor.

Best time to visit: Newport Beach is a destination that welcomes visitors year-round, thanks to its generally pleasant weather.

However, it's worth noting that the month of June occasionally brings what locals refer to as the "June Gloom." During this time, the sun might take a brief hiatus, casting overcast skies for a few days.

The city celebrates its nautical heritage with the Newport Beach Boat Parade which takes place near the Christmas period. This vibrant event sees a fleet of decorated boats gliding gracefully around the harbor, making it a festive atmosphere.

If you'd like to spot a blue whale or two, these fascinating creatures can be seen at Newport Beach between May and October.

The opening hours of this beach are 9am to 8pm.

Things to note: Newport Beach ranks among the more affluent regions in Orange County, which means you might encounter higher prices at certain dining, shopping, and entertainment spots.

For those keen on delving into Newport Harbor or embarking on a whale-watching adventure, securing reservations ahead of time is advisable, particularly during high-demand periods.

If beach access is a priority, keep in mind that while areas near the Newport Pier and the Balboa Pier offer direct beachfront access, the cliffs surrounding Corona del Mar and Little Corona Beach have staircases.

This terrain may present challenges for those with limited mobility, so it's a good aspect to consider when planning your visit.

READ MORE - Our Guide to Newport Beach

3. Huntington State Beach

What makes this beach special: Huntington State Beach, deservingly called a mecca for surf enthusiasts, is known for its consistent waves and deep-rooted surf culture. This popular beach has earned the affectionate title of "Surf City USA."

Beyond the waves, Huntington Beach is home to expansive sandy stretches and the famed "Ocean Strand" pathway, providing opportunities beachside strolls, if you are looking for a less adventurous activity than surfing while you are here.

The iconic Huntington Beach Pier, illuminated against the evening sky, is another place for a scenic walk, where you can absorb the panoramic ocean views. This area often comes alive with live music and entertainment, so you might be lucky enough to catch a live show.

The beautiful sandy Huntington State Beach is the perfect place to take your family for a swim, because there are lifeguards on duty, and you can feel safe knowing that they will be watching out.

Lifeguard tower on the sandy beach, with the sun setting in the background
You can rest easy knowing that lifeguards will be on duty during your visit to Huntington State Beach.

How to get there: Following I-5 and I-605 from Los Angeles will get you close to the shore, and then follow CA-22 until you reach the neighborhood of Washington. Magnolia Street will then take you to Huntington State Beach.

Where to park: As you near the beach, well-placed signs will guide you to available public parking spaces or inform you if a particular lot has reached capacity.

While you might stumble upon complimentary parking spots or on-street parking in select zones, be mindful that a majority of the parking locales operate on hourly or daily fees.

Things to see near Huntington State Beach:

  • Huntington Beach Pier
  • Downtown Huntington Beach
  • Pacific City
  • Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve
  • The International Surfing Museum

Did you know? In 2014, Huntington Beach claimed a quirky Guinness World Record. They created the world's largest surfboard, and sixty-six people rode this massive board to catch a wave!

Best time to visit: Each year, between late July and early August, Huntington Beach becomes the epicenter of the surf world, hosting one of its most prestigious competitions.

This event attracts vast numbers of enthusiasts, so if you're planning a trip around this period, it's wise to anticipate larger crowds and make arrangements accordingly.

The opening hours of this beach are 5am to 10pm.

Things to note: The city is deeply committed to ensuring its beaches remain pristine, thanks to consistent upkeep and a strong emphasis on overall cleanliness.

For those looking to indulge in a classic beachside experience, Huntington Beach provides fire rings for evening bonfires. These are up for grabs on a first-come, first-served basis, so it's wise to arrive early if you're keen on this popular activity.

If you are bringing your furry friend, then designated Huntington Dog Beach allows dogs to play freely in their own area of the beach.

READ MORE - Our Guide to Huntington State Beach

4. Peninsula Beach

What makes this beach special: Peninsula Beach, located on the eastern side of Long Beach, offers a unique blend of urban vibes and coastal relaxation. Whether you're keen on kayaking, windsurfing, or kiteboarding, Long Beach provides ample opportunities for adventure.

While it proudly houses one of the globe's busiest shipping hubs, The Port of Long Beach, it also boasts a plethora of water sports opportunities.

Adding to its charm, the historic RMS Queen Mary, an iconic ocean liner, stands majestically docked in Long Beach. Serving as a hotel, museum, and event venue, it adds a touch of grandeur and history to the city's coastal ambiance.

For culinary enthusiasts, Long Beach is a treat. Areas like East Village, Pine Avenue, and Belmont Shore are bustling dining hubs and are easily reachable from Peninsula Beach.

Sunset over the Pacific Ocean in Long Beach with buildings in the background
Long Beach is home to many beautiful beaches that stretch across its coastline.
Jon Bilous/

How to get there: To get to Long Beach from Los Angeles, follow I-5 and I-710 south. Once you reach the shore, head east on the coastal highway to reach Peninsula Beach.

Where to park: To the south of Peninsula Beach, you'll find Alamitos Park accompanied by a designated parking zone. Additionally, Ocean Boulevard and its nearby streets offer on-street parking options.

Throughout Long Beach, ample parking is available, with 12 distinct lots dedicated to its beaches.

Things to see near Peninsula Beach:

  • Aquarium of the Pacific
  • The Promenade
  • Rainbow Harbor & Marina
  • Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA)
  • The Queen Mary

Did you know? Long Beach was featured in the popular movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off. While the movie is primarily set in Chicago, Ferris's best friend Cameron's house, where the infamous Ferrari scene takes place, is actually located in Long Beach.

Best time to visit: Peninsula Beach offers multiple access points to its sandy shores, including boardwalks and paths, and the best time to visit is during the spring and fall, when it is mild but there are fewer crowds.

The opening hours of this beach are 6am to 10pm.

Things to note: Although the beach appears serene, the Pacific Ocean can surprise with its riptides and powerful currents; exercise caution while entering the water and swimming.

READ MORE - Our Guide to Peninsula Beach

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5. Venice Beach

What makes this beach special: There are only a handful of Pacific Coast sights as iconic as the Venice Beach Boardwalk, which serves as the heartbeat of the area an amazing array of street performers, vendors, and eateries.

You can take a stroll here to watch the acrobatics at the famed Muscle Beach—recognized as the epicenter of the 20th-century physical fitness revolution in the US.

Another opportunity to show your sporty skills, the Venice Skatepark, nestled right on the beach, showcases the region's well-known love for skateboarding, showcasing thrilling maneuvers and tricks by seasoned skateboarders and enthusiastic newcomers alike.

Venice Beach isn't just about muscle and hustle, though. Drawing inspiration from its namesake in Italy, the locale boasts picturesque man-made canals offering pretty walkways to enjoy if you are looking for a less adventurous way to spend your day.

A bright day in December at Ocean Front Walk in Venice Beach, Los Angeles
Not only for its beautiful sandy shores, but Venice Beach is also famous for its Boardwalk, also known as Ocean Front Walk, and its hip culture.
View Apart/

How to get there: Venice Beach is adjacent to Santa Monica's south side on the Pacific Coast Highway. From Los Angeles, a short 25-minute drive, take I-10 east pretty much the whole way, before arriving at Temple Street and along the beachfront.

Where to park: Across the expanse of the beach, you'll find three parking lots, collectively offering more than 1,200 spots for vehicles.

If you are planning a trip during the off-peak or winter months, there's a silver lining: from November through February, street parking is complimentary on weekdays, barring holidays.

Things to see near Venice Beach:

  • Venice Boardwalk (Ocean Front Walk)
  • Venice Canals
  • Abbot Kinney Boulevard
  • Muscle Beach Venice
  • Marina del Rey

Did you know? Its iconic boardwalk, Muscle Beach gym, and skate parks have been featured in numerous movies, TV shows, and music videos. From scenes in movies like "White Men Can't Jump" and "American History X" to various reality TV shows.

Best time to visit: Venice Beach is truly iconic, attracting an impressive 28,000 to 30,000 visitors to its Boardwalk every day. This number swells even further during the summer months, making it a bustling hotspot.

The opening hours of this beach are 6am to 10pm.

Things to note: Often referred to as the Ocean Front Walk, the Venice Boardwalk is a smoothly paved pathway, ensuring easy accessibility for those using wheelchairs, walkers, or facing mobility constraints.

Given that Venice Beach tends to draw large crowds, particularly during high-demand periods, it's prudent to remain vigilant and watch over your personal items.

READ MORE - Our Guide to Venice Beach

6. Santa Monica State Beach

What makes this beach special: One of the most scenic beaches on Pacific Coast Highway, Santa Monica State Beach features a striking backdrop of the palm-fringed coast set against the majestic Santa Monica Mountains.

The expanse of the beachfront is adorned with soft, sandy shores, perfect for sun-soaked moments or leisurely strolls.

This beach is home to the renowned Santa Monica Pier, which houses an amusement park, an aquarium, a variety of dining spots (serving some of the freshest seafood), and lively entertainment.

What's more, the beach's proximity to downtown Santa Monica means that once you have had your fill of the waves and the sun, you can enjoy boutique shopping or savoring gourmet meals.

Shopping is not your thing? Adventure seekers will also be spoilt for choice, from diving into a variety of outdoor activities to showcasing their athletic prowess at the nearby Original Muscle Beach, famed for its outdoor gymnastics equipment.

Santa Monica pier at sunset, Los Angeles
You might remember Santa Monica Pier's easily recognizable silhouette from the beloved movie "Forrest Gump" starring Tom Hanks.

How to get there: Nestled at the core of Santa Monica is the Santa Monica State Beach. Just a brief half-mile stroll away lies the city's downtown region, featuring the bustling Third Street Promenade, a hotspot for shopping, dining, and entertainment.

To the pier's north, Santa Monica State Beach stands distinct, with the city set apart by the oceanic palisades and the Pacific Coast Highway.

Where to park: Parking can be found both along the street and within the eight primary lots spanning the beach's length. While there are parking areas close to the beach, they tend to reach capacity swiftly on high-traffic days.

Hence, if you're staying in the vicinity, considering public transportation, cycling, or a pleasant walk might be more convenient.

Things to see near Santa Monica State Beach:

  • Third Street Promenade
  • Tongva Park
  • Palisades Park
  • Main Street
  • Santa Monica History Museum

Did you know? From the opening credits of "Three's Company" to films like "Forrest Gump" (the pier is where Forrest ends his cross-country run), Santa Monica State Beach and its pier have become staples in pop culture imagery.

Best time to visit: The height of the tourist influx is during the summer months leading to a bustling beach scene. For those seeking a calmer experience while still enjoying pleasant weather, the months of April, May, September, or October are recommended.

If your interests lie in swimming or surfing, the warmer span from June through September is optimal, given the agreeably warm water temperatures.

Given its status as one of Los Angeles' top beaches, Santa Monica State Beach can be particularly bustling during weekends and holidays. For a quieter atmosphere, consider arriving at the crack of dawn (perfect for sunrise photos) or opting for a weekday visit.

Opening hours are from sunrise to sunset - although facilities around the beach may have different operating hours.

Things to note: Santa Monica State Beach, stretching 3.5 miles, is open to visitors throughout the year. Locally, it's common to hear references to the sections "north of the pier" and "south of the pier."

The waters of Santa Monica State Beach are typically of high quality. While California's coast does harbor jellyfish, the likelihood of encountering stinging species near Santa Monica is relatively low.

READ MORE - Our Guide to Santa Monica State Beach

7. Zuma Beach

What makes this beach special: Zuma Beach is one of the most popular beaches for swimming on the Pacific Coast Highway. This beautiful beach is celebrated for its expansive golden sands and crystalline blue waters, which makes it a hit for beachgoers and sun chasers.

Its prime westerly position ensures visitors are treated to stunning sunsets that paint the horizon in hues of orange and pink in that famous Californian glow.

Furthermore, surf enthusiasts, both novices and seasoned pros, love Zuma's waves, which are known to hold the perfect shape for a

And if that wasn't enough, from December to April, the beach transforms into a prime location for witnessing the majestic migration of gray whales, offering a magical spectacle as they journey along the coast.

Aerial photo of the empty sandy beach on a sunny day
Sandy Zuma Beach is a crowd favorite for swimming on the Pacific Coast Highway.
Brester Irina/

How to get there: Zuma Beach is also located in Malibu, and is easily accessible via driving on the Pacific Coast Highway in the westward direction. Drive past Central Malibu and Point Dume, and you will reach Zuma Beach.

Where to park: There are several parking lots at Zuma Beach that run parallel to Pacific Coast Highway, providing easy access to different parts of the beach.

Things to see near Zuma Beach:

  • Point Dume State Beach and Preserve
  • Getty Villa
  • Westward Beach
  • Trancas Canyon Park
  • Broad Beach
  • Trancas Country Market

Did you know? The iconic TV series "Baywatch," which is all about the lifeguarding life on Californian beaches, often used Zuma Beach as a filming location. Although the show claims to be set at Malibu Beach, much of the shooting was done at Zuma.

Best time to visit: If you're a surfer or enjoy watching surfers in action, the summer months offer the best waves. For those interested in whale watching, especially spotting migrating gray whales, plan your visit between December and April. Otherwise, Zuma Beach is beautiful year-round.

However, visiting during the weekdays or outside of peak summer months like June, July, and August will allow you to avoid larger crowds and enjoy a more tranquil beach experience.

The sunsets at Zuma are particularly breathtaking, so evenings are always a prime time for a visit.

The beach is open from sunrise to sunset every day.

Things to note: Zuma Beach stands out as one of Malibu, California's premier beaches. Renowned for its impressive waves, it attracts a plethora of surf enthusiasts.

That said, the beach has specific zones designated for surfing and swimming, so it's important to adhere to these areas. It's worth noting that Zuma Beach, like other LA county beaches, doesn't permit overnight parking.

READ MORE - Our Guide to Zuma Beach

8. El Matador State Beach

What makes this beach special: El Matador State Beach stands out for its striking rock formations that etch an easily recognizable silhouette against the horizon. This picturesque landscape is not only popular among beachgoers but also becomes a haven for photographers.

Nestled in a tranquil setting, El Matador offers a peaceful escape from the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles. Its surroundings are ripe for exploration, ensuring that every visit is filled with discovery.

Embraced by Santa Monica Mountains on one side and Point Mugu State Park on the other, the scenery that surrounds this beach is hard to top, even when compared to the other beaches located on the stunning Pacific Coast Highway.

Rugged rock formations rising up from the ocean
With its unique rock formations, El Matador State Beach is one of the most popular Pacific Coast beaches for photo ops.

How to get there: El Matador State Beach lies to the west of Malibu's city center. When driving on the Pacific Coast Highway, keep an eye out for the small brown sign that points to the El Matador turnoff.

Where to park: There's a compact parking area atop the cliffs, and some free parking spaces are available along the highway.

Things to see near El Matador State Beach:

  • La Piedra State Beach
  • El Pescador State Beach
  • Lechuza Beach
  • Broad Beach
  • Trancas Canyon

Did you know? El Matador State Beach's dramatic cliffs make it a preferred location for music video shoots and parts of Britney Spears' music video for "Don't Let Me Be the Last to Know" were filmed here.

Best time to visit: The parking area and beach tend to fill up quickly, so consider visiting early or during weekdays to sidestep larger crowds.

Given the elevated cliffs surrounding the beach, winter conditions might impact the accessibility and safety of some sections. It's advisable to check the conditions before your trip.

The opening hours of this beach are 8am until sundown.

Things to note: Similar to nearby beaches, jellyfish sightings are more common in the spring. Yet, given the beach's rocky terrain and fewer water-related activities, encounters with them are less frequent.

READ MORE - Our Guide to El Matador Beach

9. Pismo Beach

What makes this beach special: Pismo Beach is known for the Oceano Dunes, an expansive stretch of sand dunes perfect for off-roading adventures and unforgettable outdoor experiences.

If you are not too keen on off-roading, then Pismo Beach Pier offers not only breathtaking ocean vistas but also fishing opportunities and a calendar filled with events and activities, so no matter when you visit, you will find something going on.

If you are a nature lover or are traveling with family, we highly recommend visiting the Monarch Butterfly Grove as well. Pismo Beach transforms between October and February when thousands of Monarch butterflies find sanctuary in its eucalyptus trees.

Surfers by Pismo Beach Pier in California on a sunny day. Photo is taken from the beach.
Pismo Beach's turquoise waters are perfect for surfing if you are feeling adventurous!
Gabriele Maltinti/

How to get there: Pismo Beach is located further towards north on the Pacific Coast Highway compared to the beaches of Malibu and is directly located on the Pacific Coast Highway, if you are traveling from Los Angeles.

Alternatively, you can follow CA-58 if you are traveling from the direction of Bakersfield, and then hop on CA-166 to reach Pismo Beach.

Where to park: Automated Pay Parking Stations are set up throughout Pismo Beach, located on every block and in each parking lot requiring payment. "Pay to Park" signs indicate where parking receipts should be displayed in vehicles.

Things to see near Pismo Beach:

  • Oceano Dunes SVRA
  • Monarch Butterfly Grove
  • Dinosaur Caves Park
  • Pismo Preserve
  • Downtown Pismo Beach

Did you know? The late actor James Dean made his last stop in Pismo Beach before his tragic car accident in 1955. He was en route to a racing event in Salinas, California, and a memorial near the junction where the accident occurred has been erected.

Best time to visit: As mentioned above, if you'd like to witness the breathtaking scenery dotted with hundreds of beautiful monarch butterflies, you must visit between October and February, which is when they migrate.

Known for its delicious clams, Pismo Beach celebrates its famous Clam Festival in October. If you visit during this time, you can sample many clam dishes and see what the fuss is all about!

During the winter months, the beach tends to be less populated. The beach remains accessible throughout the year, and its consistently pleasant climate ensures its popularity regardless of the season.

The opening hours of this beach are 6am to 10pm.

Things to note: Pismo Beach stands out as one of the few locations in California where driving on the sand is permitted. Adjacent areas, such as Oceano Dunes, offer opportunities to rent ATVs or dune buggies.

If you're considering a trip to Oceano Dunes, it's crucial to adhere to safety protocols.

READ MORE - Our Guide to Pismo Beach

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10. Avila Beach

What makes this beach special: Nestled between rolling hills and the coastal views of the Pacific Ocean, Avila Beach is deservingly a popular stop on the Pacific Coast Highway with its golden, soft sandy shores.

The beach's recently refurbished promenade is its beating heart, lined with charming boutique shops, beachfront eateries, and vivid beach houses, providing the perfect opportunity to grab a lunch or squeeze in some retail therapy to your beach trip.

Meanwhile, the beach itself is perfect for sunbathing, if you are looking to work on your tan, for combing for treasures, or for admiring breathtaking sunsets.

For nature lovers, Avila Beach doubles as a prime location for whale-watching, with these majestic creatures often visible from the shore, though you might want to bring your binoculars if you want to see them better.

When you are ready to leave your towel and stretch your legs, the beautiful pier is perfect for relaxed walks, fishing adventures, and opportunities to observe marine life up close.

Wide sandy bank of the beach, waves coming in on sunny weather
It is easy to see why Avila Beach, with its stunning sandy banks, is so popular for sun chasers and thrill-seekers alike.

How to get there: If you're driving to Avila Beach from Los Angeles, take the Avila Beach Drive exit off US-101 North. This route takes you straight into the heart of Avila Beach.

Coming from San Francisco? Use the same Avila Beach Drive exit but from US-101 South, which also leads directly to the beach.

Where to park: Beachfront parking is limited and can fill up quickly. If it's full, consider parking in the town center lot managed by the Port San Luis Harbor District.

Additionally, there's a lengthy stretch of the main road through Avila where parking is free.

Things to see near Avila Beach:

  • Avila Valley Hot Springs
  • Bob Jones City to the Sea Trail
  • Avila Beach Golf Resort
  • Central Coast Aquarium
  • Point San Luis Lighthouse
  • Avila Wine & Roasting

Did you know? Avila Beach has served as a backdrop for various films. One movie was "California Dreaming" (1979). where the beach town setting provided a perfect backdrop for this coming-of-age surf movie.

Best time to visit: Due to its more secluded location, Avila Beach tends to have fewer visitors compared to some of the other beaches on our list.

While the beach is open throughout the year, nearby amenities like shops and restaurants might operate on seasonal schedules.

The opening hours of this beach are 6am to 10pm.

Things to note: RV camping is permitted in the Port San Luis region, but it's essential to secure an online reservation beforehand.

Parking can become challenging during the summer months; it's advisable to get there early or opt for a weekday visit when there's typically less crowd.

READ MORE - Our Guide to Avila Beach

11. Moonstone Beach

What makes this beach special: As its name might suggest, Moonstone Beach is unique among the other beaches on our list with its colorful, smooth, polished stones that adorn its shores. However, it is important to keep in mind that you won't be able to collect these rocks to ensure the preservation of the area.

Additionally, while many beaches on the Pacific Coast Highway are crowded with visitors (and we don't blame them, beaches on the Pacific Coast Highway have their own unique siren call!), Moonstone Beach offers a calmer atmosphere for those seeking a quieter coastal experience.

Located between Shamel Park and Hearst San Simeon State Park, you can easily combine your visit with spending some time in these beautiful parks, and admiring the scenery from the William Randolph Hearst Memorial View Point.

Close up of colorful pebbles at the beach and incoming waves
Moonstone Beach in Cambria, California, is known for its colorful stones. These beautiful pebbles are protected and you cannot remove them from the beach, no matter how tempting that might be!
Donald Hopper/

How to get there: Just a couple of miles from Cambria city center, when driving along PCH you'll find the beach between Monterey to the north and San Luis Obispo to the south.

Where to park: When nearing Cambria, you'll notice signs and exits that guide you straight to Moonstone Beach Drive, which takes you to the beach. Ample free parking is available along Moonstone Beach Drive as well as in designated day-use lots.

Things to see near Moonstone Beach:

  • Shamel Park
  • Cambria Historical Museum
  • Cambria's East and West Villages
  • Lampton Cliffs Park

Did you know? While not as frequently featured in blockbuster movies as some of its counterparts to the south, the scenic beauty of Moonstone Beach and the surrounding Cambria region has attracted plenty of filmmakers and photographers.

Best time to visit: Apart from the tiny stretch of beach directly off Moonstone Beach Road, the beach remains off-limits from April 1st to September 15th to safeguard the nesting habitats of Piping Plovers and Least Terns.

If you plan a visit between December and April, you'll also have the opportunity to experience whale watching.

The beach is open from sunrise to sunset every day.

Things to note: Moonstone Beach captivates visitors with its sleek, polished stones. However, as mentioned above, visitors are advised not to collect them in order to maintain the locale's pristine charm.

It's important to note that the beach usually doesn't have lifeguards on duty, so care is essential when venturing into the water.

READ MORE - Our Guide to Moonstone Beach

12. McWay Cove Beach and Big Sur

What makes this beach special: McWay Cove Beach is a true gem of the Pacific Coast Highway, nestled within the world-famous landscape of Big Sur. While the beach itself remains inaccessible to visitors, it offers a breathtaking sight from a distance and amazing photo ops.

The McWay Falls View Point from the McWay Waterfall Trail captures the panorama of the picturesque area, offering a sweeping view of the cove, the scenic McWay Falls - a unique sight as this waterfall is one of the uncommon ones that cascades directly into the ocean.

This backdrop, punctuated by the waterfall's serene descent and surrounded by the majestic cliffs and redwood forests of Big Sur, has made it a favored spot for photographers and nature enthusiasts alike.

This beautiful beach is also located adjacent to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, where you can extend your trip to explore, if you have more time on your hands.

Beautiful McWay Falls descending on the beach on a sunny day
It isn't often that you can see a beautiful waterfall descending on a sandy beach, which is what makes McWay Cove so special.

How to get there: This picturesque beach is located directly on the Pacific Coast Highway in between Slates Hot Springs to its southeast and Big Sur to its northwest, so a direct drive from either direction will get you there.

Where to park: Parking availability can be restricted, particularly during high tourist periods. You have a couple of parking choices: either at the entrance of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (on the road's east side) or along the road, either north or south of the park's entrance.

Things to see near McCove Way Beach:

  • Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
  • Partington Cove
  • Waterfall Overlook Trail
  • Saddle Rock Ranch Overlook
  • Ewoldsen Trail

Did you know? The house that once stood on the cliffs above McWay Cove was owned by Lathrop and Helen Hooper Brown. When they donated the land to the state, they had their house demolished and today's trail to the overlook was the old driveway to their house.

Best time to visit: For those keen on whale watching, December to February is ideal for observing gray whales, while April to December is prime time for sighting blue and humpback whales.

Things to note: The beach itself is inaccessible, but you can enjoy the stunning views from the overlooks.

Designated trails provide stunning views of the waterfall and cove. It's essential to remain on these trails both for your safety and to preserve the natural surroundings.

In many areas of Big Sur, including near McWay Cove, cell service can be sparse or non-existent; consider downloading offline maps beforehand.

Although Big Sur attracts numerous tourists, its remote nature, especially towards the south, means services are limited. Be sure to fuel up and stock on essentials before venturing deeper.

READ MORE - Our Guide to McWay Cove Beach

13. Monterey State Beach

What makes this beach special: Nestled against the picturesque backdrop of Monterey Bay, Monterey State Beach showcases golden sands and deep blue waters, creating a landscape you won't soon forget.

Monterey State Beach has several access points, making it easily reachable, with areas suited for family picnics and swimming spots perfect for younger swimmers. Moreover, its prime location within the city of Monterey offers the added advantage of easy access to nearby attractions.

And for those enamored by marine life, Monterey Bay is the perfect place for sightings of sea otters, seals, and various seabirds right from the shoreline.

If you weren't able to spot any of these fascinating creatures in the wild, do not worry, as one of the most famous aquariums in the US, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is located on the Cannery Row a short drive from the beach. Here you can learn more about marine life and see them up close.

View of Monterey Bay from above the dunes, onto the turbulent ocean
Before heading down to the Monterey State Beach, take a view of the beautiful Monterey Bay from up above.
Anne M Vallone/

How to get there: Monterey State Beach is located to the east of Monterey, and you can easily reach it by taking Exit 403 past Roberts Lake on the Pacific Coast Highway.

Where to park: The Roberts Lot at the beach's southern end and The Seaside Lot towards the north are the closest parking spaces to Monterey State Beach. Additionally, parking is available at Fisherman's Wharf.

Things to see near Monterey State Beach:

  • Monterey Bay Aquarium
  • Cannery Row
  • Fishermans Wharf
  • Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail
  • Dennis the Menace Playground

Did you know? The HBO drama series "Big Little Lies," starring Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Shailene Woodley, showcases various locations around Monterey, including the state beach.

Best time to visit: A spring visit offers fewer crowds and pleasant weather, however, this beach is accessible year-round.

You might not immediately think winter might be a good time to visit the beach, but Monterey knows how to get festive for the holidays! If you visit in December, you can enjoy Christmas on the Wharf and Winton Stanton Art Market.

The opening hours of this beach are 8am to half an hour after sunset.

Things to note: Jellyfish, though not a constant presence, can sometimes be spotted on or near the shoreline. It's wise to exercise caution and refrain from touching them.

Parking availability can vary depending on the season and day, so consider arriving either early or towards the day's end to sidestep the busiest times.

READ MORE - Our Guide to Monterey State Beach

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14. Santa Cruz Main Beach

What makes this beach special: Santa Cruz Main Beach is another Californian favorite, with its soft sandy stretches framed by rugged cliffs and beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean.

Famously dubbed as "Surf City," Santa Cruz lures surfing enthusiasts from not only California, or the states, but from all around the world, boasting renowned spots at popular stretches, such as Steamer Lane, that promise world-class waves.

Once you have had your fill of riding the waves, or a dip in the cool waters of the ocean, we highly recommend visiting the famous Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Here, you can hop on one of the many amazing rides, or simply treat yourself to a well-deserved meal or ice cream.

Additionally, the coastline in Santa Cruz offers gems like the Natural Bridges State Beach, another one of our favorite photo spots on our list with its stunning rock formations and dramatic tide pools.

Sea lion taking a nap on a bench, peacefully sleeping
You never know who you will come across on the Santa Cruz Harbor after a long and exciting day at the beach!
Marquicio Pagola/

How to get there: The center of Santa Cruz is around a mile from Santa Cruz Main Beach, with a short 5-minute drive along Center Street towards the coast.

Where to park: Parking may prove difficult, particularly during weekends and high tourist seasons.

You'll find metered parking spaces lining Beach Street, which is adjacent to the Main Beach. Additionally, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk offers dedicated parking areas, with primary lots conveniently located near the entrance of the amusement park.

Things to see near Santa Cruz Main Beach:

  • Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
  • Santa Cruz Wharf
  • Santa Cruz Surfing Museum
  • Pacific Avenue
  • Museum of Art & History

Did you know? The 1987 cult classic vampire film "The Lost Boys" used the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and the surrounding area as a primary filming location.

Best time to visit: During the summer, the pleasant weather and warmer waters make it an ideal time to visit Santa Cruz for beach activities and water sports.

If you visit during summer, make sure to check out Woodies on the Wharf and Scotts Valley Art & Wine Festival while you are in Santa Cruz.

The opening hours of this beach are 7am to 10pm.

Things to note: Due to attractions such as the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, the Main Beach often sees large crowds, particularly on weekends.

Additionally, the beach is a renowned destination for beach volleyball. Numerous courts dot the sands during the summer, and various tournaments are held there throughout the season.

READ MORE - Our Guide to Santa Cruz Main Beach

15. McClures Beach

What makes this beach special: Nestled amidst rugged cliffs and awe-inspiring rock formations, McClures Beach is a stunning landscape if you want to take in the raw beauty of the Pacific Ocean.

The beach's dramatic tidal pools, majestic cliffs, and imposing sea stacks not only offer a visual feast but also provide a haven for photography enthusiasts.

As the tide recedes, a secret underwater world is unveiled in the form of tidal pools, teeming with vibrant marine life such as starfish, sea anemones, and crabs.

Unlike some of the more developed beaches on our list, McClures Beach retains a pristine ambiance without any commercial facilities, which will allow you to experience the coast in its purest form.

Misty morning on the beach with cliff in the background
If you want to capture the raw beauty of the rugged Californian coastline, McClures Beach will provide perfect photography opportunities.
Lucy Autrey Wilson/

How to get there: McClures Beach is not directly along the Pacific Coast Highway, but within Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County.

From CA-1, you will follow Sir Francis Drake Boulevard westward through the Point Reyes National Seashore. Pierce Point Road then leads you to McClures Beach.

Where to park: You can find a small parking area at the trailhead for around 25 vehicles.

Things to see near McClures Beach:

  • Tomales Point Trail
  • Abbotts Lagoon
  • Chimney Rock
  • Elephant Seal Overlook
  • Kehoe Beach

Did you know? McClures Beach and its surroundings are known for shipwrecks, with the tales of shipwrecks, fog, and rugged coastline inspiring numerous stories about the area.

Best time to visit: If you're interested in exploring tidal pools and observing marine life, it's best to visit during low tide. Checking a local tide chart for Point Reyes National Seashore will help you determine the best days and times.

For bird-watching or potential marine mammal sightings, late spring and early fall are the best times.

You can get to the beach through a brief trail, though it can be trickier to traverse during rainy conditions, so you might want to aim for dry days to visit.

The opening hours of this beach are 9am to 5pm.

Things to note: For those seeking a serene and untouched beach experience, McClures Beach is a prime choice, though it comes with fewer amenities on-site.

While the cool and often unclear waters aren't optimal for activities like snorkeling, swimming, or diving, it's essential to note that various natural items, including shells, rocks, flowers, and fossils, are protected and should not be taken from the area.

READ MORE - Our Guide to McClures Beach

16. Glass Beach

What makes this beach special: Another unique beach on Pacific Coast Highway, Glass Beach is famous for its captivating sea glass, with waves having transformed debris into beautifully smooth, colorful fragments.

These brilliant glass shards, with the rugged Pacific Ocean as their backdrop, offer amazing opportunities for breathtaking photographs. Similar to Moonstone Beach, Glass Beach is a protected area, meaning you should refrain from taking any pieces with you.

At Glass Beach, you will not only get to admire the unique glass-strewn sands, but you might also catch a glimpse of playful sea lions from the shore and discover vibrant marine life in the beachfront's rock pools.

Tower of polished sea glass pebbles on Glass Beach in MacKerricher State Park, California
Glass Beach is different than the other beaches on our list with its magical landscape created by thousands of sea glass fragments.

How to get there: Glass Beach is part of the MacKerricher State Park. It is a short drive from the center of Fort Bragg, just 4 minutes. To get to Glass Beach, head towards Pine Street, onto Main Street, and then Elm Street.

Where to park: Upon arriving at Glass Beach Road, simply follow the signage leading to the parking area. From there, a brief walk down a compact dirt trail will guide you directly to the beach.

Things to see near Glass Beach:

  • Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens
  • Pudding Creek Trestle
  • Guest House Museum
  • Fort Bragg Coastal Trail
  • Noyo Headlands Park

Did you know? Its unique charm has made it an Instagram favorite, and the jewel-like colors make it a perfect backdrop for social media photos, countless travel influencers and photographers showcasing Glass Beach.

Best time to visit: During the peak summer months of June through August, the beach often experiences high foot traffic. To avoid the crowds and maximize your chances of seeing the most sea glass, consider visiting early, especially around or before low tide.

This beach is open all day.

Things to note: While visiting Glass Beach, it's essential to adhere to the rules and guidelines.

Donning protective gloves is recommended, enabling you to safely explore the glass fragments during your stay.

READ MORE - Our Guide to Glass Beach

17. Cannon Beach

What makes this beach special: Though it is technically located on the Pacific Coast Scenic Byway, our list wouldn't be complete without mentioning the beautiful Cannon Beach, famous for its monumental Haystack Rock, a 235-foot tall sea stack that stands majestically on the Oregon Coast.

Not only is this monolith one of the most snapped landmarks on the coast, but it also serves as a nesting haven for tufted puffins. The beach stretches further to showcase a canvas of spectacular rock formations, golden sandy expanses and sunsets that you won't easily forget.

Not only scenic but also historic, Cannon Beach played a pivotal role in the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Ecola Creek in Cannon Beach is a High Potential Historic Site that is located on the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.

Shot of Cannon Beach, Oregon, from the air with blue sky and golden sandy beach, with lush greenery on the land
Located in Oregon, Cannon Beach features a majestic coastline on the Pacific Ocean.
Chris Anson/

How to get there: If traveling along PCH from California and heading north, then you continue onto US Route 101 in Oregon before reaching popular Cannon Beach.

If visiting from the direction of Portland, Oregon, following US-26 west will get you directly to Cannon Beach.

Where to park: There are several parking areas around the northern end of Cannon Beach, along the beach, by Sandsurf Resort, Mariner Market, and street parking.

Things to see near Cannon Beach:

  • Tolovana Beach State Recreation Site
  • Ecola State Park
  • Cannon Beach History Center and Museum
  • Les Shirley Park
  • Downtown Cannon Beach

Did you know? One of the most recognizable features of Cannon Beach is Haystack Rock, and this iconic landmark gained pop culture fame when it was featured in the 1985 adventure film "The Goonies."

Fans of the movie often visit Cannon Beach to see this iconic rock formation and re-live moments from the film.

Best time to visit: From May to September, spanning late spring to early fall, is an ideal time for a visit. Yet, for those who appreciate the allure of storm-watching and seek a more tranquil ambiance, the winter months offer a majestic and less populated backdrop.

The opening hours of this beach are 10am to 5pm.

Things to note: Cannon Beach doesn't have lifeguard supervision. Given the potentially turbulent waters of the Oregon Coast, visitors are encouraged to be vigilant near or in the sea.

The tide pools around Cannon Beach, particularly by Haystack Rock, are notable attractions, but care should be taken when exploring to ensure both personal safety and the well-being of marine life.

The weather on the Oregon coast can vary unexpectedly. It typically remains cooler than the interior regions, making layered clothing a wise choice.

READ MORE - Our Guide to Cannon Beach

Best Beaches Along the Pacific Coast Highway
Beach NameDescription
1. Laguna Main BeachKnown for its picturesque views with a boardwalk, tide pools, and artsy village ambiance
2. Newport BeachSophisticated beach with an upscale shopping, yachting harbors, and a renowned surf wedge
3. Huntington State BeachA surfing mecca, often dubbed "Surf City USA" for its consistent waves
4. Peninsula BeachPeaceful stretch of sand nestled between Long Beach and the Pacific Ocean
5. Venice BeachA symbol of LA culture with a vibrant boardwalk, Muscle Beach, and eclectic street performers
6. Santa Monica State BeachIconic for its historic pier, Ferris wheel, and the quintessential Californian beach experience
7. Zuma BeachPopular for its wide sands and clean waters, making it a favorite for families
8. El Matador BeachDistinguished by its dramatic sea stacks and hidden sea caves, offers a rugged coastline
9. Pismo BeachFamous for its sand dunes, clam-digging opportunities, and off-road vehicle adventures
10. Avila BeachFeatures a charming promenade and warm microclimate after recent rejuvenation
11. Moonstone BeachNotable for its rugged driftwood and colorful stones, perfect beach for sunset views and tidepool exploration
12. McWay Cove Beach and Big SurHome to the iconic waterfall that cascades directly onto the sand, a jewel of the dramatic Big Sur coastline
13. Monterey State BeachCalm waters with proximity to the historic Cannery Row and the renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium
14. Santa Cruz Main BeachAdjacent to the historic Boardwalk, home to beachgoers, surfers of all levels and thrill-seekers
15. McClures BeachLocated in Point Reyes, offers a secluded escape marked by dramatic cliffs and pounding surf
16. Glass BeachUnique beach in Fort Bragg, famous for its sea-smoothed glass pebbles
17. Cannon BeachRenowned for its towering Haystack Rock, tufted puffins, and the misty Pacific Northwest backdrop

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