Some of the prettiest beaches in the world lie in Southern California. In the 840 miles of California coastline the windswept, rocky Northern California beaches eventually turn into wide, sandy expanses in Southern California. You’ll find sea caves, sea stacks, tide pools, sunny weather and stunning sunsets at these 15 prettiest beaches in Southern California.
Some Southern California beaches are popular for surfing, others for beach volleyball and plenty for just playing in the waves of the Pacific Ocean. It would be a worthwhile adventure to take one of the best scenic drives along the coast and beach hop along the way. While you’re at it, you can enjoy the cutest California beach towns and turn the experience into a perfect California vacation.
If you are on your first trip to California, make sure to read the 15 mistakes to avoid when visiting LA with tips from your favorite local on the best things to see and do in LA.
13 Prettiest Beaches in Southern California
These beaches are listed from the north end of Santa Barbara heading south to San Diego. If you are taking a Pacific Coast Highway road trip, you can use this as a map of places to stop. We recommend you start your West Coast road trip in San Francisco or Big Sur but these beaches will be for the Southern California part of your trip. Most of the beaches will have paid parking lots. If you don’t see an attendant, find the pay machine and get a ticket to put in your front windshield.
1. Refugio State Beach – Santa Barbara County
Refugio State Beach lies just about 20 miles north of Santa Barbara. This is the beach to hit if you love activities and adventures. Kayaking is popular and Refugio State Beach. Bring your own inflatable kayaks or do one of the organized kayak tours. Surfers also flock to the area. There are plenty of great spots for those that enjoy fishing. During low tide, check out the tide pools in the rocky areas. No matter if you are looking to relax or stay active, you’ll find Refugio to be the perfect beach. Many people stay at the campground here so they can wake up to this beautiful paradise.
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2. Butterfly Beach – Montecito
Located south of Santa Barbara, Butterfly Beach is a very popular and home to one of the prettiest Southern California hotels, the Four Seasons Biltmore. A majority of the beaches on this list don’t allow dogs, but this one welcomes your furry friends with open arms. You’ll see locals that love to walk their dogs around the area. A very relaxed atmosphere, Butterfly Beach provides a bike bath and a walkway as well. Sunbathers absolutely love this spot.
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3. El Matador State Beach – Malibu
By far, one of the prettiest beaches in Souther California is El Matador in Malibu. Known for its beautiful rock formations, El Matador is a great instagrammable spot! You’ll probably see many wedding and engagement photoshoots while you’re here. You can get down to this beach from the parking area by following the trail and stairs through the rocks. For those hoping to capture some beautiful scenery, El Matador is your place!
4. Point Dume – Malibu
Point Dume in Malibu is one of the prettiest big, wide, quintessential Southern California beaches. There is so much space to lay out and the water is beautiful for swimming. Aside from the beach itself, Point Dume lies right next to a rocky cliff that you can hike up in only 10 minutes! The view from up above is absolutely stunning, especially during sunset. Some people like to rock climb here as well. If you have an adventurous side, try it out! Point Dume does get quite crowded in the summer months, though, so make sure to come earlier in the day to get parking.
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5. Malibu Lagoon State Beach – Malibu
Also known as Surfrider Beach, Malibu Lagoon State Beach is one of the best for surfers and sunbathers alike. You’ll find it in the heart of Malibu from Malibu Creek to the Malibu pier. The area has a wetland feel, therefore walking on one of the dirt paths here will give some great views of the surrounding landscape. You’ll even be able to spot some tide pools in Malibu Lagoon! Surfing, birdwatching, and swimming are definitely the most popular activities at this beach. If you have time, check out Adamson House and the Malibu Lagoon Museum that sits on this beach.
6. Will Rogers State Beach – Pacific Palisades
Will Rogers State Beach is a very popular local’s beach north in the Los Angeles area. It lies right at the border of Santa Monica and Pacific Palisades. I love coming here because it generally isn’t as crowded as the neighboring beaches in Santa Monica or Malibu. You’ll find a ton of volleyball courts and can often catch a weekend tournament. Will Rogers State Beach is also a perfect spot for families and children with clean bathrooms and food options. Skip the dirty, touristy beach near Santa Monica Pier and get a real California experience less than 2 miles north.
7. Manhattan Beach
In some spots Manhattan Beach is really pretty but the best part about this beach is the friendly, neighborhood feel. There are always tons of people out on the bike and walking path. Houses line the entire beach and neighbors have fun get togethers every day. Some of the best beach volleyball players in the world play on the beach here. Make sure you catch a sunset here too. Make a whole day of it in Manhattan Beach.
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8. Victoria Beach – Laguna
Laguna Beach has some of the most spectacular beaches. Victoria Beach in particular is so unique because it lies right in front of all the Laguna Beach mansions. They are definitely a sight to see! Victoria Beach has an incredible castle-like tower nestled into the rocks called Pirate Tower. A man-made pool lies in front of the tower which attracts many people, especially those looking for the perfect Instagram photo! Victoria Beach is generally not too crowded, and for those who love to skimboard this is the place to be.
9. 1000 Steps Beach – Laguna
1000 Steps Beach is a very popular place to go in Laguna whether to lay out on the sand or to get some exercise. There aren’t really 1,000 steps, but definitely a couple hundred that are a popular workout spot. Aside from the stairs themselves, the beach is great for laying out as there is a ton of room on the sand. The beach also offers tide pools and a cave that visitors love to explore. Right above the sand you’ll have no problem finding some of the most gorgeous mansions too. Whatever kind of beach day you are seeking, 1000 Steps Beach won’t disappoint.
10. Salt Creek Beach – Dana Point
If you’re looking for fun things to do in Orange County, a visit to Salt Creek beach should be on your list. The reason it is called Salt Creek is because there is a creek running through the North end of the beach. Aside from the wide sand beach, Salt Creek has a nice large grass area with some picnic tables. Many people love to come to Salt Creek Beach to surf, swim, sunbathe and so much more. Remember, if you’re bringing your dog, they are only allowed in the park area.
11. Swami’s Beach – Encinitas
In Encinitas, Swami’s Beach is a hugely popular place to lay out on the sand and watch the surfers. Known for surfing, Swami’s Beach has a park where the views of the surfers is incredible. When the tide is low here, you’ll have the opportunity to beach hop because of how far the water goes out. The park, located at the top of Swami’s Beach cliffs, has picnic tables and tons of trees for shade if the beach itself gets a little too warm.
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12. Blacks Beach – San Diego
Blacks Beach in La Jolla, San Diego is a great spot for surfers. Some may even say you’ll find the best waves in San Diego here. A fun fact about Blacks Beach is that the north end of it is owned by the state park making clothing optional! There are not many nude beaches like this around so if you’re looking to experience a clothing-free beach day, visit Blacks Beach. The only thing that deters some people from Blacks is the hike you have to take to get here. If you’re willing to put in the extra work for a day at the beach, you’ll be treated to a dreamy spot.
13. Windandsea Beach – La Jolla
Located in San Diego’s La Jolla, Windandsea Beach is a gorgeous stretch along the coast. La Jolla beaches tend to not have too much sand to lay out on and Winsandsea is no different. This is not the best beach to visit if you’re looking to sunbathe but it’s one of the prettiest beaches in Southern California. You’ll also enjoy watching the surfers. Another pretty beach in the area is La Jolla Cove. For swimming and sunbathing in La Jolla, head to Scripps beach.
Bonus: Sunset Cliffs – San Diego
A little difficult to get to, Sunset Cliffs in San Diego is the prettiest Southern California beach cave. You can only get in at negative tide, which essentially means lowest possible tide. You need to check a tide chart because it’s not safe at any other time. If you can time it right, this place is amazing.
Southern California is known for it’s beaches and these 13 beaches are the absolute prettiest. Now that you’ve gotten to hear about some of the beaches I think are the prettiest in Southern California, it’s time for you to get out and explore them yourself. Southern California really is such a hot and sunny place to be. Getting some beach time in is part of the culture here and I hope you enjoy it as much as I do! If you have any further questions, feel free to leave a comment below.
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