Cruise down the California coastline and you’ll find endless panoramic cliffside views, beautiful ocean outlooks, and some of the most incredible beaches the planet has to offer. 840 miles of coast running from just south of Oregon to just north of Mexico means a tremendous variety of shorelines to explore, all with their own unique characteristics.
Up north you’ll find peaceful beaches bordered by craggy cliffs and lush green forests, down south you’ll find bustling shores of golden sand where the sun is always shining. But in Central California? That’s where you’ll find some of the most understated and underrated places in all of the Golden State.
With a touch of SoCal’s sand and surf and a bit of the isolated natural beauty of the north, the beaches of Central California strike a beautiful balance that makes them just as desirable a destination as pretty much anywhere on a U.S. map.
Let’s look at the ten best beaches in Central California for you to check off your bucket list next time you decide to take a ride down Highway 1.
Here are the top beaches in Central California to visit, in no particular order:
Mandalay State Beach, Oxnard
Situated right next door to the neighborhood of Oxnard Shores, Mandalay State Beach consists of 92 acres of protected sand dunes and wetlands that are home to a number of different species of birds, making it a well-known birdwatching destination.
The beach is a popular spot for fishing and surfing and it serves as an access point for the California Coastal Trail, an environmental project that intends to connect the entire coast of California in one single hiking trail.
Areas of the beach are blocked off in order to protect the nesting areas of the local least terns and snowy plovers. Check them out, but keep your distance.
Surfer’s Point Beach, Ventura
Great surf is one of California’s great distinguishing features, and the aptly named Surfer’s Point Beach in Ventura is one of the best surf spots the state has to offer. This can be attributed to a point break which brings in unique, and consistently great right-hand waves.
Surfer’s Point Beach is a part of the Ventura County Fairgrounds, where a number of different events, like concerts and trade shows, are held every year. Visitors to the beach who aren’t surfing can be found walking or jogging on the promenade, biking along the paved bike path, skateboarding, fishing, or birdwatching in the nearby lagoon. The area is also a great spot for windsurfing and kiteboarding. Even if you’re not participating, they often make for an entertaining show.
The Ventura Pier, which offers dining options and scenic views, is also accessible by walking down the promenade. It’s a great spot for lunch, or for watching the sunset after a long day on the sand.
Rincon Point State Beach, Carpinteria
Rincon Point State Beach, a separate section of Carpinteria State Beach, is another famous surfing spot with a point break that creates great right-hand waves. The beach is the site of the Rincon Classic surf competition, which is held every January and draws competitors of all ages along with large crowds of spectators.
The shores of Rincon Point State Beach are pretty narrow and rocky, so the area is suited mostly for surfing, but if that isn’t your thing, neighboring Rincon Park County Beach offers more of a traditional beach-going experience, with its sandy shores that are optimal for sunbathing and its swimmer-friendly waters. Just walk a little bit north of Rincon Point and you’re there.
Butterfly Beach, Montecito
Located in the glamorous celebrity-favorite city of Montecito, Butterfly Beach is a picturesque spot to get some sun, walk your dog, or take a dive in the Pacific. The beach is a local favorite, which should tell you something about how lovely it is.
If you’re feeling active, you can join the kayakers and paddleboarders who frequent the waters of Butterfly Beach, or you can try your hand at surfing, another popular activity in the area. You can also ride the paved bike path all the way down to Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara.
The Channel Islands, which make up one of world’s most lively marine ecosystems, are visible from the shores of Butterfly Beach. Keep an eye offshore for breaching whales and dolphins, and for the famously spectacular sunsets.
Avila Beach City Beach, Avila Beach
San Luis Obispo County’s Avila Beach is a beautiful little community located on the shores of the San Luis Bay. It’s known for its hot springs, its picturesque piers, and its beautiful city beach.
Avila Beach City Beach makes up the entirety of the Avila Beach waterfront. Its shores are broad and sandy and they’re bordered by a number of different shops. People come to the beach for a variety of activities, such as volleyball, basketball, fishing, barbecuing, tidepooling, and dog walking. There’s also a hiking and biking trail that begins at the beach if you’re looking for a scenic tour of the area.
Avila Beach City Beach is home to the Avila Beach Pier, which is a popular spot for fishing. You don’t even need a license, just show up and drop your line. If fishing isn’t your thing, you can just enjoy the incredible views, and keep an eye out for humpbacks and gray whales, which are known to pass through the area during their migration.
Pismo State Beach, Pismo Beach
Pismo State Beach is a 17 mile stretch of shoreline managed by the California Department of Parks and Recreation that encompasses the coasts of three towns. The beach has its own campground and is a popular destination for a wide array of activities such as hiking, fishing, clam digging, and surfing.
The area around the beach is rife with wildlife. Monarch butterflies are known to migrate to the area in the winter and there are several species of birds that make their nests nearby, making the area ideal for birdwatching. Pismo State Beach even has its own clam species, the Pismo clam.
You can also reach the Pismo Beach Pier from Pismo State Beach, an iconic spot where you can go fishing or simply enjoy the incredible views.
Morro Rock City Beach, Morro Bay
You’ll want to bring your camera for this one. Morrow Rock City Beach is a popular place for photography, and once you get there it’s not hard to figure out why. The towering Morro Rock, a remarkable 580-foot tall extinct volcano remnant, is the backdrop of your beach-going experience at this wide sandy stretch of shoreline in Morro Bay, San Luis Obispo County.
Spend your day surfing, fishing, sunbathing, or simply gazing in awe as the waves crash into the majestic nearby landmark, just be sure not to climb on it, as the rock is a protected area.
Natural Bridges State Beach, Santa Cruz
Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz is another spot with a dazzlingly beautiful natural backdrop that will have you snapping as many photos as your camera can handle. Named for its natural mudstone bridges that have slowly begun to collapse into the ocean, Natural Bridges State Beach is an incredible place for swimming and sunbathing, as well as hiking, birdwatching, and whale watching. Tidepooling is also very common in the area, and up to 150,000 migratory monarch butterflies can be seen at the Monarch Butterfly Natural Preserve during the winter season.
The mudstone bridges are one of the most commonly photographed natural landmarks in all of California. Unfortunately, the erosion that created the natural spectacle is slowly taking them apart: over the course of the last 100 years or so, two of the three arches have collapsed into the sea. It’s only a matter of time before the final one returns to the Pacific, so go see it while you still can.
Jalama Beach, Lompoc
If you’re looking to surround yourself in the beauty of nature, and you’re willing to take a bit of a road trip to do so, then head out to Jalama Beach in Santa Barbara County.
Jalama Beach is an isolated coastal campground that’s only accessible from a 14.5 mile scenic stretch of road that takes you far away from civilization. Common activities at the beach are swimming, fishing, picnicking, and whale watching.
Of course, it’s not totally bereft of civilized comforts: the Jalama Beach Grill is there to offer you some beachside dining, and there are showers and restrooms on the campgrounds.
Leadbetter Beach, Santa Barbara
Leadbetter Beach is a picturesque spot for swimming and sunbathing on the shores of the city of Santa Barbara. It’s a popular destination for students of nearby Santa Barbara City College, so it can get a bit crowded, but the numerous amenities and beautiful views will help make it worth your while.
Favorable wind conditions make Leadbetter Beach a popular spot for sailing, kiteboarding, and windsurfing. There’s also a scenic paved path nearby that’s frequented by bikers and joggers.
The beach is bordered by cafés and restaurants, as well as the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum, and Leadbetter Beach Park is nearby, where you can go to barbecue after working up an appetite swimming in the Pacific.