You'll find plenty of beaches in the Golden State that can be the backdrop for your family's perfect trip. You can spend days taking in the coastal beauty at the seashore, or go to a city and enjoy the urban beach scene. Other options include getting your adrenaline up at one of the country's few remaining oceanside amusement parks or visiting an iconic California beach town. You can even go camping on the beach. These top picks are listed in order from north to south.
For the nature-loving family, a California beach vacation doesn't get any better. At Point Reyes, you can explore miles of seashore, see a waterfall that runs right into the ocean, explore the effects of an earthquake on nature, and watch Roosevelt Elk grazing at sunset. And the scenic lighthouse has enough steps for even the most active kids to use up their excess energy.
You can visit Point Reyes any time of year, but it may be too cold and windy to spend much time on the beach there in the winter.
The only lodging inside the National Seashore is a hostel, but you can use a guide to find out where else you can stay nearby—and what else there is to do in the area.
At Half Moon Bay, you won't run out of beaches to explore on your vacation. In fact, three of them are part of the Half Moon Bay Beach State Park—Frances, Venice, and Dunes. You can also check out the tidepools at the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve or watch elephant seals at Ano Nuevo. Both of these are also along the San Mateo coast.
The town of Half Moon Bay offers lots of places to stay and eat, and there's a golf course with an ocean view so beautiful that you might get distracted and lose track of your ball.
Santa Cruz has lots of beaches to play on and oceanside campgrounds that are perfect for bonfires and s'mores. This area has beaches for almost any activity you would want to take part in.
In downtown at the classic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, adventurous kids will like the Giant Dipper, a wooden roller coaster built in 1924, while little ones might prefer sticking to the classic carousel with its hand-carved horses.
Older kids might also enjoy renting equipment for surfing, boogie boarding, or skimboarding in one of the two places in California that claim to be the original Surf City.
If you get bored with sun and sand, you can find more things to do with the family in Santa Cruz, including the utterly touristy but fun Mystery Spot.
Monterey, Carmel, and Pacific Grove
The Monterey Peninsula has enough variety to satisfy even the pickiest members of your family. Here's a Monterey and Carmel beach guide to find the one that's just right for you.
Monterey also offers are plenty of opportunities to view and learn about wildlife. You can take a break from the beach to visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and divers can also rent gear and explore the undersea world for themselves. Or stay on top of the waves in a kayak. Monterey Bay is also one of the best places in California to go whale-watching.
For youngsters who enjoy shopping, Carmel is the perfect place to go—and the town is also famous for being dog-friendly in case you brought the family pet along. Plus, the town offers plenty of other things for the whole family to participate in.
Tiny Pacific Grove sits between Monterey and Carmel and is often overlooked by visitors, but it has some gorgeous beaches and a cute little downtown area to explore.
Pismo Beach is among California residents' favorite places to go for a family getaway. Located on a dramatic stretch of coastline with sand dunes and cliffs backing up sandy beaches, it's the perfect spot to experience the classic California beach lifestyle.
In town, you can walk out onto the pier to watch the ocean and get a bowl of award-winning clam chowder.
Oceano Dunes near Pismo Beach is also the only place in the state where you can camp right on the beach and zip around the nearby dunes in an ATV. There's also a scenic lighthouse nearby if you want to check that out.
The words upscale and gorgeous are often used to describe Santa Barbara, but don't let that fool you into thinking the place is too pretentious for families to enjoy.
Santa Barbara is a walkable town with easy to access beaches and a paved oceanfront walk that's always buzzing with people enjoying a pedal-powered surrey ride. You can also get out of town to explore some of the area's other fun beach locales.
Los Angeles South Bay
For an urban California beach experience, head for Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, and Redondo Beach in the area Angelenos call the South Bay. You'll find miles of oceanfront paths to walk, bike, or skate on and lots of sandy beaches to enjoy.
The Redondo Pier has a small aquarium with free admission, and you'll find lots of places to eat and shop on the horseshoe-shaped Redondo Pier. Your family fishermen could go on a fishing trip, or even the bravest member of your group could enjoy a jet boat ride.
No matter where you are in the South Bay if you get tired—or hungry—or feel a sudden urge to go shopping — you're never more than a few steps away from all of that.
These towns have distinct personalities that you can get into if you check the South Bay beach town guide.
Balboa Island, Newport Beach
In Orange County, Newport Beach is well known for high-end shopping centers, but for families, the best part of Newport Beach is at the seashore.
Start your day on tiny Balboa Island or the Balboa Peninsula, then travel between them on the smallest ferry boat you may ever see. Some parents say that the ferry ride alone can keep the kids occupied for hours, just going back and forth. On the peninsula, you can also stop to enjoy the amusements at the Balboa Fun Zone.
On the island, get a hand-dipped Balboa Bar or a chocolate-coated frozen banana from one of the two sidewalk stands that both claim to be the "original."
There's also plenty to do in the town of Newport to get away from the beach for a bit.
Laguna Beach is known for its art galleries and fine dining, but close to downtown, you'll also find a fun place to play in the sand and tidepools to explore. In town, the kids will also enjoy stopping to watch the Laguna Beach Greeter dancing and waving to passing visitors.
When you're done with the beach, you can explore the town and surrounding area.
Beautiful La Jolla north of San Diego is a magnet for beach lovers, boasting some of the best sand in the state. Families will love to watch the sea lions and check the surf La Jolla Cove. And the broad, sloping beach at La Jolla Shores is perfect for wading. Those beaches are detailed in the guide to San Diego's best beaches, so you can find the right one for your family.
Also in La Jolla, you can visit the Birch Aquarium to see some sea dragons or take a stroll along the cliffs above the La Jolla waterfront.
San Diego's 70 miles of coastline and year-round mild temperatures make it an ideal beach getaway town. While it boasts many great beach options for families.
When you've had enough of surf and sand, head inland to explore some of the top things to do in San Diego with kids.