Best Orange County Beaches

  • 01 of 06

    Balboa Beach

    Waves at Newport Beach
    ••• Waves at Newport Beach. ©2009 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.

    What to Know About Orange County Beaches

    Orange County beaches may be less sunny than you expected. When temperatures rise inland, so does the air, pulling cool, moist marine air onto the beaches like a foggy blanket.  It's so predictable in early summer that locals dub it "June gloom," but it extends into July and August, too. Some days, the fog and low clouds disappear early, but on other days, like a hungover beach bum, the sun may not put in an appearance until mid- to late-afternoon. 

    Orange County beaches are prone to red tides, a summer phenomenon caused by a type of plankton. While not as dangerous as their East Coast cousins, these micro-organisms make the water murky and give it a fishy smell. They also give off flashes of light when disturbed at night. Because the plankton makes a tasty meal for other sea creatures, red tides are often accompanied by large numbers of jellyfish.

    Our Readers' Favorite Orange County Beaches

    We polled more than 13,000 of our readers...MORE to find out which Orange County beach they like best. Here's how they stack up:

    • Balboa Beach: 39%
    • Laguna Main Beach: 22%
    • Huntington State Beach: 15%
    • Huntington Pier and Bolsa Chica: 11% each

    #1: Balboa Beach

    Located on the Balboa Peninsula in Newport Beach, Balboa Beach faces the Pacific Ocean. It's just a few blocks from a scenic yacht harbor and the Balboa Fun Zone amusement park. 

    The 920-foot pier at Balboa Beach was voted Orange County's best. The sand is clean and always raked, and trash is picked up. Locals say the water is cleaner at Balboa Beach than some of the other Orange County beaches. The only downside is that you will have to pay to park (and parking can be hard to find).

    There's no entrance fee for the beach once you get there. Restrooms and showers are available nearby.

    What is There to Do at Balboa Beach?

    Balboa is a typical Southern California beach where you can go for a bike ride, play volleyball, walk on an oceanside path or go swimming. There's a lifeguard on duty during daylight hours.

    Bodyboarding, skimboarding and surfing are popular at Balboa Beach, but surfing is banned from 11 a.m to 6 p.m. in the summer. That may make the surfers unhappy, but it makes things a lot calmer for everyone else.

    People also like to go fishing from the pier, which is open from early morning until midnight.

    Balboa Beach is almost in the middle of town, so it's easy to split your time between the beach and a bite to eat or a little shopping. Or go play at the Balboa Fun Zone.

    Beach bonfires are also allowed, but you can only burn charcoal which causes less air pollution than wood. "Lump" style charcoal burns better than briquettes. Using a paraffin starter will eliminate that lighter fluid smell.

    What You Need to Know Before You Go to Balboa Beach

    No alcohol is allowed on the beach, so you can leave your cooler at home unless it's full of soft drinks.

    Pets aren't allowed on the beach, so they should probably stay home, too.

    Balboa Beach is a well-liked place for swimming lessons in summer, and the beach around the pier can be overrun with kids taking classes. To avoid them, set yourself up away from the pier.

    Water quality at Balboa Beach is good. If you have concerns, you can check the most recent report card at the Heal the Bay website

    How to Get to Balboa Beach

    Balboa Beach is in the Balboa Peninsula area of Newport Beac, which is sometimes called Balboa Island even though it isn't technically an island. To get there, set your GPS for Ruby's Diner at 1 Balboa Pier, Newport Beach.

    More details at the Balboa Beach website

    Continue to 2 of 6 below.
  • 02 of 06

    Laguna Main Beach

    Sunny Day on Main Beach
    ••• Sunny Day on Main Beach. jmpm3/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

    Main Beach is a busy, urban beach in the middle of downtown Laguna. This small beach attracts a lot of visitors, especially in summer. It faces a broad cove that faces southwest.

    On weekends, artists and street musicians set up along the boardwalk. At night, Main Beach's waterfront walk is a destination for strolling sweethearts.

    People who like Main Beach talk about how close it is to downtown. They also say the sand is immaculate. Their only complaint is that it's difficult to find parking nearby.

    One of its best characteristics is its location. It's literally in the "main" part of town, just across the street from plenty of restaurants and shops.

    What is There to Do at Laguna Main Beach?

    Main Beach is an excellent place to enjoy the ocean and sun. Lots of people play volleyball here. To enjoy it without getting sand in your shoes, you can take a ride on the bike path.

    A lot of people like to go swimming at Main Beach. A lifeguard is on duty during daylight hours. The...MORE colored flag on the lifeguard station will help you now when it's safe to swim. Don't go out if it's yellow or red. Surfing and skimboarding are allowed, but a shallow sandbar offshore keeps waves small and makes surfing difficult.

    You can rent beach equipment nearby. There's also a playground and a basketball court. If you come to the beach with kids, they can work off some energy on the playground. Tidepools are at the north end.

    What You Need to Know Before You Go to Laguna Main Beach

    Main Beach sometimes has a lot of seaweed on it, which attracts annoying small flies. At high tide, the north end of the beach can get cut off. Jellyfish can also be a problem. Check the postings at the lifeguard station in the middle of the beach for warnings.

    This beach has no entrance fees. You may have to pay for parking nearby.

    Pets are allowed, except during the busy season when they are banned 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., June 1 through mid-September.

    Water quality is generally good at Main Beach. In case you're concerned, you can check the latest water quality warnings at the Heal the Bay website.

    Smoking is not allowed.

    You can't bring alcohol onto the beach. Laguna Beach police enforce this strictly. They may search your bags and cooler.

    You may find tar on the beach. Check your feet when you leave before you track it everywhere.

    How to Get to Laguna Main Beach

    Main Beach is at Pacific Coast Highway and Broadway Street in downtown Laguna Beach.

    To get there, take Pacific Coast Highway from other Orange County beach towns, or from I-405 or I-5, take CA 133 West to Pacific Coast Highway. On busy days, you may be better off to park in the shuttle lot on Highway 133 and take the free shuttle to the beach.

    Main Beach Website

    Continue to 3 of 6 below.
  • 03 of 06

    Huntington Beach State Park

    Huntington State Beach
    ••• Huntington State Beach. Joe Wolf/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

    Huntington State Beach is a long, narrow beach extends for miles just south of the city of Huntington Beach. There's an electric power-generating station just to the east, but since you'll probably be looking at the water most of the time, it doesn't create much of a visual distraction.

    Near the south end of the beach is a natural preserve for the nesting-place of the California Least Tern. The area is fenced off to protect the birds, but you can watch them with binoculars.

    The sand is raked daily at Huntington Beach State Park, so you'll usually find it clean. Unfortunately many visitors can't say the same thing about the restrooms which are often described as dirty or stinky. Bring hand sanitizer and hold your breath.

    What is There to Do at Huntington State Beach?

    Huntington Beach is good for swimming and there's a lifeguard on duty during daylight hours. However, dangerous rip currents can form, and the state parks website says aquatic rescues are "more than...MORE common."

    The beach is also good for surfing and bodyboarding. To keep swimmers safe in the summer, surfing is banned. You can go for a walk on the oceanfront path or ride a bicycle there.

    You'll find concessions stands on the beach and places to rent beach equipment. You'll also find volleyball nets and a basketball court.

    Bonfires are very popular in the fire rings here. You may have to stake your claim early on summer weekends. In fact, some people say you need to be there at the crack of dawn when the parking lot opens. It's better to burn charcoal which causes less air pollution than wood. "Lump" style charcoal burns better than briquettes. Using a paraffin starter will eliminate that lighter fluid smell.

    If you have a California fishing license, you can go surf fishing at Huntington Beach - as long as no one is swimming nearby. Fisherman can catch perch, corbina, croaker, cabezon and shovelnose guitarfish.

    What You Need to Know Before You Go to Huntington State Beach

    The beach has no entrance fee, but you will have to pay to park.

    Restrooms and showers are available. 

    Pets are not allowed on the beach.

    You can't take alcohol onto the beach.

    Water quality is good at Huntington State Beach in dry weather. In case you're concerned, you can check the latest water quality warnings at the Heal the Bay website.

    The sand sometimes has bits of rocks and seashells in it, which makes wearing shoes a good idea.

    If you want to go surfing, check the surf report here.

    Offshore oil rigs are a little unsightly, and you may find occasional tar balls on the beach. Check your shoes when you leave, before you track it everywhere.

    How to Get to Huntington State Beach

    Huntington Beach State Park is on Pacific Coast Highway, just south of the city of Huntington Beach. To get there from I-405, take Beach Boulevard west to Pacific Coast Highway and turn left. The four parking lot entrances to Huntington Beach State Park are at Beach Boulevard, Brookhurst, Magnolia and Newland Streets.

    Huntington Beach State Park Website

    Continue to 4 of 6 below.
  • 04 of 06

    Bolsa Chica Beach

    Busy Day at Bolsa Chica Beach
    ••• Busy Day at Bolsa Chica Beach. Jeff Turner/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

    In Spanish, Bolsa Chica means "little pocket," and this little pocket is full of gems. To start, Bolsa Chica State Beach has 1-1/2 miles of shoreline and a 350-acre marine estuary. It's also a major stopover for birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway.

    Top to that off, Bolsa Chica State Beach is one of the best places to surf on the Orange County coast, especially for beginning surfers and people taking surfing classes.

    Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve is across the street from the state beach. It covers about 1,300 acres of open water, mudflats, salt marsh, coastal dunes, seabird nesting island and marshes. More than 200 bird species have been seen there. Docents lead bird-watching tours there on the first Saturday of every month.

    What is There to Do at Bolsa Chica Beach?

    Bolsa Chica is good for all kinds of water play: swimming, bodyboarding, windsurfing and surfing. A lifeguard is on duty during daylight hours.

    A paved beachside trail runs for 8.5 miles between Bolsa Chica and...MORE Huntington State Beaches. You can ride a bike or walk on it. It's for gentle cruising only, with a strictly enforced speed limit of 5 mph.

    The beach has 200 fire rings where you can have a bonfire in the evening. They're available on a first come, first served basis. Locals say you need to get there as soon as the gates open if you want to use one on busy weekends. You can buy firewood at nearby stores and gas stations. You can also burn charcoal which causes less air pollution than wood. "Lump" style charcoal burns better than briquettes. Using a paraffin starter will eliminate that lighter fluid smell.

    If you have a California fishing license, you can go surf fishing for perch, corbina, croaker, cabezon, shovelnose guitarfish and sand shark. Bolsa Chica State Beach is one of the best places to watch the annual grunion run. That's when hundreds of tiny, silver-colored fish come ashore to spawn when the moon is full. You can catch them - but only with your bare hands.

    What You Need to Know Before You Go to Bolsa Chica Beach

    Bolsa Chica Beach has 50 campsites with electric and water hookups for self-contained RVs.

    You'll pay an entrance fee at Bolsa Chica and state parks passes are not accepted.

    The beach has restrooms and showers. There's also a snack bar.

    No pets are allowed.

    Alcohol is not allowed.

    Water quality is good at Bolsa Chica, but in case you're concerned, you can check the latest water quality warnings at the Heal the Bay website.

    If you want to go surfing, check the surf report here.

    Stingrays sometimes come into the shallow water. They're a flat fish that isn't aggressive, but will strike if disturbed. The stings are painful, but shuffling your feet as you walk may scare them away.

    How to Get to Bolsa Chica Beach

    Bolsa Chica State Beach is on Pacific Coast Highway between Golden West and Warner Avenue. To get there, exit I-405 at Beach Boulevard and turn right onto Pacific Coast Highway.

    You'll find a paid parking lot on Warner Avenue.

    Bolsa Chica State Beach website

    Continue to 5 of 6 below.
  • 05 of 06

    Huntington Pier Beach

    Huntington Pier at Sunset
    ••• Huntington Pier at Sunset. Adapted from Zen Sasaki/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

    The Huntington Pier beach - and the surf that breaks around it - is the biggest reason that the city trademarked the name Surf City. Even before that, Huntington Beach was the place that rock and roll duo Jan and Dean had in mind when they recorded their 1960s hit song "Surf City."

    With a red-roofed restaurant at the end, Huntington Pier is one of Orange County's most scenic piers. It stretches 1,850 feet into the Pacific Ocean, which makes it one of the longest piers on the West Coast.

    People like the Huntington Pier and talk about how scenic it is. Photographers also like it, especially at sunset. Many locals say it's the best place to go to the beach in Orange County.

    If the pier looks oddly familiar to you, it has been used in television shows that include "90210", "The CW", "Betty White's Off Their Rockers" and "The Real Housewives of Orange County."

    What is There to Do at Huntington Pier Beach?

    One of the most popular things to do at...MORE Huntington Pier is surfing. But it's not the only thing you can do there.

    The beachside trail is good for bicycling, skating or just walking. You can also take a walk on the pier. People also play volleyball on the beach, and it's a good place to fly a kite. You can try fishing from the pier and you don't need a license to do it. You can get some tips about it here.

    You can swim near Huntington Pier, and there's a lifeguard on duty during daylight hours. It's also fun to watch the surfers. When an expert surfer gets the right combination of waves, they sometimes "shoot" the pier, riding a wave from one side of the pier to the other, avoiding collision with the pier's supporting pilings on the way.

    What You Need to Know Before You Go to Huntington Pier Beach

    The beach has no entrance fee, but you will have to pay to park.

    Restrooms and showers are available.

    You can't take alcohol onto the beach.

    Pets are not allowed.

    Surfing is banned south of the pier in summer.

    If you want to go surfing, Check the surf report here.

    The surfers who hang out north of the pier are a pretty tough lot, with little tolerance for beginners. If you're not an expert surfer, you may be better off to head for Bolsa Chica instead.

    Heal the Bay gives Huntington Beach a good grade for water quality during dry weather. In case you're concerned, you can check the latest water quality warnings at the Heal the Bay website.

    On a weekend when the weather is warm and clear, get there early. Otherwise, you'll spend a lot of time searching for a place to park.

    Offshore oil rigs are somewhat unsightly here, and you may occasionally find tar on the beach.

    Events at Huntington Pier Beach

    How to Get to Huntington Pier Beach

    Huntington Beach and Pier is on Pacific Coast Highway, in the city of Huntington Beach. To get there from I-405, take Beach Boulevard west to Pacific Coast Highway and turn right. The parking lot entrances are at First and Fifth Streets.

    Continue to 6 of 6 below.
  • 06 of 06

    Best Orange County Beaches by Type

    Huntington Beach and Pier
    ••• Huntington Beach and Pier. Adapted from Corey Seeman/Flickr/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

    Orange County beaches may almost be as much of an icon as Disneyland. With lots of beaches in Orange County to choose from, you may have a hard time picking one or two to visit during your vacation. We've compiled a list of the best Orange County beaches by type and interest to help you choose.

    Best for Amusements

    Balboa: A beautiful pier with a restaurant on the end and the nearby Balboa Fun Zone give plenty to do here.

    Best for a Volleyball Game

    Huntington State: Lots of clean, soft sand and plenty of nets here.

    Best for Birdwatching 

    Bolsa Chica: Located just across the street from a major stop on the Pacific Flyway, this place is really "for the birds."

    Best for Bonfire

    Huntington State: A night bonfire on the beach is one of the best things to do in Orange County, and they've got plenty of places here to build your blaze.

    Best for Kids

    Balboa: With an excellent beach, a pier and the nearby Balboa Fun Zone, there's a lot here to keep the kids occupied.

    Best for Kids or a...MORE Bonfire

    Aliso Beach Park: Located south of Laguna Beach, Aliso is easy to access, with a super-convenient (paid) parking lot close to the sand. You'll find lots of soft, clean sand, benches and fire rings that are easy to get to. Tidepools are on the south end, and the nearby Sand Cafe will be welcome when you have played so hard that you're hungry. For busy days, there's more parking just across the street. Or park on Coast Highway and walk down the steps. You can also get to Aliso Beach on the Laguna Beach shuttle. it's stop #17.

    Best for People-Watching

    Main Beach, Laguna Beach: This small beach in the middle of downtown Laguna attracts a variety of people, and on the weekends, you'll find artists and musicians there, too.

    Most Romantic

    Main Beach: This small beach just off downtown Laguna Beach is popular with lovers for evening strolls.

    Best for Surfing

    Huntington Pier: Huntington Beach is so proud of its surfing heritage that they've trademarked the name "Surf City, USA." Hardcore local surfers do their stuff near the pier. They don't tolerate interlopers well, and beginners are better off to head to Bolsa Chica Beach, where many local surf schools give lessons.

    Orange County Beaches to Bare it All

    There aren't any no nude beaches in Orange County. Your nearest option is Blacks Beach in San Diego.