A Guide to California's Coast

Map of the California Coast

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Everyone seems to have a different number for how long the California coast really is: The California Coastal Commission says "1,100 magnificent miles across ten degrees of latitude." Visit California says it's 1,264 miles long. If you include small bays and inlets, it gets up to more than 3,000 miles. While they may not agree on the number, they can agree it's a fascinating place for visitors.


If you want to drive along the California coast, most of your trip will be on the coastal highway. You may also want to check out ​California's lighthouses.

Fun Facts

  • More than 20,000 rocks and small islands offshore contribute to California's coast, with two main tourist attractions: Catalina Island, Channel Islands National Park. The popular attraction of Alcatraz is also an island, but it's inside the San Francisco Bay, not offshore.
  • California is home to 11 major ports. The combined ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach make up the sixth-busiest port in the world.
  • In parts of the Big Sur coast and north of San Francisco, the "coast" that you can reach is barely wider than the road that hugs the coastal mountains.
  • California's beaches and natural areas vary with its geography. In some places, the beaches are long and sandy, but in others, they can be rocky. Some are bordered with lagoons full of wildlife. A few are made of small pebbles.
  • Along the California coast between Monterey and San Francisco, farmers grow most of the brussels sprouts and artichokes produced in the United States.
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Places to Visit on the Northern California Coast

A red car drives on a highway near the Pacific Ocean.
Michael Hanson/Getty Images

The definition of Northern California varies depending on who you talk to. For the purpose of this guide, the line is at Carmel.

  • Eureka: This is a charming, small town full of Victorian-style homes.
  • Mendocino County: This coastal community has a rugged coastline along with several nice towns. It's the best place in California for rhododendrons in the spring.
  • Point Reyes: Stop here to see a scenic national seashore with a gorgeous lighthouse.
  • San Francisco: The City by the Bay lets the Pacific Ocean in under the Golden Gate Bridge.
  • Half Moon Bay: This is a small town surrounded by agriculture near one of the world's most famous big-wave surfing spots (the Mavericks).
  • Santa Cruz: Home to one of the best-preserved seaside amusement parks in California, it's popular with surfers—and home to lots of artists.
  • Monterey and Carmel: Monterey is a cannery town next to Carmel, which is a former artists' colony. Both places have lots of personality and things to do.
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Places to Visit on the Southern California Coast

Red car zooms down Bixby Bridge in Big Sur
Pgiam/Getty Images

 Starting from central Big Sur and going south, you'll find plenty of places to visit on the coast.

  • Big Sur: This is one of the most beautiful stretches of coastal scenery in the state.
  • Hearst Castle: William Randolph Hearst had a lot of money, and he spent a bunch of it building his castle by the sea. Today it's a popular state park with several interesting tours.
  • Cambria: Cute is the best word to describe Cambria, with an old-fashioned downtown and string of places to stay just across from the ocean.
  • Morro Bay: The bay around Morro Rock offers lots of water play—or just watch the fishermen bring in the daily catch.
  • Pismo Beach: A quintessential California beach town with a surfer vibe.
  • Santa Barbara: You could be excused for thinking you landed on the Mediterranean when you reach Santa Barbara. Famous for its red-tiled roofs and "banana belt" climate, it has a pretty waterfront park and a nice shopping area downtown.
  • Channel Islands National Park: These islands aren't too far offshore, but not many people visit, especially considering how many unique plants and animals live on them.
  • Malibu: There's a reason a lot of celebrities live along this sun-kissed stretch of Southern California coast, but they can't keep it all to themselves.
  • Santa Monica: Santa Monica's thriving arts scene, its seaside amusement park, and lively beach are just a few of its attractions.
  • Venice Beach: This spot is a funky, quirky, and fun place to visit. You're likely to see almost anything in Venice Beach, from rollerskating dogs to chanting Hare Krishnas.
  • Los Angeles South Bay: Angelenos like to keep these cute little beach towns for themselves, making them a nice little slice of local life.
  • Long Beach: This area has a fantastic aquarium and lots of oceanfront property—and even a fleet of gondola boats.
  • Catalina Island: Just 22 miles southwest from Los Angeles, Catalina feels much further away—it's so quiet and relaxing. But just to add a touch of quirkiness, the island has its own resident buffalo herd, too.
  • Newport Beach: The islands in Newport Harbor are so cute, and so is the four-car ferry that runs from Balboa Island to the mainland.
  • Laguna Beach: Upscale with lots of art galleries, Laguna also has some great oceanfront hotels and a beautiful, sandy beach to play on.
  • San Diego: San Diego's warm climate make it a perfect place for beach play and its coastline has some of the nicest sandy beaches you'll find anywhere in the state.