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California's Greatest Beaches

There's so much more than sunbathing at these eight spots

Pescadero State Beach is a sandy mile-long shore, perfect for spotting sea lions and taking sunset walks. (Stanislav Sedov / Flickr / Creative Commons)

There's so much more than sunbathing at these eight spots

You could lay down a towel and read a book almost anywhere in California. But if you feel like getting a little more active—surfing, trail running, mussel harvesting—we’ve picked eight beaches that are worth pulling over for, listed from north to south.

Patrick’s Point State Park

Trinidad

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(Miguel Vieira/Flickr)

Patrick’s Point isn’t a warm, sunny, white-sand beach. Twenty-five miles north of Eureka, this 640-acre state park tends to be cold and breezy, but it has dramatic ocean views, beachside camping, and hiking among the redwoods of Humboldt County. Plus, when you visit during the regulated season, this zone is prime for abalone diving. If you’re lucky, you’ll even find mussels right on the beach.

Black Point Beach

Sea Ranch

terra-glamping.jpg
(Courtesy of Terra Glamping)

Black Point Beach is a long, cliff-backed beach off Highway 1 south of Sea Ranch. The waves are often big enough to do some modest surfing, or you can access an eight-mile coastal trail along the cliffs. Book a safari tent at Terra Glamping (from $250), a new luxury camp-hotel on a rocky cliff with views of the Pacific, and you’ll have easy access to the beach a couple miles down the road.

Bolinas Beach

Bolinas

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(Courtesy of Megan Michelson)

Thirty miles north of San Francisco, the turnoff from Highway 1 to Bolinas is intentionally unmarked. Though the village is famous for not wanting to be found, the beach is strikingly beautiful, rugged, and open to the public. Newbie surfer? Rent a longboard and a wetsuit at the 2 Mile Surf Shop or check out the stellar trail running at Mount Tamalpais State Park (just head straight for the Bootjack Trail). Afterward, grab fish tacos at the Siren Canteen in the base of a lifeguard tower on nearby Stinson Beach.

Pescadero State Beach

Pescadero

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(Stanislav Sedov/Flickr)

Before you hit the sand, drive into the little town of Pescadero, south of Half Moon Bay, and pick up a loaf of superlative artichoke garlic bread fresh from the oven at Norm’s Market. Then drive to Pescadero State Beach, a sandy, mile-long shore where waves crash into rocky coves, sea lions lounge on bluffs, and the sunset is worth sticking around for.

Sand Dollar Beach

Big Sur

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(Courtesy of Megan Michelson)

The $10 day-use fee tends to keep road-tripping crowds away from Sand Dollar Beach, as does the short, steep trail you’ll hike to access it. This spot south of Big Sur is great for hardy, cold-water surfing, but it’s also perfect for a picnic. Stock up on supplies at the Big Sur Bakery, and enjoy a slice of the rocky Big Sur coastline to yourself. At low tide, you can go for a decently long walk on the beach.

Jalama Beach

Lompoc

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(Pierce Martin/Flickr)

You can pitch a tent or rent one of seven county-owned cabins just steps from the sand at Jalama, a remote, dog-friendly beach an hour north of Santa Barbara. You’ll reach the water after 14 miles along a twisty road. Once you get there, the on-site Jalama Store has basic grocery supplies and a good burger.

San Onofre State Beach

San Onofre

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(Justin Meissen/Flickr)

San Onofre State Beach covers a vast stretch of sand near an active Marine Corps base. There’s good surfing at Old Man’s, a mellow longboard break with a welcoming vibe that’s less intimidating than nearby Trestles. A camping zone is down the beach, accessed via a separate entrance. After a sunrise surf session, hit up La Tiendita for a massive breakfast burrito.

Swami’s Beach

Encinitas

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(Phil Price/Flickr)

Swami’s Beach, famous for its surf break, is also a good spot for a beach run—you can link together a few miles in either direction. A meditation center is nearby, and Swami’s Café has great coffee and açai bowls.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the size of crowds at Swami's Beach, a popular surfing spot. Outside regrets the error.

Filed To: Beaches / California / Travel
Nicolas Henderson/Creative Commons )

San Marcos, Texas

Billed as the world’s toughest canoe race, the Texas Water Safari, held each June, is a four-day, 260-mile jaunt from the headwaters of the San Marcos River northeast of San Antonio to the small shrimping town of Seadrift on the Gulf Coast. There’s no prize money—just bragging rights for the winner. Any boat without a motor is allowed, and you’ll have to carry your own equipment and overnight gear. Food and water are provided at aid stations along the way. Entry fees start at $175 and increase as race day approaches.

The Ring

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(Courtesy Quatro Hubbard)

Strasburg, Virginia

The Ring is a 71-mile trail running race in early September along the entire length of Virginia’s rough and rocky Massanutten Trail loop. To qualify, you need to have run a 50- or 100-mile race before the event and win a spot through the lottery system. Entry is free. Complete the run and you’ll become part of the tight-knit Fellowship of the Ring and be eligible for the Reverse Ring, which entails running the trail backwards in the middle of winter.

Plaza2Peak

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(David Silver)

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Each spring, competitors gather in Santa Fe’s historic plaza with a simple goal: be the first to reach 12,308-foot Deception Peak, 17 miles and 5,000 feet of elevation gain away. Competitors run or bike the first 15 miles to the local ski area before transitioning to their waiting ski-touring setups for the final push to the top. Time stops only when they’ve skied back down to the tailgate in the resort’s parking lot, which is funded by the modest entry fee of around $25. To add to the sufferfest, some participants sign up for the Expedition category, in which they strap their skis, skins, boots, and poles to their bikes for the long ride up. Start dates vary depending on snow conditions, but look for the event page to be posted on Facebook in late March or early April.