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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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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 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, 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.