California’s beaches are a picture-perfect setting for any vacation. But when you’ve got kids in tow, you’ll need more than just a great view.
These 10 California beaches are best for families because they’ve got calm, sheltered waters and plenty of things to do onsite or within walking distance. When you’ve had enough swimming and boogie boarding, brush off sandy toes and ride a roller coaster, spot migrating butterflies, check out elephant seals, hit the aquarium or play with dogs off-leash.
1. Heart’s Desire Beach, Point Reyes National Seashore
Families love this sheltered sandy cove on the eastern side of Point Reyes National Seashore near San Francisco. At Heart’s Desire Beach, there are no waves, the calm shallow water is warm by Northern California standards, and kids will find plenty of tide pools to explore. From the parking lot, it’s a short trek to the beach through a forest that has several trails overlooking the ocean and bay. Elephant seals haul out on beaches around the Point Reyes headlands to birth and mate from December through March. In spring you’ll see the females and juveniles molting.
Recommended Hotel: Tomales Bay Resort & Marina
2. Crissy Field Beach, San Francisco
This urban beach in San Francisco Bay is a photographer’s delight. You can capture the kids in action as they build sandcastles with the Golden Gate Bridge or Alcatraz in the background. There’s always a chance at Crissy Field Beach, as you’re framing your shot, that you’ll also catch a passing kite surfer, sailboat or slow-moving freighter. On chilly days, warm up with a hot cocoa or latte at the nearby café. The Palace of Fine Arts and Presidio are in the neighborhood and an easy add-on to your itinerary.
Recommended Hotel: Holiday Inn San Francisco Golden Gateway
3. Natural Bridges State Beach, Santa Cruz
Gorgeous any time of day, this quiet Santa Cruz beach is especially stunning at sunset when pink hues glow behind the natural bridge rock formations. The sandy stretch at Natural Bridges State Beach makes a great wide-open space for kite flying. Sea stars, hermit crabs and sea anemones fill the tidepools here. If you visit in late fall or early winter and hike the nearby trails, you could see the 100,000 monarch butterflies that rest in the park’s eucalyptus trees during their annual migration.
Recommended Hotel: West Cliff Inn, a Four Sisters Inn
4. Santa Cruz Beach, Santa Cruz
If you’re looking for the center of the action, you can’t beat the main Santa Cruz Beach & Boardwalk. We love that this classic family destination has something for everyone. On the boardwalk, ride on the old wooden Giant Dipper roller coaster, play mini-golf, go bowling, hit the arcade or suit up for a family laser tag duel. The adjacent wide, sandy beach is a great place to unwind or watch pro beach volleyball matches. In summer, catch free movies and concerts on the beach. Less than a 10-minute walk takes you to the Santa Cruz Wharf where you can stroll the pier, see sea lions and rent kayaks.
Recommended Hotel: Beach Street Inn & Suites
5. Asilomar State Beach, Monterey Peninsula
Part of a beautiful state park, Asilomar State Beach is a mile-long strip of soft, white sand and rocky coves. Kids can see anemones in tidepools or burn off energy during a family stroll on the coastal trail. A boardwalk winds through the protected 25-acre sand dune ecosystem. Stop in at the greenhouse and learn to identify the native plant species. This beach and the historic cottages and lodges across the street (now Asilomar Hotel & Conference Center) were part of a YWCA camp for girls in the early 1900s. See historic photos inside. From here you can join a park ranger-led tour of the state park.
Recommended Hotel: InterContinental The Clement Monterey
6. Pope Beach, South Lake Tahoe
If you’re planning a Lake Tahoe getaway, don’t miss Pope Beach. Its crystal-clear shallow water and protection from the wind make it a go-to destination for young families. Nearly a mile long, this sandy beach on national forest land is hemmed by shady pine trees and offers stunning views of the lake and the Sierra Nevada mountains. Spend the day swimming, cycling or boating. We love that the kayak and paddleboard rentals on the beach are affordable. In case you forget to pack snacks, you can hit the concession stand onsite.
Recommended Hotel: Camp Richardson Resort
7. Cabrillo Beach, Los Angeles
This small sandy beach near San Pedro is a great place for families to break from urban adventures. It sits on a thin peninsula near Point Fermin Park. On one side is the breakwater open to the surf. The harbor side is protected and calm, great for swimming. From the beach you can watch windsurfers and sailboats or see cruise ships and cargo ships come into the harbor. There’s good fishing from the pier. Stick around after sunset to build a campfire in one of the firepits. The Cabrillo Marine Aquarium is right behind the beach.
Recommended Hotel: BEST WESTERN PLUS San Pedro Hotel & Suites
8. Balboa Beach, Newport Beach
Miles of sand span Newport Beach, and the most popular stretch for families is Balboa Beach. It’s a great place to swim and boogie board. But there’s lots more for families to do beyond the beach. You can rent a bike and cruise the beachfront boardwalk, stopping off at Newport Pier and Balboa Pier for ice cream. Kids love Balboa Fun Zone, where you can try your luck at carnival games, ride the waterfront Ferris wheel, and get your fill of funnel cake. If you’re up for a day trip, board the ferry to Catalina Island.
Recommended Hotel: Balboa Bay Resort
9. Arroyo Burro Beach, Santa Barbara
To experience Santa Barbara like a local, plan a day at Arroyo Burro Beach (known as Hendry’s Beach among locals), where the kids can make a new furry friend. No matter what day you visit, you’ll likely find lots of dogs running around the off-leash section of the beach or getting a warm bath in the self-serve dog wash stations. The picturesque beach has safe swimming, a restaurant, trails to explore, and a Watershed Resource Center at the park entrance. The center’s educational programs show the effects of pollution and teach kids about protecting California’s creeks and shoreline.
Recommended Hotel: The Wayfarer
10. Seaside Beach, Encinitas
Parallel to Highway 101, Seaside Beach is a prime family spot thanks to its long flat slope and large parking lot with easy access to the sand—not too far to schlep all your sand toys and beach gear. This sandy strip in Cardiff State Beach is a lot less crowded than other beaches in San Diego’s North County. It’s known for swimming, boogie boarding and tidepool exploring. You can also watch surfers on the reef break. When you want a break from the sun, pack up and head to the San Elijo Ecological Reserve visitor center and learn about the lagoon on the other side of the highway.
Recommended Hotel: The Lodge at Torrey Pines
Jamie Moore is a Vancouver Island-based freelance travel writer. Her work has appeared in USA Today, Yahoo News, WestJet magazine, SmarterTravel, WhattoPack.com, and other media outlets. Follow her on Twitter, @jmemoore.