15 Underrated California Beaches

If you know anything about California, then you probably know a little something about the state’s most well-known beaches, such as Venice, Laguna, Stinson, and Ocean, just to name a few. But go on any given Sunday to these beaches and you won’t exactly have them all to yourself. Yet with more than 1,000 miles of coastline in California, there is no shortage of great beaches, some off-the-beaten-path, and others that are right under your nose. So today I feature a round-up of 15 underrated California beaches.

15 Underrated California Beaches

Pfeiffer Beach

Two words: Big Sur. That’s all you need to know about where it is to know that you should go. Pfeiffer Beach at one time was one of those places that you could blink and miss it, since it’s a few minutes off Highway 1 after you make the right turn down the narrow road. But with more people finding out about it and more visible signs, the secret is starting to get out. While it takes a few minutes to get to after turning off the Pacific Coast Highway 1, the spacious beach, beautiful Pacific Ocean views, and craggy cliffs towering over it make it more than worth it. The best time to go, however, is at sunset, when the sun beams through Keyhole Rock just beyond the breaking waves.

 Photo:  Justin Kern

Photo: Justin Kern

El Matador

Many travelers stop short of El Matador because of its location further north from Malibu, and therefore about an hour from most central parts of Los Angeles. El Matador isn’t just one big, long beach, but rather a series of beaches, or “pocket beaches,” lining Robert H. Meyer Memorial State Beach. On summer weekends it can get busy, but you’re more likely to be rubbing elbows with locals than tourists. Just be prepared for a 10-minute walk down steep staircases before you actually reach the beach itself.

 Photo:  Neil Kremer

Photo: Neil Kremer

Bean Hollow State Beach

There's more to the Bay Area beaches than just Stinson and Ocean, such as this state park beach that is located south of San Francisco and due west of San Jose. Unique to Bean Hollow State Beach are features you won't find on every California beach like a self-guided trail and tide pools. If you're lucky, you may even see a harbor seal. However, swimming is strongly discouraged due to the water temperature and strong currents.

Shaw’s Cove

Don’t go dismissing Shaw’s Cove simply because it’s in Laguna Beach. It’s considered one of the more tucked away beaches in Laguna, but that’s not even the best part. What's unique about Shaw's Cove is that it's one of California's better diving and snorkeling beaches, which isn’t something you can exactly do at most of California’s beaches with any luck. Protected from California’s big swells and with good visibility (by California standards), Shaw’s Cove is home to a reef where you’ll typically find an array of marine life, such as garibaldi fish, the state fish of California.

Endert’s Beach

Endert’s Beach isn’t a beach you’re just going to stumble upon on a trip to California. That’s because it’s 350 miles north of San Francisco near the California/Oregon border in the town of Crescent City. However, you’ll have to trade in your flippy floppies for your hiking shoes to get to this beach. The hike to the beach features sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean from atop bluffs overlooking it. But layer up, being so far north, this is more of a scenic beach than a sunbathing beach.

 Photo:  David Berry

Photo: David Berry

Rincon Beach

Located just south of Santa Barbara off Highway 101 is the small, curved beach known as Rincon. To the common beachgoer, it’s just another beach. However, go on a winter afternoon and it’s a different story, when it’s lined with surfers. That’s because Rincon is one of the highest-rated beaches for surfing on the west coast because of its long, right-breaking waves. If it’s good enough for Kelly Slater, it must be good enough for anyone, right?

Goat Rock Beach

That’s right, Sonoma not only has wine, but also beaches. Goat Rock gets its name from the large outcrop that sits just beyond the breaking waves, making the backdrop for many photos of it. It’s also home to a colony of seals, and because of that reason, dogs are not allowed. During migration season, you may even spot gray whales while perched from the cliffs above the beach itself. Because of the strong rip currents, however, swimming is prohibited here.

Moonlight State Beach

With so many beaches dotting the coastline of San Diego, it's hard to find one that's truly offbeat and underrated. Nonetheless, you can find more offbeat beaches in North County, where the crowds of tourists thin out, such as Moonlight State Beach in Encinitas. Its name actually comes from the early 1900s when locals would often come to the beach for moonlight picnics. That tradition continues decades later thanks to the fire pits along the beach. Generally speaking, however, Moonlight State Beach is a good day beach since it's so spacious and has ample parking, bathrooms and showers, volleyball and tennis courts, and a snack bar.

Dockweiler Beach

Like San Diego, it's no easy task finding an offbeat beach in Los Angeles. Dockweiler Beach, however, often gets overlooked because of its location a little further off Highway 1 than Malibu, Santa Monica, Venice, and the South Bay beaches. The downside, or benefit, depending on your style, are the planes flying in and out of LAX from above. The best perk are the fire pits, making it the only beach in Los Angeles with that feature. As such, you'll want to arrive early since it's first-come, first-serve.

 Photo:  Kat Sniffen

Photo: Kat Sniffen

Descanso Beach

Descanso Beach makes this list largely because it's an anomaly. That is, it's a California beach on an island! Santa Catalina Island, or Catalina, is a 22-mile-long island that's also just 22 miles off the coast of Los Angeles and accessible by plane or ferry from San Pedro, Long Beach, and Dana Point. Descanso is less large California-type beach and more beach club, existing as a sliver of a beach with chaise lounge rentals, cabanas, food and drink service, and adventure sports that include kayaking, paddleboarding, and snorkeling.

 Photo:  Tim Lawnicki

Photo: Tim Lawnicki

Avila Beach

Avila Beach sits amidst some of the Central California's most popular beaches, such as Pismo, Morro, and Cambria. However, its location a little further off Highway 101 makes it lesser-known to travelers. Just a half-mile long, Avila is situated in San Luis Bay in such a way that it's protected  from northwesterly winds by Point San Luis, making it one of the warmer Central California beaches. Avila Beach is home to three piers, though only Avila Beach Pier is intended for public use. It's not unlikely, too, that you'll see marine life that includes seals and whales.

Zmudowski State Beach

Zmudowski State Beach (pronounced mud-OW-ski with a silent “z”) is for the traveler who wants the satisfaction of being in Monterey but without any of the crowds. However, it does require driving 20 miles north of Monterey. The reward is an uncrowded beach amidst a series of sand dunes. While water activities can be hazardous due to strong rip currents, it's a great beach for wildlife lovers, as it's an estuary and natural preserve. Zmudowski State Beach's rather offbeat location makes it a great place to fish, as well as a great place to go horseback riding, which is allowed on the beach itself.

 Photo:  Webbcat

Photo: Webbcat

Corona del Mar State Beach

Corona del Mar State Beach is a cozy beach in a swanky Newport Beach neighborhood, living up to its “Crown of the Sea" name. Its location by the jetty at the mouth of the harbor makes it an ideal location for paddleboarders and kayakers because of the relatively calm waters in Newport Bay. The area also makes for great surfing, as back in the day, world-renowned surfing legend, Duke Kahanamoku, frequented the waters around Corona del Mar. Bonus points for a number of fire rings located on the beach. However, be aware that unlike many fire pits, the ones at Corona del Mar require charcoal, rather than wood.

Schooner Gulch State Beach

Schooner Gulch State Beach is a small, relatively unknown beach three miles south of Point Arena in Mendocino County. There's little more than a parking sign that indicates the beach, making this one of the most off-the-beaten-path beaches on this list. One trail goes to Schooner Gulch Beach, the shorter and easier trail of the two, and the other goes to Bowling Ball Beach, which is just that, a beach that looks like it's covered in bowling balls, but which are actually naturally-forming sedimentary rock formations. However, the last few steps down to Bowling Ball Beach can be difficult, since it's nearly a straight descent down. Make sure to go at low tide to get the best views of Bowling Ball Beach in its element.

 Photo:  John ‘K’

Photo: John ‘K’

Sand Dollar Beach 

Last, but not least, comes an offbeat beach in one of my favorite corners of California, Big Sur. It's a short hike (and descent down a steep staircase) to Sand Dollar Beach but the reward is a crescent-shaped beach beneath the craggy cliffs that Big Sur is so known for. One of the more spacious beaches in Big Sur, you won't find any sand dollars, but if you're lucky, you may come across jade or serpentine stones. Be aware, however, that there is a strong rip current here.

 Photo:  Ed Yourdon

Photo: Ed Yourdon

 What do you consider the most underrated California beaches?