The Pacific Coast Highway 1 is one of the most popular drives in the United States and it provides an opportunity to explore the breathtaking scenery of the California coastline. The stretch beginning at Leggett and ending at Dana Point offers some of the most scenic highway views in the world with breathtaking beaches. Below are the 17 best beaches along Highway 1 you need to visit – listed from north to south as you enjoy your very own west coast USA road trip.
Best Beaches along Highway 1 in Northern California
1. Glass Beach, Fort Bragg
Glass Beach received its name from the tons of colorful sea glass that line the shore. Years ago, this beach used to be a dumping site for garbage, and over time, these dumped items have been beautifully smoothed and polished into small irregularly shaped pebbles that cover a large portion of the beach. Glass Beach is a rare example of trash being recycled into treasure. While it’s illegal to take any glass away from the beach, it makes for an excellent photo opportunity as you enjoy one of the best road trips from San Francisco.
2. Gualala Point Regional Park, Gualala
Set on a bluff overlooking the ocean, Gualala Point Regional Park is a great place to picnic and enjoy the views of the Pacific Ocean. There are also cypress trees and nature trails here, and you can often see whales spouting offshore. Large pieces of driftwood lie on the park’s long sandy beach. You can walk along the beach and it’s great for sunbathing, building sandcastles with the kids, playing frisbee, collecting shells, and just taking in one of California’s most spectacular coastal views.
3. Goat Rock Beach, Jenner
A part of Sonoma Coast State Park, the Goat Rock Beach is popular with families and dog owners, thanks to its soft sand and shallow water. The Sonoma coast here is particularly scenic, with its rocky outcrops and Goat Rock just behind the beach. One of the reasons Goat Rock Beach is so popular is because it has a little bit of everything, from coves to tidepools and river mouths. It is also known for harbor seals and sea lions that rest on the rocks offshore.
4. Baker Beach, San Francisco
Baker Beach offers spectacular views of the Golden Gate Bridge with plenty of space to sunbathe and play, as well as hiking trails that lead to more secluded spots along the cliffs. The northern part of Baker Beach is considered a nude portion of the beach where clothing is optional. Therefore, it’s a fun beach to visit in the San Francisco Bay area.
5. Dunes Beach, Half Moon Bay
If you want to be surrounded by the ocean on one side and sand dunes on the other, Dunes Beach is the place to be. A part of the Half Moon Bay Beach, this beach provides opportunities to fish, picnic and camp. The beach isn’t crowded and is cleaner than the others. To get to the Dunes Beach, you’ll have to slowly hike down a steep trail through the dunes but the sunset views make it worth it.
6. Shark Fin Cove, Davenport
The Shark Fin Cove beach is known for its shark fin-shaped rock in the center of the beach. It’s a steep hike down towards the beach. You can also check out the cave near the cliffs. Make sure to grab a flashlight when exploring the cave and hiking back up past sunset. Near the parking lot, you’ll also find old train tracks that make it a great place to take photos. If you don’t want to hike down, there’s a lot of space to walk around at the top. Shark Fin Cove is just right off of Highway one and you can park on either side of the road.
7. Natural Bridges State Beach, Santa Cruz
One of the best beaches in Santa Cruz, the Natural Bridges State Beach has a natural mudstone arch created by the Pacific Ocean over the years. The place is known for its monarch butterfly migrations where 150,000 butterflies find a sanctuary here between October and February. You can do all kinds of recreation at the Natural Bridges State Beach but the beach is best for windsurfing and kite flying due to the wind’s direction.
8. Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, Santa Cruz
The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk beach is known for having the state’s oldest amusement park right at the oceanfront. This beach is the perfect place to spend the whole day. It’s got 40+ attractions including amusement rides, arcades, games and bowling. If you’re visiting, make sure to ride 2 of its historic rides: the 1911 Looff Carousel and the 1924 Giant Dipper coaster.
9. Capitola Beach, Capitola
If you love colorful beaches, then Capitola Beach is the beach to be. The ocean is adjacent to Capitola Venetian Hotel that has bright colorful buildings. What’s even more beautiful is the building’s reflection on Soquel Creek. Visitors come to Capitola Beach to walk around or surf the waters. Walk to the Capitola Wharf for the Wharf House Restaurant for great seafood, amazing views and live music during the weekends.
Best Beaches along Highway 1 in Central California
10. Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur
One of the best things to do in the Big Sur area is exploring the Pfeiffer Beach – the purple sand beach. This beach is most popular for the Keyhole Rock. This rock has a small hole in the center, looking like a keyhole. The Pfeiffer Beach is beautiful during winter sunsets when the sunlight can be seen through the hole. There’s also beauty in the sand after a rainy day. You’ll find purple spots on the sand caused due to erosion of Manganese garnet.
11. Moonstone Beach, Cambria
Looking for beautiful moonstones? You’ll find so many of these smooth stones on Moonstone Beach which should be part of your central California coast itinerary. You can also walk the boardwalk above the beach and look out for gray whales, sea lions, sea otters and dolphins. The 2-mile boardwalk provides beautiful views of the ocean and beyond. It’s also accessible and dog-friendly.
12. Morro Rock Beach, Morro Bay
Morro Rock Beach is known for the huge Morro Rock that’s 581 feet high. Created from volcanic plugs, this rock was created millions of years ago. You aren’t allowed to climb this rock but just the view from below is gorgeous. While visiting, you might also find the Morro Rock Beach being used for photoshoots or weddings.
13. Pismo Beach, Pismo Beach
If you’re looking for a beach town, head to Pismo Beach. Located halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, this beach has got white sand beaches that stretch for miles. Choose one of Pismo Beach’s great places to eat, then drink wine and head to the Pismo Pier for sunset. Other than water activities, other fun things to do in Pismo Beach include horseback riding and ATV driving. Head to the Oceano Dunes SVRA to go off-roading on the beach and hike its sand dunes.
Best Beaches along Highway 1 in Southern California
14. El Matador Beach, Malibu
A popular Malibu beach, El Matador Beach is the place to be during the summer. On the beach, you’ll see sea stacks and caves. The beach is also surrounded by rocks of different sizes. With birds sitting on top of these rocks, the El Matador Beach makes it a scenic place to relax and take photos.
15. Santa Monica State Beach, Santa Monica
You’ve seen Santa Monica State Beach on TV and movies. This beach stretches 3.5 miles and has picnic areas, parks and playgrounds. You’ll also find locals swimming, surfing, or playing volleyball. Near the volleyball courts is the International Chess Park where you’ll find a human size chessboard and chess tables for the public to play. It’s only 16 miles away from Los Angeles and you’ll find the Santa Monica Pier here. The 1909 Pier offers amusement park activities including the 1922 Looff Hippodrome Carousel, the solar-powered ferris wheel and the steel roller coaster.
16. Venice Beach, Los Angeles
Visit Venice Beach for all the activities it offers on Venice Beach Boardwalk. This boardwalk gets about 30,000 people daily and over 10 million people annually! So what’s so special here? This 2-mile boardwalk attracts tons of street vendors and performers including musicians, mime artists and jugglers. Venice Beach has a skate plaza, a biking path, a fishing pier and an outdoor gym. Called the Muscle Beach Gym, this was once used by the actor, Arnold Schwarzenegger.And if you’re wondering where to stay in Los Angeles, this area makes a great home base.
17. Victoria Beach, Laguna Beach
A hidden gem and one of the best things to do in Orange County, Victoria Beach has got caves, a volleyball court, ocean pool and the Pirate tower. The 1926 Pirate tower is 60 feet high and built in Norman-style architecture. It’s a steep hike to get down to Victoria Beach. At the beach, you can surf, skim board, snorkel or swim. Then afterward you can head even further south and check out the Ho Chi Minh Trail to Black’s Beach in San Diego.
Conclusion: 17 Best Beaches along Highway 1
The California coastline is one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world, with some of its most beautiful beaches found along Highway 1. It might be difficult to choose the best beach along the California Coast since each beach sets it apart from the others.
But we hope that these 17 best beaches along Highway 1 have inspired your next beach trip!