TRAVEL

A guide to Los Angeles, Orange County & San Diego's best beaches

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Is the beach big enough for swimmers and surfers? Southern California's coast has spots where you can do both -- though not always in the same place. Here are some beaches where water whirlers thrive.

Leo Carrillo State Park, north of Santa Monica ( www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=616).

"There's a little bit of everything" at this pristine 1.5-mile beach, says lifeguard Morag Sewell. Surfing and swimming are popular given the plentiful marine life, beautiful setting and excellent surf break at Leo Carrillo, named for the actor who played Pancho in the 1950s TV series "Cisco Kid." You'll also find kayakers, spear fishermen and divers, along with families camping in the nearby state park.

Hermosa Beach ( www.hermosabch.org).

This coastal town's beaches are great for sand play. Beachgoers use the bike path or volleyball courts on land, or head into the water to swim and surf, says lifeguard captain Christine Linkletter. The beach draws quite a diverse crowd, with swimmers and surfers about evenly represented. There are a lot of both, though, so get here early during summer months to stake your spot in the sand.

San Clemente State Beach, at the south end of San Clemente ( www.parks.ca.gov/? page_id=646).

This 2.5-mile stretch of Orange County coastline draws 20,000 visitors a day during the summer. "The locals are all about surfing," says Kevin Hoy, a lifeguard at San Clemente, "and we have a lot who come every day."

Out-of-towners are lured by swimming and the local pier, but the two groups get along well. Good surf, great sun and a laid-back atmosphere make this beach well worth a visit.

The Wedge, off Newport Beach. For a live cam, go to www.surfline.com.

This is affectionately known as "surfing's mosh pit." The waves are unpredictable and immensely dangerous for inexperienced swimmers, but they've made this Balboa Peninsula beach a mecca for bodysurfers. Most Southern California breaks max out at 8 to 10 feet during a summer's big south swells; the Wedge can throw up 20- to 25-foot faces that come down in a roaring barrel roll of water. On a good day, many visit the beach fully dressed just to watch the show.

Victoria Beach, off Pacific Coast Highway in Laguna Beach.

One of the best-hidden beaches in Southern California, Victoria is accessible only through sets of concrete stairs off Pacific Coast Highway. Laguna Beach locals have tried to keep visitors away, and they've done a good job. The beach is beautiful, broad and uncrowded. Throw in good surf and clean water (a solid "A" from Heal the Bay) and Victoria is well worth a visit -- if you can find it.

Manhattan County Beach, near the Manhattan Beach pier.

The area's beach culture is the main draw for many visitors, but those who bother to take a dip will find Manhattan's water clean and great for swimming. The beach also plays host to the AVP Beach Volleyball Tournament, and the sport's practitioners can be found here year-round. Manhattan can get very crowded during the summer, but the full California beach experience still warrants a visit.

Zuma Beach, in Malibu ( www.watchthewater.org).

One of L.A.'s best all-around beaches, Zuma offers good swimming and surfing. The area draws its share of tourists (especially on weekends), but at its heart the beach belongs to the locals, and it's rare to find a huge crowd. Zuma gets a lot of marine life, and frequent visitors are no longer surprised to find themselves swimming among dolphins.

Huntington City Beach, in Huntington Beach (www.ci.huntington-beach.ca.us).

At times this beach gets so overhyped that people forget how nice it is. When the city isn't playing host to the U.S. Open of Surfing or other numerous events, its beach is a great place to surf and swim. Off the sand lie countless shops, restaurants and entertainment venues, but the ocean is at the heart of the area's appeal.

Corona del Mar State Beach, in ritzy Newport Beach (www.parks.ca.gov/default.asp?page_id=652).

For those who tire of the main beach's crowds, a brief walk south leads to Little Corona del Mar, a secluded cove with great snorkeling and diving. The beach has lots of locals -- no one else can find parking.

Doheny State Beach, three miles from Mission San Juan Capistrano (www.dohenystatebeach.org).

This beach has two distinct areas. Its north end is a great place for beginning surfers and occasionally gets waves big enough for the pros. The south's wide, calm expanse provides a great area for swimmers. An interpretive center with aquariums entertains kids, while the beautiful coastline here keeps adults happy. The water can be less than perfect, though, so visitors should check current readings online when planning a visit.

Some places especially good for surfers:

Tourmaline Surfing Park, at the north end of Pacific Beach in San Diego (www.sandiego.gov/lifeguards/beaches/northpb. shtml).

This sheltered cove has been a popular surf spot since the 1940s and still draws big crowds. Older surfers, many of them longboarders, are well represented, but this is also a good place for beginners. It draws a much more local crowd than other surf spots in the area. Waves vary greatly depending on the season -- they're biggest in winter -- but this beach is worth a visit year-round.

Windansea Beach, La Jolla ( www.sandiego.gov/lifeguards/ beaches/windan.shtml).

This world-renowned surfing spot has been popular since the sport first took hold in California. Windansea draws an eclectic mix of old-time locals, La Jolla high school kids and tourists (foreign and domestic), all of whom seem to get along well. Though summertime crowds can get as big as the waves, experienced surfers don't seem to mind. And it's one of the most beautiful beaches in San Diego county -- as if you needed another reason to go.

San Onofre State Beach and Surf Beach (Old Man's), in San Diego ( www.parks.ca.gov/? page_id=647).

San Onofre is home to two renowned surfing beaches. Located toward the south of the park, near the nuclear plant, Surf Beach has smaller waves and draws an older crowd. "There are 70- or 80-year-old surfers that have been going here since high school," says Darrell Esparza, a San Diego lifeguard sergeant. The beach has good facilities, easy access and friendly tailgate parties. Less experienced visitors hone their skills knowing that their forefathers are watching over them.

Trestles Beach's greater fame and bigger waves draw a more intense crowd than Surf Beach, and it's no place for beginners. There are few facilities, and a long hike is required to get there, but those who do are rewarded with a great show. The pros here can be less than friendly with outsiders, so only experienced surfers should attempt the waves. It's some of the best surfing in the continental U.S.

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For a local beach report on surf conditions, surf to www.surfrider.org. For a "report card" on bacteria levels at Southern California beaches, see www.healthebay.org.

For a list of San Diego beaches and a description of each, go to www.sandiego.gov/lifeguards/ beaches.

For a list of L.A. County beaches, go to http://beaches.co.la.ca.us/bandh/main.htm.

For a list of Orange County beaches, go to www.ocparks.com and www.orangecounty.net.

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