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We asked, you answered: Your favorite California beaches

An artist paints a cove surrounded by trees at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Inspiration is easy to find at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve.
(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

By Rachel Schnalzer

Good morning, fellow Escapists. When I moved to California, I quickly learned that the best beaches — beaches with the most expansive views, rideable waves and favorable crowds-to-sand ratios — were rarely the ones featured on postcards in airport gift shops.

For the record:

3:54 p.m. Aug. 2, 2022This story originally included a photo of the Lone Cypress at Pebble Beach with an incorrect caption that said it was Point Lobos Natural Reserve.

Instead, I heard about all of my now-favorite beaches by word-of-mouth from friends and fellow travelers. It’s how I found my way to gems such as Hendry’s Beach in Santa Barbara and Little Dume Beach in Malibu.

Over the past few months, I’ve been keeping a list of all the beaches and coastal areas recommended by readers — you’ll find many of them in this edition of Escapes, organized by distance from Los Angeles.

Would you like to recommend a beach or another spot in California you’ve discovered this summer? My inbox is always open for your suggestions.

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Whale spotters on a balcony on a clear day with illustrated yellow flowers in the foreground.
The Point Vicente Interpretive Center is just 10 minutes up the coast from Rancho Palos Verdes Beach.
(Photo by Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times; illustration by Ashley Cai)

Find a nearby treasure hiding in plain sight

Of course, L.A. travelers don’t need to venture far to find jaw-dropping beaches. Gail Robillard wrote in to share one of her favorites: Rancho Palos Verdes Beach, less than 30 miles from downtown L.A.

“The beach is small and not visible from the road,” Robillard said, which is part of its elusive charm. “Not a lot of people go there.”

You can visit the 1-acre beach via the Sunset Trail and Sunrise Trail, both of which can be accessed through Founders Park. With rocks and plenty of seaweed, it’s not the best for swimming, but it’s a tide pooler’s paradise.

“Just a gem of a beach!” Robillard said.

Visit when the tide is low for optimal viewing, and remember to be a respectful guest. It’s fun to marvel at the sea creatures that call tide pools home, but don’t touch them or tamper with their environment (for example, by turning over rocks). Walk carefully and make sure you aren’t harming any animals or plants. Read up on tide pool etiquette before you go.

A windmill stands on an undeveloped stretch of coast along Cayucos' Estero Bay with Morro Rock visible in the distance.
The drive along Cayucos’ Estero Bay offers striking views of Morro Rock.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Find peace and quiet along the Central Coast

Santa Barbara and Ojai are ultra-popular weekend destinations for Los Angeles travelers. Those on longer journeys seem to forge farther ahead to Big Sur, Monterey and beyond.

But there’s a peaceful expanse of coastline — a land of pines, bluffs and elephant seals — that sits between these regions.

Lots of travelers count it as their favorite place to visit in California. “My wife and I enjoy California’s Central Coast — Pismo Beach to Ragged Point,” wrote Mike Hamilton. “Even when it’s busy it feels uncrowded and quiet.”

A few of the top attractions? The Piedras Blancas Light Station and the Piedras Blancas elephant seal rookery, as well as the area’s crown jewel, Hearst Castle.

As for beaches, Montaña de Oro State Park in Los Osos is hard to beat. Anyone hoping to break a sweat will enjoy hiking up 1,347-foot Valencia Peak, while beachgoers often flock to Spooner’s Cove. If you’re lucky (and proactive), you may be able to snag a campsite.

Hamilton has been staying at the Seaside Motel in Cayucos “for years.” It has “reasonable prices and backs onto the ocean,” he writes.

If you go, he recommends visiting in late summer and early fall, though he notes, “We’ve even had extraordinary weather at times in January.”

Cliffs and a bridge border the coastline.
One of the most famous sights along Highway 1 is Bixby Creek Bridge, completed in 1932.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Splurge in Big Sur

There are lots of expensive places to stay on a drive through Big Sur. But there’s only one Post Ranch Inn, as travelers have told me.

I haven’t stayed at the luxe cliffside lodgings, but Chuck Kloeris has. He sent me an email in April, extolling the posh virtues of the inn.

“I stay in the ‘Ocean Houses,’” he wrote. “It’s really surreal being perched … above the most beautiful California coastline.”

In addition to its elegant accommodations, Post Ranch Inn is known for its pool and two “infinity spas,” as well as its guided outdoor activities — such as yoga, meditation and even a falconry program — all with the bluffs, trees and beaches of Big Sur as a backdrop.

With stays starting at $1,650 per night for the rest of the summer, the inn is a pretty huge splurge for most travelers.

Is it worth the money? If you can afford it, go for it — and stay for more than just one night, Kloeris said. “Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur costs a ridiculous amount of money to stay, dine, relax in the serenity pools, and roam the grounds, but I have never regretted one cent that I’ve spent there.”

Not interested in dropping so much money on a hotel? I remain a big fan of Fernwood Campground & Resort, tucked away in the forest and significantly easier on your wallet.

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A California sea lion yearling walks toward the water; in the foreground are  illustrated plants.
Sea lions are just one of the marine animals commonly spotted at Point Lobos.
(Photo by Justin Sullivan / Getty Images; illustration by Ashley Cai)

Marvel at California’s ‘most beautiful state park’

Last month, I wrote a round-up of seven must-try state park experiences in California, from wildlife spotting at Tule Elk State Natural Reserve to bike riding at Santa Monica State Beach.

Stuart Jenkins wrote in to share his favorite state park: “It’s like choosing a diamond among diamonds,” he said, “but I don’t think any list of the top parks in California can leave out Point Lobos.”

Featured on my colleague Christopher Reynolds’ list of the 101 best experiences in the Golden State, the coves, headlands and waters that make up Point Lobos State Natural Reserve are home to thousands of birds, plus seals, sea lions and sea otters (not to mention the migrating gray whales that pass by in the winter and spring).

Reynolds recommends walking from Whalers Cove to Sea Lion Point along the 1.4-mile North Shore Trail. “Keep an eye out for Old Veteran, a gnarled and grizzled Monterey cypress that clings to a clifftop,” he writes.

In Jenkins’ words, “I’m not sure there’s a more beautiful meeting of land and sea anywhere on the California coastline.”

Although there is no camping at the reserve, it’s possible to make diving and snorkeling reservations. Interested? Here’s more information.

Two adults sit on chairs and look through binoculars at the ocean; in the distance is an illustrated whale spout.
Two people overlook the Mendocino coastline, scanning the waters for whales, near the Point Arena lighthouse.
(Photo by Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times; illustration by Ashley Cai )

Cruise the Mendocino coast

Why are so many Angelenos traveling all the way to Sea Ranch, a “hidden modern utopia” in Northern California? Shortly after Times contributor Julie Wolfson answered this question in May, a few readers reached out to me, eager to share their favorite spots along the lush Mendocino coastline.

One small city that kept coming up was Point Arena, about 20 miles up the coast from Sea Ranch.

“It has a wonderful cove and harbor with beach access, a [public fishing] pier and a restaurant/taproom with a deck for amazing views,” wrote Paul Andersen.

Anderson recommends that, while in town, visitors explore Main Street and stop at mainstays such as the Arena Theater — a restored vaudeville theater dating back to 1928 — as well as the New Museum Brewers and Blenders.

His other recommendations include a bakery called Franny’s Cup & Saucer, a Japanese restaurant named Gama and the Wildflower Boutique Motel.

Andersen also suggests visitors hike and take in the “spectacular ocean views” at the Point Arena Stornetta lands, where you’ll see sea arches, the Garcia River estuary and more, along eight miles of paths.

On your way north from Point Arena, reader Bill Irwin recommends taking time to explore Manchester State Park, which boasts almost 18,000 feet of ocean frontage.

From there, it’s just 20 minutes to Elk, a tiny seaside community boasting a few upscale accommodations and Harbor House, a Michelin-starred restaurant and inn. In addition to savoring the restaurant’s dishes — made with locally harvested ingredients — Irwin suggests staying at the oceanfront Harbor House, which offers activities such as horseback riding on the beach, kayaking and fishing. It’ll cost you; rooms start at around $500 per night.

If your itinerary allows, continue farther north to Mendocino coast communities like Little River and Albion, Irwin writes. Ledford House — an ocean-facing restaurant on the outskirts of Albion — is well worth a stop.

Where are your adventures taking you this summer? Send me your travel plans and I may include them in a future edition of Escapes.


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