Sand, water, and kids—it’s a natural combination for easy family fun. This sandy dozen offers appealing, family-friendly features, such as calm water for new swimmers, tide pools for intrepid explorers, picnic grounds for family gatherings, wetlands alive with birds and butterflies, and, in some cases, concessions for full-day sustenance. Many of these beaches are state parks—be sure to check hours and seasonal facility openings before heading out.
This hidden sandy cove on the eastern side of Point Reyes National Seashore faces calm and protected Tomales Bay and the rolling hills of Marin County. Kids love the trek down through the forest, the freshwater, seasonal stream running into the bay, and the long sandy shore. Parents love the lack of waves and gentle slope into the water.
Heart’s Desire is great for wading and swimming, with bay water that, while not warm, is certainly warmer than the adjacent Pacific. Hiking trails lead to several neighbouring beaches. Note that this is a popular spot with limited parking that tends to fill up quickly on holidays and weekends—if you can carpool with other family members, do it.
Tip: Make plans to coordinate with others before you get to the park; cellphone service is spotty at best.
With its sugary sand and idyllic setting—edged by wind-carved cypress trees and bluffs topped with quaint cottages with billion-dollar views—this roughly 1-mile/2-km-long crescent is a great place to relax and play. Kids love to build sand castles just above the surf line, or splash in the usually tame breakers (just know that the water is quite chilly—hovering just below 60°F/15.5°C, even in summer).
Carmel Beach isn’t just a paradise for people; this is a canine fun zone too—the dog-friendly beach finds owners tossing tennis balls and romping with their furry pals. It can be foggy here, especially May through August, but stick around and the sun often peeks through. Autumn and winter days are often clear, crisp, and beautiful. Parking, especially during summer and on weekends, can be a challenge as the official parking lot isn’t that big.
Farther south, Carmel River State Beach is a more secluded option, with silky sand dunes and a host of seabirds, including marbled godwits, brown pelicans, tiny sanderlings, and black oystercatchers (see if you can spot their long, fire-engine-red bills).
The idyll of Southern California beaches, Crystal Cove State Park is 3.2 miles/5.1 kilometres long, with an undulated oceanfront dotted with tide pools and secret coves. Kids can beachcomb and explore, play in the usually friendly surf, fly kites, and see what surfcasting fishermen reel in. The park also includes a trail network that heads inland—popular routes for hiking, horseback riding, and mountain biking.
At night, families can stay at one of dozens of restored 1930s-era beach cottages in a historic compound (just plan well ahead; cottages are offered by lottery and rent out months in advance). Or try your hand at beach camping and pitch a tent on bluffs with sweeping ocean views. The Beachcomber Cafe is right on the water and serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner—and cocktails, of course, if you’ve had a long day of dashing after the kids.
With its signature natural bridge standing just offshore capped by dozens of flapping and squawking pelicans and cormorants, this waterfront parkland makes a lively and beautiful destination. Add nearby grasslands with trails snaking through tall milkweed plants that naturally attract more than 100,000 monarch butterflies each year (usually October through February) and you’ve got a junior naturalist’s delight.
"Kids can spend hours just peering down at the pools, waiting for some interesting sea creature to dart by."
Natural Bridges also has great tide pools filled with colorful sea anemones, sea stars, hermit crabs, and other fascinating finds. Kids can spend hours just peering down at the pools, waiting for some interesting sea creature to dart by. The fine sand is perfect for building a waterfront masterpiece, and the breezy, wide-open space is usually a great spot for flying kites. Picnic on the beach, or use grills in a setback area nestled among eucalyptus and pine trees.
The special kid-friendly appeal of this beach, also known as Hendry’s Beach, goes beyond the picturesque setting. Besides the safe swimming, beginner surfing, and chance to cast a line, there are trails to explore and a Watershed Resource Center with educational programs that highlight the importance of protecting California’s beaches and shoreline.
After playing on the brilliantly sunny sand for a bit, take a break in the shady picnic area and playground. Mom and Dad can make a note (and maybe a date) to come back for a visit to Boathouse Restaurant for a Blood Orange Margarita or a Honeycomb Mojito, followed by ultra-fresh seafood.
The action at Crissy Field never stops. Children and dogs (they don't have to be on a lead here) flock to the inviting water’s edge of San Francisco Bay, or they tug on kites flying in the spirited winds that blow through the nearby Golden Gate. Kite surfers take off from the beach to catch the winds here too. Expert surfers ride the waves underneath the Golden Gate Bridge at adjacent Fort Point. Joggers and bicyclists pass by families picnicking on the lawn while children play tag and do cartwheels on grassy open spaces.
It’s hard to believe that this was once the paved-over airfield of The Presidio, a sprawling Army base that’s now been transformed into national parkland. Now, Crissy Field is a perfect place to take in views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, watching yachts and freighters zoom by at eye level, while sipping a cocoa or a latte from the nearby Warming Hut Cafe.
Like an island getaway a stone’s throw from the city, the appealing island community feels like a private enclave wrapped with perfect beaches, including ultra-family-friendly Coronado Beach. Besides those soft sands, the island’s crown jewel is the Hotel Del Coronado, built in 1888 and topped by russet red, castle-like turrets. Explore the lobby and grounds on your own, or join a guided tour offered by the Coronado Historical Association; docents share tidbits on the Del’s remarkable history and guest list (including Marilyn Monroe, who starred—alongside the hotel—in the 1959 comedy Some Like It Hot). The Del also serves a sumptuous Sunday brunch, and the Babcock & Story bar is fine for sipping a craft beer with views of the Pacific.
The diminutive island, reached by the arching Coronado Bridge, is easy to explore by bike. Rent one from Holland’s Bicycles to pedal past elegant oceanfront mansions and tended gardens, or visit Orange Avenue, lined with shops, restaurants, galleries, and theatres. More shops and art galleries are located at Ferry Landing, and restaurants like Candelas on the Bay and Peohe’s have expansive views of San Diego’s downtown skyline across San Diego Bay.
Travel tip: Traffic on the San Diego-Coronado Bridge can get thick, especially on summer weekends. Flagship Cruises will ferry you from Ferry Landing, across the Bay to Seaport Village. Water taxis are available too.
The great wide blue and pounding surf of the Pacific on one side; a sweet curve of sand around warmer, calm waters on the other. And in between, plenty of run-around room, a chance to try surfing, or build a bonfire on the beach with your family.
Kids love splashing around on Silver Strand’s calm San Diego Bay side, known as Crown Cove. On the Pacific side, Coronado Surfing Academy gives lessons on the how to hang-ten on usually friendly breakers.
Note that access to the bay side is through pedestrian tunnels; be prepared to carry your gear from the large parking area to that beach, if that’s where you want to spread out. Once there, pavilions, grills, picnic tables, and fire pits are available. A beach side cafe opens on summer weekends; you can also rent boogie boards to keep the kids happily splashing for hours.
Although technically part of San Diego, the community of La Jolla feels like a destination unto itself: You could easily spend a few days in this enclave and get a full Southern California experience—along with a walkable village of hotels, shops, and cafés that possess a sophisticated vibe.
For starters, La Jolla (pronounced la HOY-uh) has a prime perch on San Diego County’s coastline. Located about 20 minutes north of downtown, La Jolla is home to the wide, white-sand beaches of La Jolla Shores, with surfing, snorkeling, and made-for-sunset firepits, as well as an adjacent playground for kids. Head out onto the waters with one of the local operators, like La Jolla Kayak or San Diego Bike and Kayak Tours, and paddle or snorkel among La Jolla’s marine denizens, from colourful garibaldi to (harmless) leopard sharks. To see more aquatic critters while on land, explore the Birch Aquarium, affiliated with the renowned Scripps Institution of Oceanography, or stand along the sea wall at beach known as The Children’s Pool, and watch a large community of seals lounge, bark, and tend to their cubs.
The seals live right next to the heart of La Jolla, the hilly village areas known as The Cove and Bird Rock. The ocean is still in plain view amid the shops, eateries, and places to stay—like La Valencia Hotel, the Mediterranean-style “Pink Lady” that once hosted World War II soldiers about to ship out, as well as Hollywood A-Listers like Gregory Peck. Shop in the upscale boutiques along Girard Avenue and Prospect Street, or dine at beloved George’s at the Cove, farm-to-table WhisknLadle, colourful taco haven Puesto, or seafood-rich Nine-Ten.
Don’t miss the cultural stops, too, like the La Jolla branch of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Warwick’s (the nation’s oldest family-owned bookstore), or the local art galleries such as Legends Gallery, where you can see out-of-the box paintings by the late Theodore Geisel, the longtime La Jolla resident better known as Dr. Seuss. (Insider tip: Look at the unique flora around La Jolla to see what may have inspired Seuss’s whimsical plants and trees).
Some must-stops in La Jolla stretch beyond the Cove. The Marine Room, in La Jolla Shores, offers incredible “high tide” brunches and dinners where the tall waves crash into the giant windows as you eat. To the north, tee off at Torrey Pines Golf Course (which will host the U.S. Open again in 2021), next to the sumptuous Lodge at Torrey Pines.
Or, go see a future Broadway hit at La Jolla Playhouse, located on the University of California San Diego campus. Co-founded by Gregory Peck in 1947, the theater has been the birthplace of a long list of crowd-pleasing and Tony Award-winning hits, from The Who’s Tommy and Thoroughly Modern Millie to Jersey Boys and Come From Away. Come for one of its Page-to-Stage performances to watch (and offer feedback on) works still in progress. You can even bundle in a dinner of fresh seafood or a Kobe burger at the theater’s on-site James’ Place, helmed by acclaimed sushi chef James Holder.
Another great option: Hike the ocean-view trails at the Torrey Pines State Nature Reserve, under the shade of the rare, long-needled pine trees that are common in this little pocket of the Golden State.
Take a stroll along Santa Monica’s signature pier at sunset, that enormous sun sinking into the Pacific, and you’ll probably wonder if it can get much better than this. But wait; it can. Right here. First, there’s an amusement park—perched right on the pier—called Pacific Park, with not-too-scary roller coasters and classic carnie rides that make a nice mix even for little ones. Then there are incomparable views from atop the pier’s solar-powered Ferris wheel. On weekends, you can join free historical walking tours to learn more about the pier, which dates to 1909. And then there are those simple pleasures—a creamy thick shake, a simple necklace of seashells—at snack shacks and trinket shops lining the pier. And there are the local fishermen adding color to the scene; hang out for a while and you’re bound to hear some good yarns and watch some slippery fish reeled in. Find out what those fish might be by heading under the pier (directly below the turn-of-the-20th-century wooden carousel), to the inviting Santa Monica Pier Aquarium, with some 100 species of fish and aquatic animals, and lots of family-friendly educational displays.
And then of course, there’s the beach, a broad expanse of pale yellow sand lining the coast for 3.5 miles/5.6 kilometres. For the complete beach treatment, explore the ocean atop a paddleboard (various rentals and lessons are available) or go VIP with your own Perry’s on the Beach Butler service.
Besides being Santa Barbara’s most visited landmark, Stearns Wharf brings new meaning to fresh seafood—fishermen drop off their daily catches at the harbour just down the road—and ordering a round of authentic fish-and-chips is a must. Take in the view at the pier from the historic wharf, which was built in 1872, before letting the kids visit the many shops to pick out favourite trinkets and souvenirs.
Join the locals and rent bikes to pedal along the famous beachfront, or pose for selfies in front the iconic dolphin statue at the base of the pier. This is also a great place to try standup paddleboarding, with rentals available from various companies, including Santa Barbara Adventure Company, which also offers guided kayak trips. East Beach is perfect for families—the sand is soft and inviting, and the surf is gentle. It’s also the spot to come if you’re into art; local artists show and sell their works here on Sundays.
A wide beach and splashable waves are always inviting; add a colourful boardwalk with rides, games, and music—well, how can you say no? Not many people do—this popular waterfront boardwalk is a summertime ritual for countless California families, a wonderful way for you to relax and play just like the smiling locals. While there are countless attractions lining the historic boardwalk, the big star is the Giant Dipper, a burly wooden coaster first opened in 1924 and generating screams, squeals, and squinched-shut eyes for decades.
These days, it’s not the only thrill ride in town; the boardwalk also features the 38-metre-high Double Shot tower for heart-in-throat adrenaline lovers. For tamer rides, especially for little ones, take a spin on the painstakingly restored 1911 Looff carousel (yes, that’s real horse hair in the tail of your painted steed). A noisy but fun indoor arcade offers laser tag, mini-golf, skee-ball and countless video games. Peace out with a ride above it all in the overhead Sky Glider funicular (providing GoPro-worthy views of the beach, rides, and Santa Cruz Mountains. On Wednesdays in summer, stick around for free outdoor movies on the beach; and on summer Fridays, for free concerts.