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. Fall 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 kilometers 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 of Coronado feels like a private world surrounded by perfect beaches, including the ultra-family-friendly Coronado Beach. As well as 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 reception area and grounds on your own, or join a guided tour offered by the Coronado Historical Association; guides share anecdotes of 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 perfect for sipping a craft beer with views of the Pacific. Not far from the Del, the Loews Coronado Bay Resort sits on its own 15-acre peninsula and is known both for its water sports and for being especially dog-friendly.
The diminutive island, reached by the arching Coronado Bridge, is easy to explore by bike. Hire one from Holland’s Bicycles to pedal past elegant ocean-front mansions and well-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 such as Il Fornaio Coronado and Peohe’s have extensive views of San Diego’s city-centre skyline across San Diego Bay.
Travel tip: traffic on the San Diego-Coronado Bridge can be heavy, especially on summer weekends. Flagship Cruises will ferry you from Ferry Landing, across the Bay, to the Embarcadero. 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.
La Jolla is (so many) different things to different people. Posh shopping? Browse the boutiques along Girard Avenue. At La Jolla Shores, surfing, snorkeling and white sand beaches with made-for-sunset fire pits (and an adjacent park playground for the kids). Kayaking? Explore the sea caves; like everything else in La Jolla, placed in perfect proximity (La Jolla Kayak will take you there). Broadway quality productions? The La Jolla Playhouse. World-class art (with an equivalent view)? The La Jolla branch of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. Kid-friendly aquarium? Birch Aquarium, affiliated with the world renowned Scripps Institution of Oceanography, is one of the best. Hiking to the wind-whisper of Torrey Pines among 809 hectares of ocean front preserve? Golfing among the same whisper? Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve and Torrey Pines Golf Course. A place to hang after the sun goes down? How about next to the fireplace at Mustangs & Burros at the Estancia La Jolla Hotel, or the famed Marine Room right on the beach at La Jolla Shores? And don’t leave, because you have to start the next day with buttermilk pancakes and coffee and a bluff-top view at Caroline’s Seaside Café.
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 kilometers. 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 harbor 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 favorite 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 there 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 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 125-foot/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.