California Beaches Locals Don't Want You to Know About
Every person who loved "The Hills" and "The O.C." swooned over the show’s opening shots of vibrant, luxe Orange County beaches. Driving down the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) through Southern California, however, it's too easy to find crowded parking lots packed with hordes of RVs in pay-by-the-day spots.
Where are the seaside jewels that are often compared to the French Riviera and other parts of the Mediterranean? Well, sometimes, you have to work to find glorious beaches relatively untouched by tourism.
To help you beat the crowds, we’ve rounded up the O.C. beaches locals love (and love to keep to themselves). Our advice? Don’t cheat yourself by trying to make this a day drive. Take a week to start at one end and make your way to the other. You won't be disappointed.
If you love the idea of antique shops and afternoon tea with your stretch of sand, Seal Beach is your spot. Residents have been known to claim that this friendly town — located at the northern tip of Orange County, 28 miles east of Los Angeles and just on the other side of Long Beach —is the best kept secret in Southern California.
Grab a gooey cinnamon bun and some dark roast at Jill’s Sweet Bakery on quaint Main Street before sauntering down the longest wooden pier on the West Coast. With a mile and a half of sandy beach from 1st Street through Surfside, you’ll also find ideal conditions for kitesurfing.
What you won’t find are a lot of places to stay. The closest to the beach you’ll get is The Pacific Inn, unless you’re lucky enough to book the rare vacation rental.
Sandwiched between the ocean and Huntington Harbour and bisected by PCH, the laid-back beach community of Sunset Beach has a population of just under a thousand and is home to one of the widest beaches in Southern California, perfect for sunset strolls, gathering seashells and watching the feats of local surfers. This beach also offers (limited) free parking and some quirky attractions, like a converted water tower with a 145-gallon aquarium.
Stay in one of the more affordable vacation rentals on the sand. One you’re settled, make reservations for dinner at Daimon Yojimbo for sushi, then rent kayaks to explore the harbor. And make sure to make time for a drink at Mother’s Tavern, a saloon flanked by motorcycles and frequented by those who ride them.
Little Corona Del Mar and Cameo Shores, Newport Beach
Little Corona Del Mar, a small cove at the end of Buck Gully Ravine, is aptly named and easy to miss. But snorkelers, scuba divers and tide-pool aficionados in particular will find much to love here. Check the tide schedules in order to get a first look at tide pools full of sea anemones, starfish and scurrying crabs with pink claws.
Still in the mood to explore? Make your way south across the rocky shoreline from Little Corona Del Mar, past the rock arch to Cameo Shores. This rock scrabble is the only public access to Cameo Shores Beach (though the beach is technically public, direct access is locked for residents of its gated community).
At high tide, most of the beach here is wet, but you might catch some of the local kids jumping off Cliff Island at the south end of the beach. If it looks like fun, this is a great time to make friends. The jump can be treacherous if you aren’t familiar with the area.
Moro Beach, Crystal Cove State Park
Just north of Laguna Beach, stunning Moro Beach was a mobile home community for many years. I used to drive down PCH wishing I could visit. My dream was realized when this state park opened in 2011.
Park your car or camper in the lot on the opposite side of PCH and walk through the tunnel underneath the roadway to access the beach. Lay out your towels at the southern end by the cliff so you can watch the birds. Go for a walk and take a swim — or better yet, hop onto a boogie board. The beach offers both services and snacks, so you’ll want to spend the day here.
Shaw's Cove, Laguna Beach
In the swanky coastal city of Laguna Beach, the locals would probably prefer that you kept to Main Beach with the rest of the tourists — but don’t worry, there are more than enough secluded spots to seek out. And because you can take the trolley from one end of the city to the other, where you stay doesn’t matter.
A well-known diving spot for locals, Shaw's Cove is only 500 feet long and the conditions can be hazardous, so be sure to bring some water shoes so you can walk across the break to the larger Crescent Bay if you want to spread out on the sand.
The Street Beaches, Laguna Beach
Imagine living in a city where the streets end at the ocean. You can realize that daydream in the city of Laguna Beach, where Thalia, Oak and Brooks Streets meet the sea.
When venturing to these beaches, be sure to strap surfboards to your roof and tuck a boogie board under your arm, because here, it’s all about doing. If you can hang, get in there, but know that the sand virtually disappears at high tide and the rip can be treacherous. It’s also totally cool if all you do is watch. Afterwards, grab a few fish tacos at Wahoo’s and head to the observation deck at Brooks to watch the sun set over the backs of wetsuit-wearing surfers who carried their boards down from their backyards.
Nearby, find Pearl Street Beach so you can see a famous blowhole and a rock arch that leads to Wood’s Cove at low tide. West Street Beach is a little harder to find, but also worth the trek. Historically known as Laguna’s LGBTQ+ friendliest beach, you’ll find a mix of folks, both queer and straight, on this unspoiled stretch of sand. Just know that there are no services, so you’ll want to bring a cooler full of snacks.
Wood’s Cove, Laguna Beach
The entrance to Wood’s Cove is a steep staircase between two houses, where Diamond Street ends at Ocean Way. At the bottom of the stairs, you’ll find a small stretch of sand, bordered by rocky cliffs. Come at low tide and wear your water shoes. Climbing the rocks at the north end of the cove will lead you to lush tide pools and Pearl Street Beach.
A walk to the south provides scenery romantic enough to have earned the nickname “Lover’s Cove.” Wood’s Cove is also one of the best diving spots in Laguna Beach. Keep in mind that it’s often crowded with locals on the weekend and the water can be dangerous, so be sure to check conditions before strapping on your goggles.
Victoria Beach, Laguna Beach
Victoria Beach is another Laguna Beach favorite, with one particularly enticing feature: a stone tower. Built by California State Senator William E. Brown in the 1920s to give his family easy access to the beach from their cliffside home, the medieval-looking tower still stands today. Though you won’t be able to access the tower, you can cool off in the concrete pool below, depending on the tide.
Public access to this stretch of sand and the “Pirate Tower,” as it’s known to locals, is a long set of stairs next to the house at 2713 Victoria Drive (look for the staircase at the end of Victoria Drive). Be sure to bring your camera, as this beach is as Instagram worthy as it gets.
Montage Beach, Laguna Beach
Not actually an official spot, Montage Beach is a name used to package the four beaches – Aliso Beach, Treasure Island, Goff Cove and Christmas Cove – you can walk to, depending on the tide, from the Montage Resort in Laguna.
You don’t have to book a room at this luxury resort to visit, but walking through the grounds to get to the beach stairs still feels illicit, as if at any moment someone in uniform is going to ask you to leave. Don’t give up. While Treasure Island and Aliso are the larger more populated beaches, the coves offer the dual gifts of solitude and plenty in the way of marine life and overall beauty.
Table Rock Beach, Laguna Beach
Tucked away in South Laguna, sandy Table Rock Beach is perfect for skimboarding beside stunning rock formations. If you’re into adventuring, you can climb over the rocky point at the south end of the beach to access another hidden lair of sand and an interesting arch rock.
If it’s low tide, you might be able to pass through that arch and over to Totuava Beach, which can currently only be accessed two ways – via this tricky route or from 1000 Steps Beach.
1000 Steps Beach, Laguna Beach
There are actually closer to 200 steps leading down to 1000 Steps Beach, a stretch of sand that holds fond memories for locals who grew up here. “We used to have high school parties there,” I was told by one such local, “because the stairs were too much of a hassle” for anyone trying to chase them out.
Those high schoolers are all grown up now and running these stairs at 9th Street and PCH for exercise before work in the morning. At the bottom of the stairs is a private stretch of sand bordered by two cliffs, the perfect spot for crashing out with a good book or playing in the waves.
What the locals won’t tell you is that at low tide you can pass through a sea cave at the south end of the beach and scrabble over the coastline to hidden pools carved into the rocks by a Hollywood director in the 1920s. Keep in mind that this can be a dangerous pursuit that should NOT be attempted without first checking the schedule of the local tides.
Monarch Bay Beach, Dana Point
A five-minute walk from Salt Creek Beach, Monarch Bay Beach is a public spot below a private beach club. Unless you’re a club member, you’ll have to park at Salt Creek and walk over.
When you’re parking it might seem like the place is jammed, but once you walk north across the park, the crowds start to thin out and it’s just you and yours. Continue walking north past the beach club past the boulder field and you’ll be rewarded with another sandy beach and some rock caves.
Lost Winds Beach, San Clemente
Lost Winds, aka Lasuens, is a small local access beach with no restrooms or showers but plenty of wide open sand. The entrance is another steep staircase between homes on a residential street. Across the Surfliner train tracks you’ll find volleyball courts and a lifeguard tower that’s only manned during peak season. Throw down a towel, watch the surfers and know that this is what it’s like to grow up in San Clemente.
Don’t believe me? Ask the girl waxing her surfboard beside you.