Best California Beach Spots

It may well be the most celebrated stretch of sand on the globe -- its praises sung in top 40 hits, its shimmering beauty immortalized on screens big and small. But even though the shoreline between Malibu and San Diego is famous and familiar, we suspected that it still harbors plenty of hidden gems for vacationing families. So we asked parents who are experts on this region to divulge some of their favorite kid-friendly places, from the prettiest tide-pooling cove to the ultimate flip-flop shop -- and, boy, did they deliver. For the inside scoop on going coastal, SoCal style, read on!

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Pint-size surfer at Doheny State Beach, Photograph by Sabrina Helas

Best Family Surf Spot: Doheny State Beach, Dana Point
This famed seashore (name-checked in the Beach Boys' "Surfin' USA") has easy-to-ride waves and enough room to make mistakes -- perfect for beginners and long-boarders alike (several shops along the beach highway rent gear). It's my husband and son's favorite spot to spend the day surfing the waves they call slow rollers. My daughter and I, though, would rather put our toes in the sand than on the nose of a board, so we explore the tide pools, play beach volleyball, or stroll to the Boneyard Café for a snack. In the fall we stop by the beautiful Butterfly Garden to visit with migrating Monarch butterflies. dohenystatebeach.org
-- Stephanie Callahan

Best Shake: Monkey Flip at Ruby's Shake Shack, Newport Coast
Spend the day at Crystal Cove beach, then wander over to Ruby's Shake Shack, situated on the gorgeous bluffs above the cove. This roadside refreshment stand has been a landmark to locals and coastal travelers since 1945. There's a slew of tempting options, but we love the Monkey Flip, an insider pick (it's not listed on the menu, so you'll feel oh-so-cool asking for it!) that blends banana, chocolate, peanut butter, and dates. With a side of sweet potato fries and a sunset view, it's a perfect way to end the day. As restaurant parking is very limited, consider walking there via Bluff Trail from the adjacent Crystal Cove State Park. rubys.com
-- John McKinney

Originally published in the August 2014 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

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The Roundhouse Aquarium on Manhattan Beach Pier, Photograph by Sabrina Helas

Best Pier Attraction: Roundhouse Aquarium, Manhattan Beach
Thanks to its carnival vibe, Santa Monica's pier gets the glory (and visitors), but families will appreciate the understated charm and 1920s design of the Manhattan Beach pier. This pedestrian-only extension of Manhattan Beach Boulevard juts 928 feet into the sea, but the real attraction is its surprisingly cool two-story Roundhouse Aquarium, featuring marine life found in the waters below. For a suggested $5 per family donation, my kids got to pet sea stars in the tide pool tank and see baby sharks. roundhouseaquarium.org
-- Graham Averill

Best Place for Beach Shoes: Rainbow Sandal Outlet, San Clemente
All flip-flops are not created equal. Californians wear Rainbow beach sandals all year round; they're comfortable and so well-made that they can last for years. The shop has a large inventory at discounted prices, hence the line that often snakes out the door. Men's, women's, and kids' sizes are available (we like the leather single-layer sandal with the narrow strap, which costs about $40). rainbowsandals.com
-- Rubyellen Bratcher

Originally published in the August 2014 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

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Supremely fresh fish tacos at Malibu Seafood, Photograph by Sabrina Helas

Best Fish Taco: Malibu Seafood, Malibu
A terrific alternative to nearby budget-busting ocean-view restaurants, this local standby serves up ultrafresh high-quality seafood of all kinds, including a perfect fish taco, topped with crunchy cabbage and a tangy crema sauce. Go before or after peak mealtimes to avoid the lines, then take your goodies out to dine on the beach or sit at one of the eatery's picnic tables and enjoy the million-dollar view of Malibu. Next door, Corral Canyon, an expanse of parkland that's part of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, offers great family hiking. malibuseafood.com
-- JM

Best Beach Camping: San Clemente State Beach, San Clemente
The Calafia Beach area at this state beach tops the A-list of many Cali families who love to camp. Located atop bluffs overlooking the ocean, the campground offers shade structures and generous fire pits, clean facilities, and, at the tent sites, breathtaking Pacific views. A short (but steep) trail leads to an expansive white sand beach. For train-loving kids, an extra attraction is the railroad line running along the shore. Bonus: Calafia is on the San Clemente Beach trail, a scenic, 4.5-mile loop. parks.ca.gov
-- Erika Kotite

Originally published in the August 2014 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

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Conditions are just right for stand-up paddling at Mother's Beach, Photograph by Sabrina Helas

Best Stand-Up Paddling: Mother's Beach, Marina Del Rey
Mother's Beach got its name for good reason: it's perfect for moms and kids. I came across it while seeking calm, shallow waters for my son's first ocean forays. A sweet playground, shaded picnic tables, accessible parking, and showers make it wonderful for tots. Now that my kids are older, we find this placid cove an ideal place to master stand-up paddleboarding, with rentals and lessons available right by the beach (we like Pro SUP Shop, prosupshop.com). We cruise the boat-filled harbor and sidle up to sea lions, then head to shore to have a bite at a nearby restaurant, such as the one at Jamaica Bay Inn. beaches.lacounty.gov
-- Cary Bickley

Best Daylong Adventure: Catalina Island
A trip to Catalina feels like a mini vacation. Ferries leave from Long Beach, San Pedro, or Dana Point, and in an hour to 90 minutes, you're on the island, home to wildlife that includes a herd of buffalo. The boat ride isn't cheap, but for my kids, it's a grand sea voyage. After landing, we like to rent golf carts or bikes to explore the town of Avalon and historical sites, such as the Catalina Casino. Then we hit the beach to swim, parasail, fish, snorkel, or kayak. An early dinner lets us catch the 7:30 ferry home, feeling as if we've really been away, even if only for a day. catalinachamber.com
-- CB

Originally published in the August 2014 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

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Staying frosty at N'Ice Cream, Photograph by Sabrina Helas

Best Frozen Treat: N'Ice Cream, Venice Beach
Sixteen flavors of gelato and sorbet are sold each day at this small shop on the boardwalk. You'll find everything from chocolate to stracciatella (we had to Google it), and the Girl Scout cookie--inspired gelato is not to be trifled with. But you'll like this place as much for its location as the sweets: the boardwalk has the best free entertainment in L.A. Let the kids design their own two-flavor milkshakes, then take a stroll to observe jugglers, musicians, painters, and who knows what else. ilovenicecream.com
-- GA

Best Bonfire Spot: Bolsa Chica State Beach, Huntington Beach
The pier at Huntington Beach is justly famous, but drive a few miles north, and you'll come to one of our favorite hangouts. Less crowded than the recreational areas that cluster near the pier, Bolsa Chica offers beautiful stretches of sand and the pure joy of saltwater swimming. Come evening, this is a magical place to treat kids to a bonfire right on the beach. Pick up firewood, hot dogs, and s'mores fixings at nearby markets Albertson's or Ralph's, then settle in at one of the plentiful first-come, first-served fire pits. If you have time to spare before sundown, explore the Bolsa Chica Wetlands, across Pacific Coast Highway from the beach, an important migratory stop along the Pacific Flyway for more than 200 species of birds. parks.ca.gov
-- EK

Originally published in the August 2014 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

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Ready to roll along the beachside Marvin Braude Bike Trail, Photograph by Sabrina Helas

Best Bike Path: Marvin Braude Bike Trail, Santa Monica and beyond
The splendid 20-mile-long Marvin Braude Bike Trail (aka the Strand) traces the broad shores of Santa Monica Bay. Along miles of sparkling sand fringed by palm trees, this paved ribbon stretches from Pacific Palisades to Torrance, inviting riders to experience SoCal beach culture to the max. A great place to begin is Santa Monica, where we like to pick up wheels at one of the oceanside bike shops such as Sea Mist Rentals (310-395-7076) right by Santa Monica Pier. For slo-mo sightseeing, beach cruisers are fine; for longer rides, get a bike with gears. And take a bike lock so that you can park and do plenty of exploring along the way. beaches.lacounty.gov
-- JM

Best Hamburger: The Corner Store, San Pedro
These days, you don't often see a neighborhood grocery store that's actually in a neighborhood. This beloved hangout is one of the happy exceptions. Founded in 1947, the once-humble dispensary of milk and eggs is now a café, with grocery staples still on offer. Choose a sandwich (the Walk the Plank features albacore tuna on squaw bread) or cut to the chase with a Frisco burger -- according to my 10-year-old expert, the best burger EVER. Wash it down with an old-fashioned soda or satisfyingly rich coffee. 310-832-2424
-- EK

Originally published in the August 2014 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

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Low tide is prime critter-spotting time at the Abalone Cove Ecological Reserve, Photography by Sabrina Helas

Best Tide Pooling: Abalone Cove Ecological Reserve, Rancho Palos Verdes
This 64-acre preserve 30 miles south of Los Angeles is like a slice of Hawaii on the California coast. Picture high bluffs towering above a rocky shoreline where caves and pools teem with sea life. You can see Catalina Island from up top, but the real fun is down at the water's edge. Hike Abalone Cove Trail from the picnic area to the beach, then walk to the pools clustered below Portuguese Point to spot crazily colorful sea stars, urchins, and crabs at low tide. Tip: Call the reserve in advance for help in timing your visit to low tide, when the pools are easier to reach. pvplc.org
-- GA

Best Low-Key Boat Ride: Balboa Island Ferry, Newport Beach Harbor
An inexpensive car ferry sails to this charming island town -- and, if you're quick about it, you can hop out of your car to enjoy the voyage. Some folks rent bikes to explore the narrow streets, but we find walking is just as easy. Stroll down the boardwalk, ride the Ferris wheel at the Balboa Fun Zone, stop in the little shops or restaurants on Marine Avenue, and grab a frozen chocolate-covered banana, one of the island's signature treats. We like to end the day on a quiet beach, admiring the homes along the water.
balboaislandferry.com -- RB

Originally published in the August 2014 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

This piece was accurate at publication time, but all prices, offerings and availabilities are subject to change. Please contact each hotel and attraction for up-to-date rates and information before taking your trip.