The California coastline is lined with stunning places to explore and these beautiful beaches on the Central Coast are not to be missed.
We spent many years with our extended family split between Northern and Southern California and so the Central Coast was our family vacation spot where we would meet up each summer. There are so many gorgeous Central Coast beaches to explore and I can’t wait to share our favorites with you!
The exact Central Coast boundary lines that separate it from the Northern Coast beaches and Southern Coast beaches is up for debate, but for the purposes of this article, we have covered the gorgeous beaches from Santa Cruz to Santa Barbara.
If you are interested in driving the whole Pacific Coast Highway from San Francisco to San Diego, you’ll find a road trip itinerary here.
Beaches on the Central Coast
Cowell Beach is a sandy beach that is located on the left side of the pier in downtown Santa Cruz. The views of the pier, Steamer’s Lane surf spot, and the Dream Inn nearby make for fantastic views. But before hopping in the water, check bacteria levels as they aren’t always so great on this beach.
Whether you’re an experienced surfer or just looking to catch some waves for the first time, Cowell Beach is a great place to hit the water. The consistent swells make it perfect for all skill levels, and there are plenty of surf schools and rental shops nearby if you need gear or instruction.
Cowell Beach is also home to several volleyball courts where you can join in on a game with friends or pick-up players. And if you’re feeling adventurous, sign up for a paddleboard or kayak rental and explore the bay from a new perspective.
When hunger strikes, head over to the iconic Santa Cruz Wharf just a short walk away from Cowell Beach. There are plenty of restaurants serving fresh seafood dishes that will satisfy any craving.
Santa Cruz Beach
Santa Cruz Beach is one of the most popular destinations for travelers looking to soak up the sun, sand and surf. The beach boasts a stunning coastline that stretches for miles and offers a range of activities that appeal to visitors of all ages. I first visited as a teenager and had the time of my life body surfing in the waves.
There are plenty of things to do at Santa Cruz Beach from surfing and swimming to hiking and exploring local attractions. One of the main draws is the Santa Cruz Boardwalk – an iconic amusement park that features dozens of rides, games, and eateries. You can also take a stroll along the pier or try your hand at fishing.
For those who enjoy being active, there are several hiking trails nearby including Wilder Ranch State Park which offers breathtaking views of the stunning coast. If you love a good urban stroll, a fun city scavenger hunt may be just the thing for your itinerary.
After working up an appetite, it’s time to indulge in some delicious local food! There are many options available near Santa Cruz Beach including restaurants like Stagnaro Bros. Seafood Inc., which has been serving fresh fish since 1937. Another popular spot is The Crow’s Nest Restaurant which offers stunning ocean views along with tasty dishes such as crab cakes and clam chowder.
Natural Bridges State Beach
Natural Bridges State Park is a beautiful oasis in Santa Cruz that offers stunning views of the Pacific Ocean and incredible natural wonders. Whether you’re looking for a relaxing day out in nature or an adventurous hike, Natural Bridges has something for everyone.
One of the park’s main attractions is its…natural bridges! These are three bridges formed by the erosion of waves and tides on rocky cliffs, creating unique arches that span across the ocean waters. The most famous bridge at the park is a sea arch that is still standing and can be seen from a lookout point near the parking lot.
If you’re up for a bit of hiking, there are several trails to explore throughout the park. One popular trail takes visitors down to the beach where they can witness tide pools teeming with marine life (a must-do with children especially). Keep your eyes peeled for sea stars, anemones, crabs, and other fascinating creatures!
Another must-see attraction at Natural Bridges State Park is its Monarch Butterfly Grove. Every winter season, from mid-October to January, thousands of monarch butterflies migrate to this grove to rest and breed before continuing their journey southward.
For those who enjoy birdwatching or want to learn more about local flora and fauna, take some time exploring Moore Creek Wetlands Nature Preserve within Natural Bridges State Park. Watch birds like egrets and herons as well as otters splashing in the surf.
The picturesque Monterey Bay boasts a stunning coastline, crystal-clear waters, and an abundance of marine life. Whether you’re planning a romantic getaway or a family vacation, there’s no shortage of things to see and do in Monterey Bay.
Experience the thrill of watching whales up close by taking a whale watching tour from Fisherman’s Wharf! From March – November every year humpback whales migrate into Monterey Bay to feed on krill making it the perfect time for whale spotting. Active travelers will enjoy exploring the infamous 17 Mile Drive on two wheels on this self-guided e-bike tour.
Lovers Point Park offers some of the best panoramic views of Monterey Bay Beach with beautiful scenery around you surrounded by natural beauty all around – from rocky cliffs rising out of turquoise water below cliffside paths woven through vibrant coastal vegetation above.
The world-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium is a must-see attraction for everyone visiting the area. The aquarium houses more than 35,000 animals and plants from over 550 species, including playful sea otters, majestic sharks, giant octopuses, and many other fascinating creatures. You can also take part in interactive exhibits like touching rays or feeding kelp forest fish.
Cannery Row is an iconic stretch that runs parallel to the Pacific Ocean famous for its historic cannery buildings which are now home shopping centers offering souvenirs restaurants serving fresh seafood with ocean views.
Known for its soft white sand, turquoise waters, and breathtaking views, Carmel Beach is an amazing beach on the Central Coast to spend a day or a week.
The soft white sand is perfect for sunbathing and building sandcastles. The water is crystal clear and ideal for swimming, surfing, or paddle boarding. And if you plan your visit during low tide, you can explore the tide pools filled with colorful sea creatures.
Another must-do activity in Carmel Beach is visiting the famous Pebble Beach golf course which boasts some of California’s most beautiful greens. Even if golfing isn’t your thing the course is still a beautiful place to take in the views.
For those who love food & wine (who doesn’t?), Carmel-by-the-Sea offers some amazing dining options ranging from casual eateries to upscale restaurants featuring fresh seafood caught right off these shores! There are also many local wineries offering tastings so make sure to try out some delicious wines as well!
Looking for a slice of paradise on the Central Coast of California? Look no further than Point Lobos State Reserve! This stunning natural reserve is home to some of the most breathtaking scenery in the state and offers visitors a wide array of activities to enjoy. Point Lobos is a magical place and one that our family could return to over and over again.
With over 13 miles of hiking paths winding through forests, meadows, and along rocky cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, there’s something here for every level of hiker. Bird Island Trail is a short easy loop with views of beautiful China Cove below and sea lions basking on the beach The South Shore Trail is perfect for seeing the contrast of jagged rocks against the turquoise water as well as watching for otters and whales.
Be sure to explore some of Point Lobos’ hidden coves and beaches. There are plenty of secluded spots where you can soak up the sun or dip your toes into crystal clear water.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
Welcome to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, one of the most stunning natural attractions on the central coast of California. Whether you are planning a day trip or an extended stay, this park offers plenty of activities and sights that will leave you in awe.
>> March 2023 Update: Many trails and large areas of the park are closed due the Dolan Fire and heavy rainfall. Check the state park update page before planning a trip and respect all trail closures.
Most travelers have Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park on their Central Coast beaches bucket list due to McWay Falls. This 80-foot waterfall cascades down onto a beach cove and is truly a sight to behold. Take a short hike on the Waterfall Overlook Trail to take in the incredible views. Please note, there is not any beach access.
There are are over 2,000 acres of rugged coastline terrain for you to explore here. A popular trail is Ewoldsen Trail which offers a moderate challenge but rewards hikers with panoramic views of Big Sur along the way. For those who prefer something more leisurely, pack a picnic and head down to Partington Cove Beach for some relaxation time by the sea.
With miles of pristine beaches and towering sand dunes, there’s plenty to see and do in this incredible destination. Whether you’re looking for outdoor adventure or simply want to relax and soak up the sun, Oceano Dunes has something for everyone.
One of the top things to do in Oceano Dunes is to explore the sand dunes themselves. These massive piles of sand offer a thrilling playground for adventurous visitors. Rent an ATV or dune buggy at Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area for an unforgettable off-road experience. Or grab a sandboard and try your hand at gliding down the steep slopes – it’s like snowboarding but with sand!
If you prefer a more laid-back experience, take a stroll along the shore or set up camp for a day-long beach party with friends. There are plenty of opportunities to spot local wildlife like sea lions, dolphins, pelicans, and even whales during migration season.
One of the more popular beaches on the Central Coast of Calfornia, Pismo Beach is a great destination among tourists and locals alike. This small beach town offers something for everyone, from stunning panoramic views to thrilling outdoor activities.
The main attraction of Pismo Beach is undoubtedly its pristine sandy shores. Whether you’re into sunbathing or surfing, you’ll find plenty of space to enjoy the waves and soak up some rays.
If you’re a wine enthusiast, make sure to visit one of the many wineries located in and around Pismo Beach. Check out the tasting room at San Liege. for a fan favorite.
Visit Monarch Butterfly Grove if you are in Pismo Beach during the winter months (November – February), Thousands of monarch butterflies flock to this grove and cluster together in trees before migrating north again come springtime.
Avila Beach is a hidden gem on the Central Coast of California. The beach is perfect for sunbathing, swimming, or just relaxing with a good book. You can also rent kayaks or paddleboards to explore the nearby coves.
The Avila Valley Barn is a charming farm that offers fresh produce, homemade pies, and other goodies like honey and jam. Kids will love visiting the petting zoo and feeding the goats. I had the best berry pie of my life there a few years ago – do yourself a favor and make sure you don’t pass it up!
The Bob Jones Trail is a 4-mile trail starts at a trailhead parking lot and runs along San Luis Obispo Creek through oak trees and rolling hillsides until it reaches the Avila pier downtown. It makes for an easy walk through a beautiful coastal town.
Located just south of Avila Beach, Point San Luis Lighthouse was built in 1890 to guide ships into port. It’s open for tours every Wednesday and Saturday. Guided hikes are also available for those wishing to learn more about the history.
Montaña De Oro is one of the most beautiful and scenic beaches on the Central Coast. Whether you’re a nature lover or an adventure seeker, this state park has something for everyone! The park’s name translates to “Mountain of Gold,” which refers to the wildflowers that bloom throughout the hills in springtime. Visitors can explore over 8,000 acres of rugged coastline and hike through miles of pristine wilderness. Bonus = there are no entrance fees!
The Montaña del Oro Bluff Trail is a favorite among hikers (it was our family favorite as well!) as it leads to panoramic views of the coastline from the bluffs.
Spooner’s Cove is a hot spot for tide pooling where visitors can explore the diverse marine life along its rocky shore. Kayakers can also enter the water here. Sand Spit Beach is also worth a visit.
The park is home to a variety of wildlife including deer, bobcats, coyotes, sea otters, harbor seals, dolphins, and whales during migration season (December through April). Keep your eyes peeled as you hike or stroll along the beach!
If you’re looking for an overnight experience within this gorgeous setting then camping at Montaña de Oro State Park might be perfect for you! With campgrounds situated near the beach or in groves beneath large eucalyptus trees that provide shade from the sun – there’s something here for every camper.
Morro Rock Beach
Morro Rock is a stunning geological landmark located on the central coast of California. It stands 576 feet tall and towers over the charming seaside community of Morro Bay. It’s a must-visit destination for anyone exploring the region, offering breathtaking views, wildlife sightings, and plenty of outdoor activities.
From various points around town, you can see this majestic rock rising out of the ocean. Head to Tidelands Park or Marina Square Park for picture-perfect views. For getting around town on two wheels, visitors can rent electric bikes to explore.
At the base of Morro Rock lies a beautiful sandy beach that’s perfect for swimming, sunbathing, and surfing. The waters here are relatively calm year-round, making it an ideal spot for families with kids.
For those looking for an active adventure, hike up Black Hill Trail which leads towards the summit where hikers can enjoy panoramic vistas .
Cayucos State Beach
Cayucos State Beach offers a perfect blend of natural beauty and laid-back atmosphere, making it an ideal spot for families, couples, or anyone looking to unwind.
Cayucos State Beach boasts miles of amazing coastline that are perfect for sunbathing, swimming, surfing, or simply strolling along the shore. The beach also features several picnic areas with fire pits and barbecue grills, as well as restrooms and outdoor showers.
For those interested in wildlife watching, Cayucos State Beach is home to a variety of birds such as pelicans and gulls. You might even catch a glimpse of dolphins or whales offshore during migration season!
Cayucos is not only about its gorgeous state beach; there are plenty more things to do around town! From antique shops to ice cream parlors offering delicious handcrafted flavors-this charming little coastal town has something for everyone.
San Simeon State Park
San Simeon Beach is a charming and picturesque destination that offers visitors a relaxing escape from the hustle and bustle of city life. With its pristine sandy shores, crystal-clear waters, and stunning views of the rugged cliffs that line the shore, it’s no wonder why this Central Coast beach is a favorite among many.
Whether you’re looking for a quiet spot to soak up some sun or for an activity like exploring tide pools and hiking trails, San Simeon Beach has something for everyone. Ocean kayaking at fishing from the pier are also popular recreational activities. For outdoor adventure lovers, San Simeon Beach offers hiking trails that wind their way through the forests. The area is also home to numerous tide pools filled with marine life like starfish, crabs, and sea anemones.
San Simeon Beach is also close to Hearst Castle. This luxurious estate was built by media magnate William Randolph Hearst in the early 20th century and now serves as one of California’s premier tourist attractions. Visitors can take guided tours through the castle and stroll through its sprawling gardens.
FAQs for Central Coast Beaches
What beaches are in Central Coast?
The Central Coast in California is lined with many beautiful beaches. Some of the most beautiful beaches and charming beach towns include Pismo Beach, Santa Cruz, Monterey, Point Lobos, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, and Natural Bridges State Park.
Why is Pismo Beach so popular?
Pismo Beach is a visitor favorite due to its large expanse of sand, beautiful water, and plenty of things to do. Walk along Pismo Pier, visit the Monarch Butterfly Cove, have lunch along the beach, and watch the sunset at Eldwayen Ocean Park.
Where should I go on the Central Coast?
Where you should go on the Central Coasts depends on the kind of getaway you are planning. For an active vacation, we recommend Santa Cruz or Pismo Beach. For a relaxing trip in a cute town, Carmel fits the bill. Photographer and scenic vista seekers, should check out Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in Big Sur.
Is Morro Bay worth visiting?
Morro Bay is always worth a visit! This small, charming beach town provides gorgeous sunset views on Morro Rock Beach, plenty of walking paths, fresh seafood on outdoor patios, and a close drive to lovely Carmel and historic Hearst Castle.