I’ve lived in Southern California for almost 20 years now and I love exploring the beaches—swimming in the salty water, tanning on the sand, wandering around local shops and eating lunch with the ocean in the background. All along the coast, from Los Angeles to Orange County to San Diego, there are pieces of paradise that draw tourists from around the world. I’ve always felt lucky to live in such a spectacularly perfect place.
Since I grew up going to the beach with my friends (and still like to do so now), I have some pretty serious opinions about which ones are the best for group travel and otherwise.
Main Beach, Laguna Beach
I wouldn’t say Main Beach is my favorite beach overall, but it is perfect as a group travel destination. While all of the beaches around here are stunning, there is something unique about Laguna’s beauty. A cove lies just north of this beach making it feel like it’s own secluded piece of OC shoreline. The vibrant blue of the water is unmatched by any beach in the area and when the sun sets, the sky glows every shade of pink, orange and purple as it sets behind Catalina Island. It’s an unreal sight. But beyond the beauty of the beach, it sits right across the street from downtown Laguna, which is filled with art galleries, shops and health-minded restaurants that are perfect for group exploration.
Corona del Mar, Newport Beach
One of the more wealthy areas of the famous Newport Beach, Corona del Mar is a longstanding favorite among those of any age—absolutely perfect for groups. Whether you drive down to sea level or take the stairs, prepare for a steep grade, but once you arrive, you won’t ever want to leave. (Trust me, I’ve spent endless sunsets and even sunrises in this wonderful place.) The beach here is also in a kind of cove with houses dotting the surrounding cliffs above. There is a jetty you can walk out on or you can watch the boats from the marina as they head out to sea. Easily the best aspect of Corona del Mar is Little Corona, a tiny cove that is reached by climbing over a massive rock formation. Kids and adults alike will feel on top of the world once they reach the apex and the cove itself is worth the climb. Little caves and rocks to climb in the water offer tons of fun—plus, if you’re lucky, you just might have the beach to yourself for a while.
Shell Beach, La Jolla
Shell Beach down in San Diego County is definitely one of my favorite beaches in the world. One reason for this is that the most stunning sunset I ever experienced was in La Jolla. The colors, the clouds and the cliffs definitely make it something special. But on top of that, it’s a great area for group travel because of a couple of special aspects. First of all, there is a park atop the cliffs that is always teaming with large groups enjoying picnics and parties, and everyone is especially friendly so your group may just make some new friends. But the real highlight of Shell Beach is the tide pools. Climb down some stairs and you’ll find yourself up close and personal with hermit crabs, starfish, sea anemones and more. It’s definitely exciting for families with children, but group travelers of any age will love watching the little critters wander in and out of the crevices below.
San Clemente State Beach, San Clemente
Day trips to San Clemente have been plentiful ever since I was a kid. With family in San Diego, it was the ideal halfway meeting spot for summer family get-togethers. Sometimes we’d eat at the seafood restaurants on the pier, but most of the time, we get there early, nab one of the covered wooden picnic tables (bonus: less direct sunlight means less sunburns!) and spend the day grilling hot dogs and burgers. There are some swings nearby for kiddos to play on and a swimming area next to the nearby pier. On top of that, you can get here easily without driving—there’s a Metrolink train stop right at the pier. Pair your beach day with a train ride for some extra fun that the kids will love. (Trust me, my cousin’s kids have to stop and watch every time a train passes by.) There are also some ice cream shops and restaurants right across the street from the train stop paired with the Spanish Colonial architecture that’s popular in south Orange County.
Santa Monica State Beach, Santa Monica
I’m actually not a huge fan of beaches in Los Angeles. I don’t know if it’s the insane traffic and ridiculous parking situations or the masses of people that flock there all spring and summer long, but I definitely prefer Orange County and San Diego for beach days. However, Santa Monica is a special place, mostly because of the famous pier. The beach itself is large and expansive, but there is so much to do here that it is a great spot for group travel—and travel here groups do! It’s often crowded, but that’s part of the charm. The pier has everything you can imagine: seafood restaurants, tourist shops, an arcade, an aquarium, even a small amusement park with a roller-coaster, a Ferris wheel, a carousel and more. There are photo booths and ice cream stands and fisherman and singers playing their guitar in the wind. With all of the activities at the pier and in the surrounding city, it definitely has something that every member of your group will enjoy.
Huntington State Beach, Huntington Beach
Known as Surf City U.S.A., this is a place for groups that want to get active. Take surf lessons together or relax on the sand and watch the pros. Huntington Beach is also a popular spot for windsurfing and stand-up paddle boarding. This also happens to be my favorite spot for ocean swimming; the rough waves provide a challenge and a good workout at the same time. If you want to stay active without going in the water, rent a bike or take a walk along the paved beach path that runs along the sand. After you enjoy your fun in the sun, you can head to downtown Huntington, which is well known for its nightlife. There are plenty of beach bars with happy hour specials and second-floor restaurants that have patio views of the beach. There are also plenty of ice cream and gelato shops along the main stretch.
Moonlight State Beach, Encinitas
I couldn’t end this list without including Moonlight Beach, another picturesque spot down in San Diego. This beach is pretty expansive and a great place for families with small children. The waves are pretty gentle so you can take them wading in the water or down to the wet sand to build sandcastles. There are also fire pits at Moonlight Beach so you can stay after dark, telling stories, singing songs and making s’mores by the fire. Of all the beaches in San Diego, this is the best option for a typical family beach day full of gorgeous views, sunshine and maybe some beach volleyball.