Best Beaches on the Central Coast

Balmy weather, glorious beaches, crystal-clear air, and serene landscapes have lured people to the Central Coast since prehistoric times. It’s an ideal place to relax, slow down, and appreciate the good things in life.

The Central Coast region begins about 60 mi north of Los Angeles, near the seaside city of Ventura. From there the coastline stretches north about 200 mi, winding through the small cities of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo, then north through the small towns of Morro Bay and Cambria to Carmel. The drive through this region, especially the section of Highway 1 from San Simeon to Big Sur, is one of the most scenic in the state. There’s no doubt that Big Sur has some of the most dramatically beautiful beaches in all of California. But much of the Central Coast looks as wild and wonderful as it did centuries ago, and visitors will have myriad opportunities to kick back and revel in the casual California lifestyle. Surf, golf, kayak, hike, play tennis—or just hang out and enjoy the gorgeous scenery.


Santa Barbara’s beaches don’t have the big surf of the shoreline farther south, but they also don’t have the crowds. The wide swath of sand at the east end of Cabrillo Boulevard on the harbor front is a great spot for people-watching. East Beach has sand volleyball courts, summertime lifeguard and sports competitions, and arts-and-crafts shows on Sunday and holidays. The usually gentle surf at Arroyo Burro County Beach makes it ideal for families with young children.



About 20 mi of sandy shoreline begins at the town of Pismo Beach. The southern end of town runs along sand dunes, some of which are open to cars and off-road vehicles; sheltered by the dunes, a grove of eucalyptus trees attracts thousands of migrating monarch butterflies November through February. A long, broad beach fronts the center of town, where a municipal pier extends into the sea at the foot of shop-lined Pomeroy Street.




Because the village of Avila Beach and the sandy, cove-front shoreline for which it’s named face south into the Pacific Ocean, they get more sun and less fog than any other stretch of coast in the area. With its fortuitous climate ‘ and protected waters, Avila’s public beach draws plenty of sunbathers and families; weekends are very busy. The seaside promenade is lined with shops and hotels.




This especially rugged stretch of ocean-front is a rocky world of mountains, cliffs, and beaches. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park provides some fine hiking, from an easy 1/2 -mi stroll with marvelous coastal views to a strenuous 6-mi trek through the redwoods. The big attraction here is an 80-foot waterfall that drops into the ocean.


Through a hole in one of the gigantic boulders at secluded Pfeiffer Beach, you can watch the waves break first on the sea side and then on the beach side. Keep a sharp eye out for the unsigned road to the beach: it is the only ungated paved road branching west of Highway 1 between the post office and Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Among the many hiking trails at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is a short route through a redwood-filled valley that leads to a waterfall. You can double back or continue on the more difficult trail along the valley wall for views over miles of treetops to the sea. The Big Sur Station visitor center, off Highway 1, is less than 1/2 mi south of the park entrance.