After a long winter of stay-at-home orders, Angelenos are raring to hit the road and ready to do whatever it takes to catch rays, waves, and vibes (not necessarily in that order). Now that the sun is out longer––hooray, it’s spring again!––and the state is opening back up again, it’s time to plan a few much-craved road trips and hit all of the SoCal beaches that we’ve so badly been missing. Check out our ideas for beach road trips from Los Angeles below and prepare to get inspired.
Going West and North
Santa Monica, CA
Not even truly a road trip in the real sense (yes, you have to get in a car to get there and all, but it’s basically next door), Santa Monica’s soft sands and family-friendly feel make it a perennially popular beach destination for Los Angeles residents. Since you’ve gone out of your way to get there, you might as well take a stroll down the pier after sunning yourself on the warm sand. Check out the original outdoor gym, Muscle Beach, or bike down to neighboring Venice Beach for some first-class people watching. While many of the attractions like Pacific Wheel, the solar-powered Ferris wheel, the Pier Aquarium, and Playland Arcade are either temporarily closed or operating at a limited capacity, we bet you’re more interested in being outside and unconfined rather than in a caged gondola a zillion feet above the ground anyway. Hit up Big Dean’s Oceanfront Cafe on the boardwalk for sundowners and plentiful outdoor seating.
Technically part of Los Angeles county but seemingly worlds away, Malibu is name-checked for its plethora of celebrity homes and stunning Spanish Revival architecture. That’s all fine and dandy, but we’re here for the pristine beaches. Experienced surfers should approve of the swells at Topanga Beach or Malibu Lagoon State Beach, which is also known as Surfrider Beach, so…. it’s, uh, popular with surfers. But for run-of-the-mill sunbathing, we’d recommend a visit to Zuma Beach instead. The expansive shorefront and notably clean water (sadly, a rarity in L.A. county) have made it popular with everyone, including the cast of Baywatch, who filmed here in all their red-tank-suited glory for years. If you’re up for an adventure and don’t fancy lying around Zuma all day, El Matador State Beach presents another option for exploring. With a long, winding staircase that extends from the cliffs above to the rocky, arched outcroppings below, this beach might be the most photogenic in all of the ‘bu.
If you decide to wander further afield, you won’t find a more epic stretch of road than the part of Highway 1, aka the Pacific Coast Highway, that runs between Malibu and Oxnard. Most of it borders the ocean, making for an especially scenic ride. If the drama of the coast (or vertigo from the cliff drops next to you) doesn’t halt you in your tracks, continue your ride up to Ventura. Surfer’s Point Beach offers serious board-riding opportunities, from regular surfing to windsurfing to kitesurfing. This spot is part of Seaside Park, also known as the Ventura County Fairgrounds, which spans 62 acres and hosts a big-draw county fair here every August. There’s not a lot of congregating allowed at the moment, so head over to Ventura Pier for a view of California’s channel islands from above the water instead. If you didn’t lug your gear, you’ll be able to rent body boards, beach chairs, and cruiser bikes at the pier. Stay put or take it back over to Surfer’s Point via bike trail if you prefer.
Santa Barbara, CA
A mix of mountains and pristine beaches, Santa Barbara feels like a little slice of paradise situated a touch more than two hours north of Los Angeles. For reliably clean water and a peaceful sunbathing experience, make your way to Arroyo Burro Beach County Park, which locals know as Hendry’s Beach. If you want a mix of relaxation and active pursuits, hike the trails through the bluffs above the beach, rent a kayak to explore the surrounding waters, or consider something more heart-pounding like hang gliding or paragliding over the sand. Don’t worry if you can’t muster up the courage at first––once you see how casually people are flying over your sunbrella, you’ll change your mind. After you've come down from the ensuing endorphin high, celebrate by heading to the Funk Zone, a hub of restaurants, galleries, breweries, and wine tasting rooms to toast your bravery.
Hermosa City Beach, Hermosa Beach, CA
Part of the three beach cities (Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach, and Redondo Beach) south of L.A. county, Hermosa Beach makes for a laid-back day trip that’s not far off the grid, around 45 minutes by car from downtown Los Angeles. Make your way straight to Hermosa City beach, a two-mile stretch of sand scattered with volleyball courts and peppered with surfers searching for perfect waves in the Pacific. This is a pet-friendly beach, so you can bring your quarantine puppy with you for some swimming as well. Once you’ve had enough sunbathing and wading in the water, head to the pier and take a peek at the Surfer’s Walk of Fame, plaques honoring the town’s surfing heritage, embedded in the floor beneath your feet. If you’re itching for some non-motorized wheels, hit the Marvin Braude Bike Trail, a paved 22-mile path that runs from Torrance in the south to Pacific Palisades in the North. This stretch of it is known as the Strand, and it’s bordered with relaxed eateries, bars, and shops, so you won’t need to stray too far if you work up an appetite or need a little retail therapy.
Santa Catalina Island, CA
Getting to Catalina involves multiple modes of transit, but it’s less complicated than it seems. Hop on the Catalina Express, a high-speed ferry, from Long Beach and you’ll arrive at Avalon, the town at the southern end of the island an hour later; your car will remain behind, parked inland for the time being. If, after the ferry, you fancy a little more time on the water, hire a glass-bottomed boat for some spectacular sea-life viewing without the hassle of kitting up in a wetsuit. Active pursuits like a nature walk up in the hills surrounding Mount Orizaba also beckon––it’s even possible to hike all 37-plus miles of the Trans-Catalina trail to the town of Two Harbors at the other end of the island if you’re really motivated. That said, it’s perfectly acceptable to bliss out on the powdery white sand of Descanso Beach in your private cabana.
Crystal Cove in Newport Beach, CA
The upscale Orange County city of Newport Beach is also home to the community of Crystal Cove, a registered historic district (*vintage enthusiasts take note*) that’s dotted with adorable and well-preserved retro cottages that can be rented for weekend-long getaways. Beach-wise, Crystal Cove State Park offers multiple shores to choose from: take your pick between Moro Beach (for paddleboarding and kayaking), Reef Point (best for bodysurfing), Historic District Beach (the easiest point of entry), and Pelican Point (if you think that a one-mile clifftop hike would make lazing on sand later feel more rewarding). The reefs here are a designated underwater park, which will make you glad that you lugged along scuba gear in the trunk. However, you can just as easily enjoy the water without major exertion, thanks to the bevy of tide pools. Forgot your foldout chair? Rent it (along with an umbrella) from the Beachcomber Cafe, where you can grab a bite after the beach, too.
La Jolla, CA
Attracted by the incredible weather and a prime oceanside location, vacationers from across the U.S., not just California, flock to La Jolla. Don’t let its popularity put you off––this place is a prime choice for a road trip, located only two hours south of downtown L.A. and 20 minutes north of San Diego by car. But let’s get back to the beaches: a stop at La Jolla Cove is mandatory. These protected waters (no boarding of any kind allowed here) host a wide array of marine life, the most famous of which being the much-photographed sea lions. Marine Street beach is better for sunbathing and volleyball thanks to its soft white sand and low-key, locals-only vibe. Black’s Beach is a somewhat isolated stretch of shore that’s famously ahem... “clothing-optional.” After the beach, take a self-guided tour around La Jolla village to peep the outdoor murals by renowned and up-and-coming contemporary artists. While you’re here, don’t miss out on a decadent al fresco brunch at institutions like The Cottage or Harry’s Coffee Shop. Prefer to do a tailgate-style picnic? Stock up with delicacies from Cheese Shop––and don’t forget their famous oatmeal cookies for dessert!