Oceanside, San Onofre, San Clemente, Huntington Beach
There are so many gorgeous beaches in Southern California. Many of them are State Beaches and charge $15 just to get in. And the ones clustered around San Diego and LA tend to be busy and overcrowded and small. So, avoid those and visit some of these excellent beaches instead.
Oceanside: Just North of San Diego, but far enough away that you aren’t dealing with a huge exodus of city dwellers (at least not on weekdays). It’s a nice chill kind of surfing town and the beach is long and skinny. There’s a surfing museum in town that had an excellent exhibit on women surfers when I was there. The set up was very simple but something about the way they told the life story of historic women surfers really made the whole thing seem so awesome. One woman in the pre-Gidget days was arrested and jailed for the swimsuit she wore while surfing which showed her thighs. Another woman didn't start surfing until she was a mother of two, but went on to win competitions. It just made me want to be a surfer. But gosh, who doesn't?
Up the coast on highway 1 is San Onofre State Beach. High on a bluff you can park and take one of a couple trails down to the shore below. It was deserted. Way down the beach I could see some surfers, but other than that I didn’t see another person the whole time I was there. It was such a warm day that I had to wade into the water. And after you get used to the initial shock of the cold, it’s really refreshing. There’s something about the Pacific. The waves can be so strong and it’s so cold and salty. I love it. After awhile of being attacked by the waves you have to dive under them to avoid being pushed around. And it’s so much fun. Do it. If you’re ever at the beach when it’s warm out, just wade in and get your hair wet. It’s a shame so few adults do it. Only surfers. I’m telling you, you are missing out.
San Clemente was just a little further up the coast, still closer to San Diego than LA, but it has a unique atmosphere all its own. It’s town itself is small and has a Spanish villa feel to it. The steep roads along the cliffs converge and run down to the pier. The pier is still wooden and old so that it sways with the waves. And the beach is wide and extremely long: perfect for a long walk. There’s a café just across the train tracks from the beach. The food isn’t extraordinary, but it’s fresh and cheap and there’s outdoor seating where you can see the beach and feel the ocean breeze.
Finally, I’ve included Huntington Beach, south of LA in Orange County. This is pretty much the culmination of the youth-filled surfer culture beach towns. I think it’s pretty much what everyone imagines when they think of California. The beach is very wide and at the end of the pier is a burger joint. There are tons of surfers that stick close to the pier and serious beach volleyball players take up the numerous courts around the streetside of the pier. It’s a real active tourist community and a kind of quintessential place (they market the town as “Surf City USA“). But there's an authenticity there that makes it worth a visit.