Warm summer breeze, white sand beaches, colorful sunsets, and picture-perfect palm trees – Southern California is the ideal playground for those who love the beach, sun, and surf.
As a SoCal local myself I should know! I’ve been chasing those epic beach sunrises and sunsets for years – sometimes to photograph for my Instagram account, but mostly because they are just so darn good!
Whether you are traveling to Southern California for a vacation, or you’re a local in search of new beach spots to relax at on the weekends, our guide covers 7 of the most beautiful beaches in Southern California.
Best beaches to visit and photograph in Southern California:
- 1000 Steps In Laguna Beach
- Inspiration Point In Corona Del Mar
- El Matador State Beach In Malibu
- Huntington Pier In Huntington Beach
- Abalone Cove Shoreline Park In Palos Verdes
- Victoria Beach In Laguna Beach
- Balboa Pier In Newport Beach
Before You Go: Beach Photography Tips
I’ve been photographing Southern California beaches for quite a long time and over the years I’ve picked up a few tricks that can make your beach photos look unbelievably good! Here are a few tips if you’re ready to step up your beach photography skills:
- While a lot of these beach spots are often used by professional photographers to do photoshoots, you certainly don’t need a professional camera to capture amazing photos. Most of the photos in this post were taken on my basic Sony a5100 beginner camera. It does just about everything that a professional full-frame camera does but it is very compact and lightweight. Plus it costs around $500 so if you happen to drop it in the sand or get it wet in the ocean (like I’ve done a few times), you won’t be stressing out too much.
- I rarely use tripods because they are a hassle to set up but I do bring one along during sunrise and sunset photoshoots to eliminate blur and capture better colors. A basic tripod like this Amazon one will do the job well. I’ve been using this tripod for a while and I really like it because it’s super lightweight and easy to set up.
- For water photos, I always use a polarizer filter to eliminate reflection in the water and make the colors pop. To use a circular polarizer all you need to do is attach it on top of your camera lens and rotate it around until the reflection is gone.
- For best photography lighting try to go around sunrise or sunset when colors look the most vibrant and when it’s the least crowded. I often wake up at 4 am (even before Starbucks is open!) and head down to the beach to get colorful sunrise photos.
- Try to avoid going in the middle of the day when the sun is the harshest. Not only your photos will come out with a lot of shadows and less colorful, but California sun can be pretty unforgiving on your skin. When heading to the beach I always bring along a strong sunscreen. If you have super sensitive skin like me (yay East European genes), you’ll want to wear something with minimum 30+ SPF and apply throughout the day to avoid looking like a ripe tomato the next day.
1000 Steps In Laguna Beach
The 1000 Steps Beach is personally one of my favorite beaches in all of Southern California and it also happens to be one of the least known beach spots.
This beach is named after the long stairs that provide public access onto the beach. Thankfully there are only a couple hundred stairs (instead of the 1000 steps as the name indicates) but nonetheless, these stairs are still super challenging and will make you curse under your breath on your way back up.
What I love most about this beach is that it’s not a major tourist attraction by any means. In fact, if you didn’t know about the entrance point and didn’t pay attention to your Google maps directions, you’re likely to miss the stairs entrance completely.
Once you make it down those epic 1000… I mean 200 steps on to the beach, head left where you will come across one of the coolest sea caves found along the Southern California shoreline. Just make sure to check the tide chart before you go and plan your visit accordingly. This cave is only passable during low tide and could be really dangerous to attempt it during high tide.
If the water level is low, you can get some really awesome photos from this cave facing either towards the ocean or the shore.
If you have the spirit to keep going, head to the left after the cave until you come across these really beautiful ocean-front infinity pools.
The last pool is my favorite but it does require a bit of scrambling over sharp rocks in order to get there. Make sure to wear sturdy sandals to protect your feet from getting cut up on the rocks in this section.
Location: 31972 Coast Hwy, Laguna Beach, CA 92651
Parking: Park for free along the Pacific Coast Highway
Inspiration Point In Corona Del Mar
Whenever I make the effort to wake up for a beach sunrise, the chances are you’ll probably find me at the Inspiration Point in Corona Del Mar.
Although I’m not a morning person by any means, I”ll wake up at 4 am to catch sunrises at this location because they rarely disappoint.
The Inspiration Point is an overlook platform in a quiet Corona Del Mar neighborhood that provides incredible panoramic views of the ocean.
From the Inspiration Viewpoint, you can also walk a few minutes in either direction and you’ll have prime access to beautiful Southern California’s white-sand beaches. Which is the main reason why we spend half of our paychecks on our SoCal rents, right? (*nervous laugh*)
Head to the right (north) and you’ll find a half-mile strip stretching across the beach called the Big Corona. This is a serene spot where visitors can take a lazy stroll on the beach or dip their toes into the ocean. But this beach section is quite short and dead-ends next to Newport Harbor.
If you’re looking for longer beach access, walk a few minutes to the left (south) from the Inspiration Point and you’ll reach a long stretch of the beach called Little Corona. This section is a lot longer and even leads down to the Arch Rock, a giant rock in the ocean with an opening shaped like a round arch.
Location: 3001 Ocean Blvd, Corona Del Mar, CA 92625
Parking: Available for free along Ocean Blvd
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El Matador State Beach In Malibu
El Matador is a gorgeous beach in Malibu that’s known for a cluster of unique rock formations scattered along its shoreline. Although El Matador State Beach is a bit of a drive from LA, plenty of locals and visitors alike make the drive to Malibu to experience this magical landscape for themselves.
This beach spot is a little heaven on Earth and perfect for those who are looking for something that’s still somewhat close to LA but is an alternative to the overcrowded beaches like Venice or Santa Monica.
The El Matador State Beach consists of three small coves separated by jagged rocks. Driving along the Pacific Coast Highway you would have no idea that this beautiful beach exists just a short walk from the road.
To get to the coves visitors can park in the designated parking lot above the bluffs and head down a few sets of steep stairs that end at the beachfront.
We highly recommend visiting this location for sunrise when you might find yourself at this location completely alone in your own little secluded beach. The sunsets here are pretty epic too but can get pretty busy especially with wedding and engagement photographers.
Location: 32350 Pacific Coast Hwy, Malibu, CA 90265
Parking: This location has a small designated paid parking lot or you can park for free along the Pacific Coast Highway
Huntington Pier in Huntington Beach
When you think of Southern California, the first things that come to mind are surfing, palm trees and lots of sunshine. Down in Huntington Beach, you can experience all of the best things that Southern California life stands for.
Huntington Beach is your typical SoCal surf town where visitors can watch the local surfers hit the waves, take a stroll along a beautiful beach or indulge in a bit of shopping.
Over the last few years, new stores and restaurants have been added in Huntington Beach making it one of the best tourist attractions and shopping areas in Southern California. This is a place to come watch pro surf and volleyball competitions on the beach during the day, jump in the waves for a refreshing swim, and grab food at one of the many restaurants along Main Street or in the latest shopping center called Pacific City.
The main attraction in Huntington Beach is the pier that extends far into the ocean. The pier ends with Ruby’s Diner at the end where visitors can grab a bite to eat while enjoying one of the best views in Southern California.
Visitors can also rent a bike and go for a leisure ride on the beach along the bike path that extends up and down the shoreline.
Huntington Beach is the perfect place to hang out for the day but it can get quite busy especially on the weekends when visitors flock to this sunny beach town to lay in the sand and play in the waves.
If you can, make sure to watch the sunset at the pier. The SoCal beach sunsets are notorious for being incredible and often you can catch a sunset displaying crazy colors like pinks, oranges, and purples.
Location: 1 Main St, Huntington Beach, CA 92648
Parking: Huntingtin Beach has a few enclosed paid parking lots and tons of meters along the PCH
Abalone Cove Shoreline Park In Palos Verdes
The Abalone Cove Shoreline Park might be one of the best-hidden gems in Rancho Palos Verdes. In fact, when visiting this location, you might even for a moment forget that you are just a few miles south from Los Angeles, one of the biggest cities in the world!
What helps keep this Southern California beach so secluded and hidden is the lack of major highways passing through this area. But that also means that visiting Abalone Cove Shoreline Park is not exactly super quick and easy and requires a bit more driving.
The Abalone Cove Shoreline Park contains a natural preservation area and as a result, much of it is still very wild and untouched. This is one of my favorite places to go in Southern California for incredible hiking trails with bluff overlooks, tide pools, and hidden beaches.
Pssst. For more incredible hikes to do in Southern California, read our post here.
The Abalone Cover Shoreline Park has a designated parking lot created for its visitors. From there you can enjoy a picnic on the top overlooking the ocean or grab your hiking shoes and go for a hike down to the beach.
The first trail leads directly down to the Abalone Cove beach that is full of little pebbled stones scattered along the sand. Although it’s not the type of beach where you can “lay out and get a tan”, it’s very picturesque especially with the nearby cliffs that surround it.
If you keep going, in about 30 more minutes you will reach the second beach – Sacred Cove. This beach is a bit more hidden and further away but it’s my favorite of the two beaches because it’s completely secluded and the chances are that you’ll be the only person there.
After spending a few hours hiking at the Abalone Cove Shoreline Park we usually head over to the Terranea Resort for a delicious lobster roll and a few drinks at their oceanfront restaurant Nelson’s.
Although the Terranea Resort overall is pretty swanky, Nelson’s is located outdoors overlooking the ocean and has a pretty laid back vibe with cute fireplaces and camping style seating.
Location: 5970 Palos Verdes Dr S, Rancho Palos Verdes, CA 90275
Parking: Abalone Cove visitors can park in a designated parking lot. It’s free for the first 30 minutes, $6 up to 2 hours and $12 if you stay over 2 hours.
Victoria Beach In Laguna Beach
Laguna Beach is one of my favorite places to visit in SoCal because it showcases a more peaceful and relaxing side to California than the overcrowded “touristy” spots like Venice Beach or Santa Monica.
Don’t get me wrong – these beaches are still very iconic and you should definitely have them on your bucket list but truthfully every time I visit one of the more popular beaches my experience feels a bit tainted from dealing with traffic, high costs and endless crowds.
If you’re anything like me and prefer to visit the beach for the beach itself (and not just because of its name recognition), I highly recommend spending a day at the Victoria Beach in Laguna. With super blue water, white sand, oceanside infinity pool, and its own private Pirate Tower, this place is a total beach gem.
Spend your day floating in the infinity pool, layout in the sand and make sure to stay for the sunset to watch the sky turn into various hues of pinks and purples.
What makes Victoria beach extra special is the Pirate Tower that was built into one of the cliffs here. This tower was originally built with a staircase inside to provide private beach access for one of the local homeowners. Now the Pirate Tower is no longer in use, but visitors can roam around it pretending to be on their own pirate adventure.
Location: 2700 Victoria Dr, Laguna Beach, CA 92651
Parking: Free along Pacific Coast Highway but very limited
Balboa Pier In Newport Beach
The Balboa Peninsula in Newport Beach feels like its own beachy paradise. Warm ocean breeze, people riding bikes up and down the streets and everyone hanging out in their beachfront townhouses make every day in Newport seem like the weekend.
This laid back beach town is one of the biggest meccas in Southern California when it comes to living the surfing lifestyle. In fact, the Balboa Peninsula is home to one of the best surfing spots in the world – The Wedge.
This iconic surf spot is located at the end of the Balboa Peninsula where a man-made jetty intersects with the ocean creating waves up to 30 feet tall. The rock jetty addition makes this surfing spot very unpredictable and challenging which in return attracts legendary surfers from all over the world.
Besides surfing, one of the main interest points in Newport is the Balboa Pier attracting local and outside visitors alike. This area is the “go-to” spot in Newport Beach for photography, especially at sunset. On the weekends the Balboa Peninsula can get quite crowded but just head a few streets away from the pier and you’ll find plenty of quiet stretches of the beach with nobody else around.
For those who enjoy nature and animal sightseeing, Newport is one of the best places in Southern California to go whale watching. Tours like this one depart near the Balboa Pier and can be arranged ahead of time. Although it’s not a guarantee, you’re likely to spot whales, dolphins, pelicans and other sea life during this tour.
While you’re in Balboa Peninsula, make sure to also stop by the Balboa Fun Zone, a mini theme park that even has its own Ferris wheel. This area is especially great for families and kids – there is plenty of entertainment for hours!
Location: 1 Balboa Pier, Newport Beach, CA 92661
Parking: Paid parking lots available around the pier.
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