There are few more diverting pleasures than whiling away an afternoon on a perfect stretch of sand. Whether it’s a powder-white beach with aquamarine waters ideal for swimming or a moody, windswept landscape dotted with photo-worthy natural rock formations, the country’s Pacific coastline offers a beach for every preference—and some of the most picturesque in the world. From the iconic shores of Laguna Beach to the archetypal waves of Hawaii’s Lanikai, here are eight of the best West Coast beaches to visit on your next vacation.
Cannon Beach, Oregon
There’s a good chance you’ve seen Oregon’s Cannon Beach even if you’ve never visited the place: its famous Haystack Rock, an impressive 235-foot outcropping in the middle of the sea, has made it one of the most photographed shorelines in the country. Located just 90 minutes from Portland, the coast is a nesting ground for tufted puffins and also home to a vibrant arts scene in its namesake town. Here, you’ll find Plein Air workshops and galleries that specialize in works by Pacific Northwest artists, from blown-glass pieces at Dragonfire to jewelry and pottery at Cannon Beach Gallery.
Laguna Beach, California
When it comes to Southern California coastline, few are more iconic than the 36 stretches that make up Orange County’s Laguna Beach. Sun worshippers have their pick of archetypical swath: there’s Thousand Steps Beach, where you can relax in your own tide pool or explore age-old sea caves; or head to Laguna’s border with Newport Beach to Crystal Cove State Park for sand with a side of backcountry hiking. But for our money we’d park our umbrellas on Main Beach—a golden shore that’s become synonymous with volleyball and people watching—and follow it up with happy hour at neighborhood landmark Las Brisas.
Long Beach, Washington
With 28 miles of pristine coastline, Washington’s aptly named Long Beach is a perfect getaway for families seeking fun in the sun. The beach hosts an annual kite festival (and a museum where you can learn how to build your own), but every day activities abound: go oyster picking or clam digging in the cool waters (there’s also a razor-clam festival if you’re into that sort of thing), frolic on horseback, cast for salmon and halibut or follow in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark on the Discovery Trail, the 8.5-mile path where the 19th-century explorers ended their countrywide expedition.
Pfeiffer Beach, California
Sheltered by towering redwood forest, Big Sur’s Pfeiffer Beach is a local gem that’s known for its dramatic sea stacks. A view of the sunset through its keyhole arch is worth the visit alone. Another distinctive feature: the powdery sands are an otherworldly purple hue thanks to manganese garnet deposits that wash down from the hills above. Roll out your towel on a clear day when the surf is calm—there’s no lifeguard on duty here—then head 12 miles south to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, where your hiking heroics will be rewarded with glimpses of McWay Falls, an 80-foot cascade that empties into the Pacific.
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For a West Coast beach that looks a lot like the East Coast ideal, head down Highway 101 to Newport, Oregon, where the 1873 Yaquina Head Lighthouse—which made a cameo in the horror flick The Ring—stands watch over the black stones of Cobble Beach. Here, you’ll find pools filled with starfish and sea urchins at low tide. Nearby, South Beach State Park offers even more opportunities to witness the area’s wildlife, with 498 acres of hiking and birding trails and powdery dunes as far as the eye can see.
Olympic National Park, Washington
Located in Port Angeles, a town made famous by Stephenie Meyers’s Twilight franchise, Olympic National Park has something for every predilection. The three beaches at La Push draw fans of the books, while rocky shores and powerful waves make Rialto Beach a moody option for low-tide hikers looking for a photo opp at Hole-in-the-Wall arch. Wildlife lovers head to Kalaloch to spot Western gulls and bald eagles, and driftwood collectors go to the sea stack-laden Ruby Beach, but if swimming is more your speed you’ll have to head farther south.
Kaanapali Beach, Hawaii
Once upon a time, Maui’s Kaanapali Beach was an oceanfront retreat for Hawaiian royalty. Today, that legacy survives thanks to a slew of ultra-luxe hotels and resorts that cater to your every whim. Another portal to its past: Every day at sunset, a cliff-diving ceremony at Black Rock Beach pays tribute to King Kahekili, Maui’s last independent king. But the three-mile-long swath of golden sand also offers simpler pleasures, from world-class snorkeling and whale watching to surfing and sunbathing. Seeking shade? Nearby Whaler’s Village is a shopaholic’s paradise.
La Jolla Beach, California
If you’re looking for the iconic beach crescent you’ve seen in a lifetime of postcards, head to La Jolla. Known as the Jewel of San Diego, the area features some of the best swimming beaches in the country—body boarders welcome—plus romantically secluded sea caves that are accessible by kayak or on foot if you time it right. Snorkelers can spot the bright-orange Garibaldi fish that call these waters home; wildlife lovers should beeline to Children’s Pool to see the seals and sea lions that have taken over the space. If it’s a view you’re after, head north to Torrey Pines City Beach, where 300-foot bluffs provide endless Pacific panoramas.