Movies and television have made the Malibu, Venice and Santa Monica beaches three of the most famous in the world. The Pacific Coast has hundreds of other beautiful, but less known, beaches. Some of them are visited so seldom that you can spend a pandemic-safe summer afternoon with seagulls, seals and sand crabs, and few if any, people.
Creating a list of “secret” West Coast beaches required leaving off some that are located too close to population centers or are accessible only from the sea or by extensive hikes. To make our list, a beach must be scenic and natural. It cannot be seen from a major highway, is vacant or visited by only a handful of people at any time, has parking, and is accessible by a hike less than one mile. Few of the beaches on this list have lifeguards, first aid stations, restrooms, food service, or trash disposal.
Check out the COVID-19 status of these beaches before you go. Many are maintained by local municipalities or located in state or national parks.
The Golden State’s 770 miles of coastline feature cliffs rising from the shore, wide sandy beaches, and wildlife. Although a state with some of the busiest cities in the nation, California’s Santa Clara County was one of the best cities when it came to social distancing earlier on in the pandemic. When looking a California’s secret beaches, you can find great places to hunt for shells, bird watch, spy seals or dolphins or just relax, all at a safe distance from others.
Pirates Cove Beach is hidden in a small cove on the west side of Point Duma and is accessible from the southern end of Westward Beach. Westward Beach ends abruptly at a high rock wall, which has large boulders piled up in the surf at the terminus. The cove is behind this wall. If the water is too deep or too rough to walk through safely, then take the rugged path behind the boulders that climb up and over to Pirates Cove. It was made famous as the filming location of the final scene in the original 1968 movie Planet of the Apes with Charlton Heston on the beach below the ruins of the Statue of Liberty, but remains a lowkey beach to this day.
Hidden in a deep cove beneath cliff-top homes overlooking the ocean, most people cruising Highway 1 never see Table Rock Beach. Park along the highway, not in the private area of Table Rock Drive, and walk one block to Bluff Drive, where two columns mark the entrance to the beach access. Walk down a 192-step stairway to the sand, and before you, the sand stretches to the surf. Cliffs top the north and south ends of the beach, and in the center, rock formations teeming with marine life juts into the cove.
It’s wise not to swim here since the rip currents can be a bit dangerous and there are no lifeguards on duty. When the tide is low, you can walk or wade around the rock cliffs that jut into the water shortly over on Totuava Beach– another hidden gem.
San Carpoforo Creek Beach is in the northernmost portion of the state-owned properties in Hearst San Simeon State Park. Most of the year, the flow of water in San Carpoforo Creek is meager. In the spring, freshwater forms a small lagoon behind a sandbank at the back of the beach, just a few hundred yards from Ragged Point. You’ll have to walk out to the end of the creek or find a shallow spot to cross it if you want to reach the ocean waves.
Bodega Bay is a working fishing village and a luxury vacation destination. The beach is in a crescent-shaped bay that was carved out of the high Pacific cliffs of Sonoma County. Pinnacle Gulch Beach is a quarter-mile long and narrow. If you come at low tide, you’ll find the sand dotted with rocks and tide pools, especially on the south end of the cove. Uniquely large rocks line the beach and the surf. It’s also a great place to birdwatch.
Not many people frequent this beach. It’s a quiet, relaxing spot for quiet walks, picnics, bird watching, and shore fishing. Swimmers should be cautious, and the Pacific can be unpredictable. Stay for sunset when the shore takes on a periwinkle glow.
Cowell Ranch is a state-owned, and its beach is a great place to hike, bike, or hunt sea glass and shells along the beach. From February through May, harbor seals hang out in the south part of the beach. It’s a small, peaceful, sandy beach in a picturesque setting surrounded by cliffs. Two-pocket beaches, split by the jagged coastline bluffs, lie to the north and south end, both teeming with wildlife and ocean swells. However, access to the beach, located in a state Park, is restricted.
Cowell Ranch Beach can be dangerous in rough weather. Large breaking waves with swell heights reach 11 to 14 feet, and at some locations, wave heights exceed 25 feet during a storm. The Cowell-Purisima Trail, a segment of the California Coastal Trail, begins at the beach and follows the bluff to a parking lot 3.6 miles away. The trail is open only on weekends.
Point Reyes is a national treasure only an hour’s drive north of San Francisco. It is one of California’s nine national parks, more than any other state, and its 13 beaches are protected rules. Shelling, pets, and glass are not allowed, so be sure to read their list of rules and regulations before attending. Point Reyes Beach is too popular to make our list since it’s the crowning jewel of the state park. However, Kehoe Beach in Point Reyes is an easy half-mile walk from roadside parking at Pierce Point Road. It spans miles of pristine coastline framed by steep bluffs and lengthy sand dunes. It’s a perfect place for small kids or anyone looking to explore one of Point Reyes’s sandy beaches without a long hike.
Kehoe Beach is one of the few places in the park where leashed dogs are allowed, and they are restricted to the southern end of the beach. To the north is protected habitat for the snow plover,
Highway 101 is your passport to every bend and cliffside of Oregon’s majestic coast for hikers. The Oregon Coast Trail crosses sandy beaches, meanders through forest-shaded corridors, climbs majestic headlands, and passes through 28 coastal towns along the way from California to Washington State. Along the way, you will find lots of sandy, but not necessarily secret, beaches at the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. But, we rounded up two secret beaches to check out as you travel the coast from south to north.
It’s nicknamed “Magic Rocks Beach” because most of the beach is covered in smooth, rounded cobblestones. When the tide is high enough to hit them, they make a strange rattling noise as the water recedes. Low tide exposes a gorgeous stretch of narrow sand beach, often littered with enough shells to make for fun beachcombing. High tide, on the other hand, eliminates most of the sand beach but brings the breakers up onto the cobblestones so you can hear the click-clacking stones.
At the lowest tides, you can walk around a large central rock. Above the beach, Short Creek pours down onto the beach from a manmade viaduct, creating a threadlike waterfall. At the north end of the beach, Larson Creek pours over a photogenic two-tiered wispy waterfall to reach its delta on the shore.
Exotic little Starfish Cove, just north of Newport, is separated by sprawling, popular Moolack and Beverly beaches to the north and by Schooner Point, a minor headland only passable at low tide.
Starfish Cove is carved into the north base of Yaquina Head and mainly composed of wave-etched mudstone and rock platforms, most of which bear fossilized mollusks. The cove, at low tide, provides good tide-pooling. Clam and other fossils abound, and loose specimens are easy to collect but do not remove them from the rocks — take photos and leave them intact for other visitors to wonder over.
Washington State has more private beaches than California or Oregon, however, their coast doesn’t have many beaches with warm water or a whole lot of sunshine. Its beaches may have more pebbles than sand, giant driftwood, tide pools, offshore sea stacks, huge boulders, foggy shores, and a high chance of rain. Instead, they are great places for camping, hiking, shelling, wildlife watching, tidepools, fishing, and incredible scenery.
Ruby Beach is another gorgeous beach that is part of Olympic National Park. It’s named Ruby Beach for the red ruby-like speckles you can find throughout the sand here. Ruby Beach has an abundance of giant driftwood, tide pools, and offshore sea stacks. Scenery and wildlife are the main attractions at Ruby Beach, but you can also swim if you like your water cold. At the height of summer, temperatures rise enough that swimming can be enjoyable.
Located just over three hours from Seattle and a little more than two hours from Olympia, Ruby Beach is very near both the Quinault and Hoh Rainforest areas of Olympic National Park, either of which is easy to add to your trip to Ruby Beach.
Obstruction Pass State Park is a 76-acre primitive camping park on the south end of Orcas Island in the San Juan de Fuca Strait. The park is one of the few spots on Orcas Island with access to more than one mile of publicly owned saltwater shoreline. Opal waters lap at pebbly beaches, and madrone trees cling to bluffs. Rocky viewpoints entice picnickers, birders, lovebirds, and youthful explorers. Relax and enjoy the view and Park activities include picnicking, fishing, crabbing, beachcombing, bird watching, and hiking on a zero-point-six-mile (0.97 km) trail.
After you have visited some of these West Coast beaches, you will want to return to your favorites among the hundreds of miles of high cliffs and tiny coves that face the Pacific.