With summer upon us, our thoughts turn west. Fortunately for those of us blessed to be in the City of Angels, turning such daydreams into reality is a stone-cold cinch. It’s so close, you can almost taste the salt and feel the sand between your toes... the beach!
Whether you’re a native Angeleno, a transplant, or just passing through, the Pacific’s pull never gets old. Here’s a list of seven of L.A. county’s most magnificent public strands, from the iconic to the lesser-known. Pack your sunblock and let’s play some beach blanket bingo. We’ve even provided a playlist of site-specific tunes for each, so don’t forget the Bluetooth.
URBAN SAND - Venice Beach
Venice Beach stands tall among L.A.’s most iconic spots. Muscle Beach, wackadoodle street performers, vitamin-boost energy smoothies (which were kinda born there), and cheap souvenir boutiques attract heavy crowds on the daily. All that stuff is quintessential and cool, but it’s also a straight-up killer beach. After years of being maligned for its high grunge factor, it’s regained its lustre, thanks to cleaner waters and spruced-up amenities, including newer bathrooms and showers, smooth bike paths, and a vast array of food options. And then there's that stunning signature vista of the Santa Monica Bay. Venice Beach has it all - and don’t worry, there’s still plenty of grunge flavor left.
POOLSIDE BY THE PACIFIC - Annenberg Community Beach House
The Annenberg Foundation, tireless purveyors of high culture for all, opened the Community Beach House on the northern end of Santa Monica Beach in 2009. It has become an institution unto itself. A top-flight resort-style pool with all the trappings - open all summer long and select holiday weekends during the year - spills onto a choice piece of beachfront. It’s easy to see why William Randolph Hearst chose this spot when he constructed a beach home for his paramour Marion Davies. For a modest admission fee, you can live that high life, luxuriating poolside like the upper crust. Join in a yoga or ultimate frisbee class, lunch at the cafe, or relax on the clubhouse’s upper deck, with breathtaking views of the shoreline. And oh yeah, there’s that beach thing. Venture down to the sand, jump in the cool Pacific... and return to that nice heated pool. No membership is necessary. Davies’ home has been beautifully restored and hosts cultural events throughout the year, and there’s a full slate of other activities to engage the entire family. Be sure to arrive early, as parking lots fill up quickly.
PLANESPOTTING - Dockweiler State Beach
Fancy a flight? You won’t find a better spot for planespotting than Dockweiler State Beach, nestled in Playa del Rey. Try and name each airline taking off overhead from LAX along this three mile expanse. Want to join those birds and head for the clouds? You can! The park is home to a hang gliding center (L.A.’s first), where beginners can get their wings on, launching from 25-foot-high dunes. The sand offers a soft landing spot. Dockweiler is also one of the few spots in L.A. that offers permits for bonfires, a great way to finish the day in a literal blaze of glory. RV camping is also available.
IT’S A FAMILY AFFAIR - Leo Carrillo State Beach
Invariably, when the first nuclear-style heat wave hits each summer, local TV news crews descend on Leo Carrillo State Beach to chat with families of inlanders who’ve decamped there in search of cooler temperatures. It’s probably the most family-friendly spot in L.A., with campers and tents full of families dotting its shores every weekend. In addition to Carrillo’s on-site camping grounds, the beach is famed for evening campfires (in designated fire rings only, and when fire level permits, check the sign near the entrance kiosk for the day's fire level). By day, denizens of this big beach enjoy the gentle surf (perfect for longboards), tidepools, and gentle trails in the hills above. Junior Ranger programs are available for the kids in the summer. And don’t forget Fido!
CINEMASCOPE - Zuma Beach
One dazzling day while swimming in the surf at Zuma Beach, something brushed against my leg. I panicked. It was... a t-shirt. More precisely, a Superman t-shirt. It figures that the Man of Steel would choose this spot. It’s an expansive spread of sparkling white sand in Malibu, covering two miles of oceanfront and more than 100 acres. With nearly 2,000 parking spaces, Zuma can - and does - accommodate the heaviest load of holiday-level visitors, every weekend. Visit on a weekday, and you can stake out an acre or two all to yourself. The gentle break is ideal for boogie boarding. Ample concessions, and nearly superhuman lifeguards on duty.
THE HIDDEN GEM - El Matador
I remember the first time I visited this hidden gem. A group of us piled into my friend’s hooptie and drove what felt like all day, well northwest of Malibu. El Matador has been a favorite spot ever since. Park in the tiny lot for a small fee, or out on PCH for free, and climb the winding stairwell down to the thin slice of sand, bisected by stunning rock formations and tunnels. It looks like something from a Mediterranean paradise, or a movie set...which it is, having been featured to stunning effect in numerous films (one of my favorites is in the romantic finale of True Romance). If you’re going on the weekends during the high season, try and get there early. Nearby are two other equally charming small beaches, the cozy La Piedra and the widescreen El Pescador.
OVER THE LINE - County Line Beach
Literally straddling L.A. and Ventura Counties (hence its moniker), this northernmost beach offers great surfing and some of the clearest waters in town. Technically, County Line Beach is in Ventura County, but let’s not quibble over gerrymandering. This stunning spot draws surfers of all kinds - body, boogie, kite, wind - as well as scuba divers and kayakers. It’s also a great spot for spotting marine life (including dolphins, whales during the migratory season, and reef sharks). Pop across the street to the iconic biker bar Neptune’s Net for a brew and a burger - Lori Petty’s character in Point Break was a waitress here! Above all, County Line gets serious pop culture points for being name-checked in The Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ U.SA.” You don’t get more SoCal than that.