Top 10 beaches of the West

Our well-traveled readers share their favorite places to beachcomb, snorkel, or just kick back

1. Laguna Beach, CA

A shoreline stroll

Why I love it: A flower- and tree-lined path through Heisler Park winds along the beaches. Main Beach is the most popular, but Picnic Beach and many others are just as nice.

Take my advice: For dinner, try the Beach House ($$$; 949/494-9707), where the food is excellent and you eat by candlelight right above the tides.

INFO: Metered parking –Rachel Fluhrer, Kaysville, UT

2. 'Aliomanu, Kauai, HI 

Where the tourists never find me

Why I love it: This beach on Kauai's northeast shore isn't on any tourist map. In the snorkeling pool on the north end, you might see a rare sleeping monk seal.

Take my advice: Walk south across a long stretch of sand to reach a rocky area that has wonderful tidal shelves. From here, you can watch the fishermen work their nets and poles.

INFO: Free; no contact info. To reach the beach, go north on State 56 from Lihu'e, turn right on the second 'Aliomanu Rd. (near milepost 15), and go left on Kalalea View Dr. Take the second right toward the ocean (look for the beach access sign); at the dead end, the parking lot is on the right. –Suzanne Menor, Kapa'a, Kauai, HI

3. Anchor Bay Beach, Anchor Bay, CA

My quiet spot

Why I love it: Redwood forest meets ocean at this remote beach an hour south of Mendocino. A beautiful trail leads through 
a campground and the redwoods to the beach, where there's often not another soul around. It has the relaxed vibe of Santa Cruz, but it feels private and pristine by comparison. You can often hear barking seals, which have a colony nearby.

Take my advice: Walk the beach at night. There's no light pollution, so the sky is bright with stars.

INFO: $3 per vehicle at Anchor Bay Campground; parks.ca.gov  –Carolyn Weinhold, San Francisco

4. Cape Blanco State Park, OR

A wild wander

Why I love it: Storms deposit huge piles of driftwood at the base of the cliffs at this point near Port Orford, making it 
a great place for beachcombing.

Take my advice: If you want to stay, there's a campground ($12) with big sites sheltered from the wind.

INFO $3 per vehicle –Sandra Frost, Phoenix

5. Carmel River State Beach, CA

Where the river ends

Why I love it: There's a bird sanctuary in Carmel where the Carmel River meets the beach before flowing over the sand and into the ocean. Because swimming isn't safe here, it gets much less crowded than other beaches in the area.

Take my advice: I like to walk along Scenic Road and gaze out from the bend to the wide-open ocean.

INFO: Free –Brad Perkins, San Jose

Next: 5 more top beaches

 

6. Second Beach, near La Push, WA 

A maze of driftwood

Why I love it: Wild, white-capped waves have piled up driftwood and smoothed the boulders into interesting shapes. And the pebbled sand is perfect for building castles.

Take my advice: From the beach, climb to an overview where you can spot eagles roosting in old-growth trees.

INFO: $15 per vehicle; nps.gov/olym  –Ganeille Posey Hostvedt, Bremerton, WA

7. Butterfly Beach, Santa Barbara

A seal's-eye view

Why I love it: My favorite thing to do on a summer day is swim the 100 yards to the buoy line at Butterfly Beach. Bobbing out there, I take in the beach, the Biltmore hotel, the palm trees, and the purple mountains behind Santa Barbara.

Take my advice: After your swim, stroll around the grounds of the Four Seasons Biltmore Santa Barbara hotel (805/969-2261) and grab a drink at the bar.

INFO: Free; 805/568-2461.–Todd Walsh, San Francisco

8. La Jolla Cove, CA 

A peek below the waves

Why I love it: Snorkeling in the Underwater Park just offshore from La Jolla in San Diego, I see bright orange Garibaldis, giant sea bass, and lobsters ― all just below the waves. It's so peaceful to float on the surface and watch the sea grass swaying with the movement of the tide.

Take my advice: On summer Sunday afternoons, catch a concert in Scripps Park, up on the bluffs (every Sun, Jun 28–Sep 6; free; ljconcertsbythesea.org).

INFO: Free; sandiego.gov  –Vikki Shearrow, Chula Vista, CA

9. Moonstone Beach, Cambria, CA

Where we go to decompress

Why we love it: A boardwalk that stretches the length of the bluff above the sand makes the views of this uncrowded stretch of rocky coastline accessible to absolutely everyone. We often spot otters, harbor seals (nearly always basking on the rocks at low tide), gray whales, dolphins, various birds, and, most recently, a red fox.

Take our advice: With seafood restaurants and reasonable motels nearby, this is the perfect place to decompress.

INFO: Free; in Hearst San Simeon State Park; parks.ca.gov  –Glen and Debra Renner, Pine Mountain Club, CA

10. Shell Beach, CA 

Away from it all in Pismo

Why I love it: It's 77 steps (and a bit 
of a scramble) down the cliffs to this small and uncrowded beach in Pismo. 
I love to visit at low tide to see hawks, pelicans ― and sometimes spot an otter.

Take my advice: Bring down a great picnic of rotisserie chicken from nearby DePalo & Sons market (805/773-1589).

INFO: Free 
–Ramona Richardson, Orange, CA 

More:  The West's best places to camp