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The Pacific Ocean is much to expansive to summarize, but some of the top beaches have been mentioned in Sunset magazine, The Guardian and the Travel Channel. The Guardian also featured four California beaches in the Top 10 West Coast beaches list (included below).

Gold Bluffs beach, Prairie Creek Redwoods state park

Gold Bluffs Beach, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park Photograph: Alamy

When you think of California redwoods, you may bring to mind deep forests in fabled northern California, but what few realise is how close they are to the ocean. Redwoods, with their aversion to saltwater, do not grow directly on the coast, so you won’t see any along Gold Bluffs Beach, part of the Prairie Creek Redwoods Park. What you will see are herds of elk browsing in the morning fog. The California Coastal Trailruns right along this beach, giving access to untrammelled coastline and little-known waterfalls. Though you’d never know it, this beach experienced a short-lived gold rush in the 1850s. Today the bluffs towering above this stretch are the only gold left, especially at sunset.

Manchester beach, Manchester state park

Manchester BeachPhotograph: Lee Foster/Getty Images/Dorling Kindersley

Five miles of beach stretch along this “catch basin”, a gently curving bay that collects ocean debris – there’s always a large amount of driftwood. The area is known for its high winds, as the wind-bent breaks of Monterey cypress attest. All par for the course for the Pacific, and yet there is much that sets this beach apart. Alder Creek, which empties into the ocean here, is a spawning spot for steelhead trout. Trails lead to ponds, bluffs, grasslands, and dunes. The Point Arena lighthouse, built in 1870 and rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake, is open for tours. Indeed the San Andreas Fault runs from the land to the sea here. Manchester state park is home to a variety of coastal wildflowers, including poppies, lupines, and irises, as well as tundra swans.
• parks.ca.gov

Stinson Beach

Stinson Beach, Marin CountyPhotograph: Alamy

Just north of San Francisco, Stinson Beach is surrounded by the Point Reyes national seashore, in the shadow of Mount Tamalpais, and nearby Marin Headlands. With such imposing neighbours, the beach may not jump to mind as a destination, unless you’re a local. But this unassuming three-and-a-half mile stretch of golden sand draws swimmers, volleyball players and beachcombers, and has done for nearly a century. Today it is part of the Golden Gate national recreation area. Though lifeguards are on duty, swimmers should be wary of sharks. If that scares you off, there are plenty of barbecue grills, picnic areas and a snack bar for a leisurely afternoon.
• stinsonbeachonline.com

Baker beach, San Francisco

Baker beach, San FranciscoPhotograph: Alamy

San Francisco may have the reputation as a sprawling urban area, but the City by the Bay also has marvellous beaches. For scenery alone, Baker beach is the best. With unimpeded views of the Golden Gate bridge and the Marin Headlands, as well as the mouth of the bay, the beach is a landmark, and part of the large Presidio national landmark, itself a section of Golden Gate national park. Hemmed in by outcrops of grey-green serpentine cliffs, the mile-long beach is great for sunbathing and barbecuing, but not for swimming – with unpredictable rip currents, undertows, and imposing waves. Fishing, however, is perfectly fine.
• parksconservancy.org/visit/park-sites/baker-beach.html

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