July 20, 2024

Worst & Best Beaches Close to Disneyland

Disneyland is within driving distance of many of the best beaches, oceanfront, and public parks in Southern California and, by extension, the entire United States. Disney’s theme parks are a short distance from Pacific Coast Highway, where you can take a truncated version of the ultimate West Coast road trip and see one of the prettiest stretches of shoreline in the entire world.

This list ranks the 10 best beaches to visit as part of a Disneyland vacation, including a mix of popular spots and a handful of hidden gems. It also offers words of warning about the 5 worst beaches in Southern California that you’re likely to see recommended elsewhere.

Plus, tips for avoiding crowds, enjoying postcard perfect sunset scenes of SoCal, good photography spots, and even a few places to eat or grab snacks. We’ve visited all of the beaches on this list many times over the years–some we even frequent on a weekly basis!

It’s worth noting that we’ve tried to limit this list to beaches that are within a reasonable driving distance of Disneyland. I was incredibly tempted to include La Jolla Cove as a picturesque option for those taking day trips to San Diego, but it’s just too far from Disneyland to qualify. (And also, I just did manage to include it!)

With that said, here’s our list of the 10 best beaches near Disneyland in Southern California…

10. Huntington Beach City Beach – This is the closest “big” beach to Disneyland, and it’ll likely top most lists of recommended beaches to visit in Southern California. It makes this list because it’s convenient (you could Uber or Lyft here, whereas that wouldn’t be recommended with almost any other option on the list) and there’s a lot to do in the adjacent area of Huntington Beach.

With that said, Huntington City Beach is utilitarian; it’s overly industrial and impersonal. It’s absolutely massive, spanning several miles of wide and flat coastline. Honestly, this reminds us a lot of beach cities in Florida. Nothing against those, but if you visit California, you should do a distinctly California beach.

The plus side of Huntington City Beach is there’s ample space for sunbathing and parking is easy, which isn’t the case with many beaches in Orange County that make this list. Huntington City Beach is also what gave the place its Surf City USA moniker, and for good reason. It’s a great place to watch surfers. It’s also fun to walk the Huntington Beach Pier, or stroll down the shopping street along PCH.

If your perspective is that “beach is beach” and “ocean is ocean,” then Huntington City Beach will be your best option and you can totally disregard our opinion. A lot of people love Huntington Beach, so you might disagree with us, regardless. There’s a reason it’s Surf City USA and among the most popular tourist spots in Southern California. If you aren’t as concerned with the “other stuff” that makes Huntington City Beach attractive and are just after a beautiful beach in this area, consider Bolsa Chica State Beach or Sunset Beach instead.

9. Santa Monica Pier – For better or worse, Santa Monica Pier is like Huntington City Beach on steroids. Let’s get the downsides of Santa Monica Pier out of the way first. It’s dirty, crowded, attractions are a bit suspect, and the atmosphere is touristy. It’s also farther from Disneyland–to the north in Los Angeles County–and the vibe is different from the OC beaches.

At the same time, Santa Monica Pier is also iconic and romantic in its own sort of way. Along with Santa Cruz Boardwalk, this was one of the original inspirations for Paradise Pier (now Pixar Pier) in Disney California Adventure. Santa Monica Pier is a landmark for the beach and the city, featuring an amusement park, aquarium, Ferris wheel, shopping, restaurants, and more.

While we don’t recommend dropping much (if any) money in the amusement park, there is something to be said about watching the pier light up at sunset from Santa Monica State Beach. Following that, head up to the Pier itself at dusk when everything is bathed in the cool glow of the neon lights, and the blemishes are less apparent. It’s kitschy fun and significantly better once the sun goes down.

There’s also a lot to do in the surrounding area. Santa Monica (and Venice to the south) is entirely walkable, so you can wander around Palisades Park and Tongva Park, or head down Third Street Promenade for shopping and dining. You can also venture down to the Original Muscle Beach to try to spot the Terminator!

8. Corona del Mar State Beach, Newport Beach – South of the main harbor in Newport Beach is the swanky seaside neighborhood of Corona del Mar. This area is known for its beautiful, jagged coastline that puts its beaches among the best in Southern California.

Corona del Mar State Beach is a half-mile long sandy beach that’s framed by cliffs and a rock jetty that forms the east entrance to Newport Harbor. The beach is popular with surfers, divers, and photographers.

Although the recommendation here for most people is the bigger state beach, I’m a big fan of Little Corona and Cameo Shores. This is the most photogenic portion of the coast, but it’s incredibly difficult to reach, as there’s almost no public access. It’s just a series of ritzy houses (including my ultimate dream home, which sits directly above the stunning rock formation pictured above).

7. Balboa Island, Newport Beach There’s always money in the banana stand.

I mean it’s one banana, Michael, what could it cost, 10 dollars?

If those wise words put a smile on your face, then Balboa Island is a must-visit. If the aforementioned wisdom left you perplexed, then Arrested Development is a must-watch prior to your Southern California vacation. (Not only is it hilarious, but you’ll be able to identify 10% more pop culture references on this blog!)

Balboa Island is home to the inspiration for Bluth’s Original Frozen Banana Stand, Mr. Bananagrabber, Baby Bananagrabber, and any other Bananagrabber family character that might emanate therefrom. It’s a cute little area, and you can stroll the pier, do some shopping, and take the ferry between the peninsula and the island.

If you opt for Balboa Island, we’d strongly recommend pairing this with a Duffy Boat rental in Newport Beach. This is our go-to activity when family or friends come to visit; you can usually find good deals for Newport Fun Tours via Groupon (yep, they’re still around!). This is a fun and relaxing way to cruise Newport Harbor. None of this is really a beach, per se, though.

On your way down to Newport or even Huntington Beach, we highly recommend stopping at Sidecar Doughnuts in Costa Mesa. The Huckleberry is the must-try here, and is the best doughnut we’ve ever had. Aside from that, keep it simple–the tried and true flavors are better here than the ones with extravagant toppings.

6. Doheny State Beach, Dana Point – All of the beaches in Dana Point are compelling in their own ways. Salt Creek Beach is a sentimental favorite, and one we used to walk nightly. It’s beautiful, has great walking paths, and is convenient to some swanky hotels (Waldorf and Ritz). It’s also a lot like the other beaches on this list, which is why it’s not the beach highlighted here.

For the sake of choosing something unique, we’re going to instead go with Doheny State Beach and the adjacent Dana Point Harbor. The latter is great for whale watching excursions (highly recommended), sailing, parasailing, stand up paddle boarding, diving, fishing and more.

Doheny has a surfing beach at its northern end and is great for day use purposes; in addition to the beach itself, there’s a five-acre lawn with picnic facilities and volleyball courts. Dana Point is also not to be missed during the famous Festival of Whales (first weekend of March) and Holidays at the Harbor (mid-November through December).

5. Northern Coves, Laguna Beach – These are the first of a few entries in Laguna Beach. As the title suggests, these are all in North Laguna, which offers the advantage of not driving through the worst of traffic downtown or having to fight quite as hard for parking.

These options include Shaw’s Cove, Fisherman’s Cove, and Diver’s Cove. All of these are serene and picturesque. Fisherman’s Cove is smaller and tends to be less crowded (all of them are far less busy than Main Beach or other entries on this list), which makes it a great option for us when Walter, our miniature dachshund, wants to run around…or stay in the same spot, maniacally digging a hole, as the case may be.

A strong selling point for these coves is that there is free street parking available along Cliff Drive in this area. Because this area is just north of Heisler Park, we tend to park above Fisherman’s Cove, head down there or to Shaw’s Cove, and then continue on through Heisler Park to Main Beach before looping out onto the sidewalk along Pacific Coast Highway, hitting Gelato Paradiso (order a large cone), and heading back. This is a great way to enjoy sunset and dusk in Laguna Beach.

4. Crescent Bay Beach, Laguna Beach – As might be obvious already, we favor multipurpose beaches that aren’t just about sun and sand, but other things as well. Crescent Bay is another beach in this style, albeit with the interesting wrinkle that the beach is more or less disconnected from Crescent Bay Point Park.

Crescent Bay offers some of the best panoramic sunset views in all of Laguna Beach. The bay itself is bordered to the north and south by towering cliffs. Between them is, as the name suggests, a crescent of golden sand, framed by sea caves topped by stunning houses perched atop the bluffs.

Crescent Bay is the easiest option to access when coming from Disneyland, and there’s usually street parking available (some of it is even free). I like the beach because it’s large and has interesting character, but never seems to be too crowded despite its ample size. The downside is that it’s a bit disconnected from the charming downtown of Laguna Beach.

3. El Matador State Beach, Malibu – We’re getting over an hour (at best) from Disneyland at this point, but we figure many of you bound for the parks will also visit Universal Studios Hollywood or Los Angeles. The best beach to the north is El Matador State Beach in Malibu, which is one of the pocket beaches in Robert H. Meyer Memorial State Beach.

I’ve been to a lot of beaches up and down the West Coast, and El Matador is this the most naturally-beautiful beach I’ve seen in the entire United States. This beats everything else on this list, the gems throughout Big Sur and the Central California Coast, and everything in San Francisco and up to the Pacific Northwest. I’ve yet to find anything that’s as unique or distinct as El Matador State Beach.

Thanks to its stunning sea stacks, craggy cliffs, beautiful bluffs, rockin’ rock formations, tide pools, hidden sea caves, arch rocks, and more, El Matador is certainly the most naturally beautiful beach in the area. If you visit at low tide, there’s so much to explore and appreciate at El Matador State Beach.

Along with the natural beauty of El Matador comes the unnatural beauty. Malibu being Malibu, don’t be surprised to encounter an Instagram “model” or two (…or a half-dozen) taking topless photos. (No, it’s not a nude beach.) You can also expect to encounter the distinct aroma of marijuana as local kids have also found this beach to be a nice ‘hidden gem’ for that. Depending upon when you visit, there’s often litter on the ground, the bathrooms might be dirty, and people have felt the need to graffiti some of the rocks.

None of this is unique to Malibu’s beaches. Every beach between Redondo Beach and Point Mogu has varying degrees of these same issues. Same goes for options closer to Disneyland, including Manhattan Beach, Santa Monica, Venice, etc. You’re far less likely to encounter this in Newport Beach and south, or Santa Barbara and north. (Excepting Santa Cruz.)

If you’re heading back to Disneyland after a visit to any of the beaches in Malibu, we’d strongly recommend staying through sunset at the beach and then doing dinner nearby to wait out LA rush hour traffic. Our favorite family-friendly restaurant in the area is Malibu Seafood Fresh Fish Market and Patio Cafe. Alternatively, Malibu Farm Cafe is a good option on the Malibu Pier. There’s also Nobu for the big ballers reading this. (Maybe don’t wear your Mickey Crocs there!)

2. Heisler Park, Laguna Beach – This park encompasses multiple beaches, starting just north of Main Beach and stretching all of the way to Diver’s Cove (listed above). Heisler Park is the best recreation area in Laguna Beach, serving a variety of purposes–from sunbathing to picnics. This oceanfront park has numerous walking trails (that stretch south to Main Beach and beyond), gardens, a marine refuge with tide pools, picnic areas with grills, and lawn bowling greens.

What sets Heisler Park apart from everything else on this list is the art. There are a ton of gorgeous public art installations, and if you visit on a weekend, there’s a strong chance you’ll see plein air painters. Laguna Beach is an artist community, and Heisler Park is the intersection of art and ocean life. Heisler Park is also nice for its sunset vistas, with Recreation Point and the gazebo both offering panoramic views.

We spend a lot of time at Heisler Park, and it still amazes us. About the only downside is the parking situation, which can be very challenging unless you arrive early in the morning. If you’re coming during peak season and arriving later, our advice would be to park in one of the larger lots and rely on Laguna Beach’s free trolley. Hunting for parking right by Heisler Park (or anywhere downtown) can be a frustrating fool’s errand.

In general, the lack of parking and worse traffic are the big downsides to Laguna Beach. Unlike the state beach options above, there are no massive waterfront parking lots next to any of the beaches in Laguna; it’s mostly street parking. This is also an upside; “adjacent parking lot” is not the first thing anyone thinks of when picturing a breathtaking beach.

1. Treasure Island Beach & Park, Laguna Beach – The good news is that you can take the Laguna Beach free trolley all the way to the south side of the city for our favorite beach and park. Treasure Island is located on the grounds of the Montage Laguna Beach, a hotel that’s a bit like the Grand Californian: Beach Edition (and somehow even more expensive than GCH!).

The Montage maintains these grounds for guests of its luxury resort, but they are required by the California Coastal Commission to offer public access. This means that we commoners can enjoy the beautifully-maintained landscape–bursting with vibrant flowers, cool cacti, and big bunnies–without forking over $1k for a room.

We spend most of our time here in the park that stretches the length of the Montage Laguna Beach Resort, and there are multiple beaches below, including Treasure Island, Goff Cove, and Christmas Cove. Of these, Goff Cove Beach is my favorite. Just be careful climbing Goff Island…getting up is the easy part.

Depending upon tide levels, you might be able to walk from these beaches to Victoria Beach (north) or Aliso Beach (south). The former is another beautiful beach, well known for its Pirate Tower on the north end. Aliso Beach itself is sorta bland, but it can be a good spot to park if there aren’t spots around the Montage, and there are public fire pits that make this a great place to unwind and enjoy some s’mores or whatever.

“Worst” Beaches Near Disneyland

Worst is in air quotes above because these are not, objectively speaking, the absolute worst beaches in Southern California. There are several hidden not-so-gems that would “earn” that distinction. For this list, overrated might be the more apt term.

The entries on this list are all incredibly popular and routinely make ‘best of’ lists that are put together by aggregator websites based on Google reviews or whatever. Just remember: popularity and quality are not the same. If they were were synonymous, Keeping Up With the Kardashians would be the greatest show on television.

Anyway, here’s the worst/overrated/bad beaches list:

  • Main Beach, Laguna Beach – The most touristy and busiest beach in Laguna Beach is also flat and uninteresting; it’s all relative, though, this is great when compared to the ‘big’ beaches just about everywhere else.
  • Crystal Cove State Beach & Park, Laguna & Newport Beach – If you’re active and want to spend a day split between the beach and the backcountry, Crystal Cove is unparalleled. It offers 3 miles of coastline plus 2,400 acres of woods and tons of trails. If you’re looking for a relaxed beach day, there are better and less crowded options.
  • Venice Beach Boardwalk – If you fit the demo for Disneyland, you almost certainly do not fit the demo for Venice Beach.
  • Seal Beach Pier & Playground – All of the downsides of Huntington Beach, but none of the upsides. Very close to Disneyland, though!
  • Long Beach – We like Long Beach…but as a city, not a beach.

Again, all of these rate and rank very highly on an objective list of all California beaches. That would be particularly true of the two Laguna Beach entries. However, they underperform relative to convenient or comparable alternatives, and yet, frequently make lists like this.

Ultimately, this just begins to scratch the surface of the beautiful beaches, cool coves, and postcard-perfect parks that you’ll find in the beach cities of Southern California. It’s not just beaches, either. There’s a ton to do in Malibu, Santa Monica, Newport, Huntington, Laguna, Dana Point.

We highly recommend a beach day diversion from Disneyland, heading to the north or south along Pacific Coast Highway. Although we far prefer the beach cities to the south in Orange County, you really can’t go wrong either way. Los Angeles County also has some excellent options, and all offer a ton to do and see beyond just sand and sun!

Planning a Southern California vacation? For park admission deals, read Tips for Saving Money on Disneyland Tickets. Learn about on-site and off-site hotels in our Anaheim Hotel Reviews & Rankings. For where to eat, check out our Disneyland Restaurant Reviews. For unique ideas of things that’ll improve your trip, check out What to Pack for Disney. For comprehensive advice, consult our Disneyland Vacation Planning Guide. Finally, for guides beyond Disney, check out our Southern California Itineraries for day trips to Los Angeles, Laguna Beach, and many other SoCal cities!

Your Thoughts

Have you been to any of the beaches within driving distance of Disneyland? If so, which did you like or dislike? Do you prefer Malibu, Santa Monica, Newport, Huntington, Laguna, Dana Point, or some other beach city in Southern California? Any other beaches we didn’t mention? Any additional tips to add about these beaches that we didn’t cover? Do you agree or disagree with our rankings? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback—even when you disagree with us—is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!