Truth be told, I rarely took my kids to the beach when they were toddlers. Sand-filled diapers, a defiant second child making beelines for the big waves, and little legs too tired to walk back to the car - who needs it! Direct me instead to the nearest tidy playground with a locked gate, please! But hindsight being 20/20, I realize I overreacted. After all, sand washes off and little legs often surprise us in their resilience. What's more, toes in wet sand (yours included) make for the biggest grins and giggles, and afternoons well spent. So go on, gather the shovels, sandwiches, and sunscreen, and go west, young families. Beachy adventures await.
Leo Carrillo State Beach
35000 West Pacific Coast Highway
A classic family beach spot, and it's no wonder. With easy parking, a "tunnel" that walks you under the PCH to the beach (that alone is exciting), and plenty of sand and tidepools once you get there, this destination is a repeat favorite. Don't forget to explore the rocks and caves, too! You can even make a weekend of it at the nearby campground.
28128 Pacific Coast Highway
Malibu, CA 90265
Feel like splurging? No, we mean really splurging. Then make a day of it at Paradise Cove. It's a private beach, and there's no surfing allowed, so the rolling waves are just for the swimmers. Many a movie and TV show were filmed here (Baywatch, Gidget, Sponge Bob Square Pants: The Movie) so the backdrop may look familiar. Rent a beach chair, rent an umbrella, or occupy your own little hut. No luxury is spared (including valet parking at no extra charge!). Grab some lunch at the Beach Cafe (a $30 purchase cuts the parking rate from $35 weekdays and $50 on weekends to $8 weekdays and $10 on weekends for 4 hours). It's all there for you and your little gang.
Zuma Beach by InSapphoWeTrust/CC BY 2.0
30000 Pacific Coast Highway
Malibu, CA 90265
Sure it gets crowded in the summer, but that's because beach goers know a good thing when they see it. Picturesque, secluded, with a familiar rock face you may recognize from a movie or two, Zuma Beach is just that beach you want to plop down on for the day. The little ones can glide on their boogie boards, build a sand castle or two, and watch the daring rock climbers.
El Matador Beach
32350 Pacific Coast Highway
Malibu, CA 90265
Located between Leo Carrillo and Point Dume, El Matador is one of three "pocket beaches" at Robert H. Meyer Memorial State Beach. While it's a steep path from the street parking above (leave the stroller at home), the rock formations make for amazing views. Because the beach is narrow, get here early to get a good spot -- and bring your own food (there's no food service here) but portable toilets are located in the upper parking area.
31711 Broad Beach Road
Malibu, CA 90265
This secluded, hidden gem (which is a public beach) near El Matador Beach is hard to find, but that means it can be a quiet retreat with tide pools and a chance to soak (you won't bump into surfers here due to the gentle waves and underwater rocks). This beach has an accessible entrance off of Broad Beach Road and Bunnie Lane. Access to Lechuza Beach is available through a residential neighborhood with on-street parking, so just park your car, walk down one of the two paths, and head to the beach.
Santa Monica's Annenberg Beach House. Photo by William Short courtesy of Annenberg Beach House
Santa Monica Bay
Annenberg Community Beach House
415 Pacific Coast Highway
Santa Monica, CA 90402
A personal favorite because, really, what's not to like? You get the double delight of both a pool ($10 for adults, $4 kids 1-17) with beach house (read: clean bathrooms and indoor showers), splash pad, and a wide beach just steps away. Plus there's a snack bar and a playground. Final bonus: the boardwalk down to the shore makes it easy to bring a stroller.
Playa Del Rey Beach
Culver Blvd. & Pacific Ave.
Playa del Rey, CA 90293
Want a simple no-frills beach with free parking? Head west on Culver Blvd. until it dead-ends at the ocean, and there you have it. The Del Rey Lagoon is just across the street, complete with playground and wetland birds (and BBQs on the grass). Stop off at Tanner's Coffee for java and a treat.
Redondo Beach Pier
100 W. Torrance Blvd.
Redondo Beach, CA 90277
Okay, this is not one of those cozy, tucked away beaches where civilization recedes into the background. But if you and the kids are in the mood for beach with commotion and activity, check out Redondo Beach. Just steps from the Pier, is the beach, and (of course) just steps from the beach, is the Pier, bustling with ice cream shops, kite shops, restaurants, and pterodactyl-like pelicans swooping down for a rest.
Tidepools at Cabrillo Beach. Photo by Neil Silverthorn/CC BY 2.0
Palos Verdes and Long Beach
5970 Palos Verdes Dr. S
Palos Verdes, CA 90275
This beach is fabulous, but (disclaimer) it involves a lengthy walk down a trail to get there. If your little troopers can keep their eye on the prize, rewarded they will be. Sand, surf, and bountiful tidepools (with plenty of star fish), plus more trails to explore if the spirit moves. Grassy lawns and picnic tables abound near the parking lot for a post-beach picnic.
3720 Stephen M. White Dr.
San Pedro, CA 90731
Some free street parking available
Here's another beach with more than just sand a surf. Check out the tide pools, as well as nearby Cabrillo Marine Aquarium for a well-rounded outing. There are two beach options: one with larger waves beyond the breakwater, and one in the harbor with gentler wave action, both within the same walking vicinity.
Little Corona Del Mar Beach is a great place for tidepooling. Photo by Michele & Tom Grimm courtesy of Visit Newport Beach
Little Corona Del Mar Beach
Ocean Blvd. & Poppy Ave.
Corona del Mar, CA 92625
Free street parking
Hands down, one of the better beaches to hit with kids in tow. Park for free in the nearby neighborhood, take a short walk down a ramp, and you arrive at a little oasis where it's easy to watch the kids, the tide is gentle, and hermit crabs shuffle through the tide pools. Restrooms and showers are also available.
Baby Beach in Dana Point Harbor
Dana Point Harbor
34551 Puerto Place
Dana Point, CA 92629
Free parking for first 4 hours
The name of this beach about says it all. Babies (and toddlers and those a bit bigger) can frolic in the calm waters of this little cove. Showers and bathrooms are available. The only note of caution: it often gets crowded on weekends. But also on the weekends, the nearby Ocean Institute is open to the public.
Originally published June 1, 2013