Hidden gems: The best beach towns on the West Coast

Family TravelNorth AmericaTravel Tips

Something about a small town near a big beach under the summer sun makes you feel like a kid again. Let’s wave goodbye to that fast-lane stress as we splash in blue waves, dig our toes into a sandy shore, or enjoy a cold drink at a low-key local shop where everyone’s on a first name basis. Yes, old-fashioned beach towns with ice cream parlors and no stoplights still exist, offering a level of peace and quiet that the big resorts can’t match. Here’s a list of five seaside villages to get you started, each waiting to welcome you with its own quirky, eccentric charm.

Yachats, Oregon

Seagulls take flight along an Oregon Coast beach

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Not every seaside village of 600 inhabitants boasts its own lighthouse and covered bridge, but Yachats is one-of-a-kind in every sense of the word. With the deep Coastal Range forest on one side and the Pacific lapping the other, gorgeous Yachats—pronounced yah-hots—is one of the Oregon Coast’s best-kept secrets. Artists and counterculturists live here, along with just plain folk who are inspired by the glorious stillness.

You’ll be inspired, too, when you search for agates on the uncrowded pebble beaches, gaze out from Cape Perpetua—the highest point on the state coastline—and just soak up Yachat’s own particular brand of cool. The happy, unhurried atmosphere makes this a great spot for a quiet getaway or a top-notch alternative to the hustle of city life for a different kind of summer vacation. Don’t miss the craft beers at Yachats Brewing, right in the heart of the community.


Bolinas, California

Bolinas Beach, California

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Bolinas is only an hour’s drive from San Francisco, but keep your GPS on to find it. Residents intent on saving the small community’s authenticity are known to remove the road signs that direct you here. The trick is to turn left off Highway 1 just past the beautiful Bolinas Lagoon. Fun fact–the town isn’t actually part of North America because it’s separated from the mainland by the San Andreas Fault. There’s only one road in, but you’ll want to stay for a while when you finally get there.

Bolinas Beach is idyllic, a vast stretch of white sand situated at the mouth of the lagoon where soft waves wrap the point. With only one restaurant—the Coast Cafe—and one bar—Smiley’s—you’ll see a good cross section of the artists, writers, and environmentalists who live here. Little shops lining the few commercial streets sell artisanal and craft items, and you’ll find no better place in the world to stroll, shop, people watch, and picnic.


Pescadero, California

Cliff by beach, Pescadero, California

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If the golden ribbon of Highway 1 that runs along the Pacific is the nation’s iconic beach highway, charming little Pescadero—halfway between San Francisco and Santa Cruz—might be the model beach village. This farming and ranching community is surrounded by redwood forests, dramatic coastline, and a vast, wildlife-rich marsh. Add in the pleasant mix of Pescadero locals and you won’t find a friendlier village.

Welcoming businesses line up on either side of Pescadero’s main street. Visit the thrift store where the locals come to catch up on community news. For picnic supplies, try Norm’s Market, maker of absolutely outstanding artichoke bread that people travel from all around to taste hot from the oven.

When it’s time to relax, head towards the Pacific shoreline for breathtaking views, white sand beaches, and rocky tide pools to explore.


Avalon, California

Boats in the harbor at the port of Avalon

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Never heard of Avalon?  It’s not surprising. This unsung jewel of a beach village would look right at home in the Mediterranean with its colorful houses tumbling down a green hill toward the boat harbor. But you’ll find Avalon quite a bit closer to home—it’s on Santa Catalina Island, twenty miles off the coast of Southern California.

With a population of 3,500, Avalon is just the kind of old-fashioned beach community you’re dreaming of with all the charm and tranquility of a coastal playground. Residents drive golf carts because it takes years to get an automobile permit for the island, and you can walk everywhere in town anyway. You’ll find a surprising selection of enticing restaurants, some with a view of the big, sandy beach. People know each other in here, locals own the businesses and there’s a lot of small town camaraderie. As the only town on the seventy-square-mile Santa Catalina Island, the town of Avalon is surrounded by natural rugged beauty. The wildlife includes herds of bison, introduced when a silent western movie was filmed here in 1924.


Todos Santos, Mexico

¡Buenos días México!

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You’ll have to try hard not to fall in love with Todos Santos, a small, out of the way, infinitely appealing beach town in Baja California. The weather in southern Baja is ideal, the water is emerald, and the beaches go on forever. Todos Santos isn’t far from Cabo San Lucas, but it is a world apart. You won’t find partying college kids here—no cruise ships or fast food chains, either.  In fact, Todos Santos has been named a “Pueblo Magico” or “Magical Town,” a designation awarded by the Mexican government to towns retaining their authenticity and artistic charm.

The dirt road you have to travel to get there may have something to do with its preservation from all things glitzy, but you’ll find some two dozen art galleries in this town of 5,000, as well as fishermen, surfers, and folk musicians. The biggest quandary of your day will be which gorgeous beach to visit when you vacation here. Stay long enough to try them all, from Playa Pescadero with it’s long stretch of pristine sand and waves just made for surfing, to Playa San Pedrito and Playa la Pastora for stronger surf and longer sands. Head to Playa la Cachora if you feel like whale watching, best in January, February, and March. Visit the breathtakingly gorgeous Playa Cerritos, a few kilometers up Highway 19, for safe swimming.

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