Beach Road Trips from Disneyland

At the Santa Monica Pier, light bounces through the wooden structure at sunset.

At the Santa Monica Pier, light bounces through the wooden structure at sunset.

Story and photos by Megan Snedden

Megan is a California-based writer and photographer. Follow her on Instagram.

After you meet Mickey Mouse, relax on a Southern California beach.

You’ve made your way up and down Main Street, U.S.A. at Disneyland in Anaheim, you’ve explored all the wondrous “lands” there — and now you’re ready to extend your Golden State experience by relaxing on a nearby beach. Because the bottom half of California receives about 265 days of sunshine annually, beach-hopping is an important part of the local lifestyle.

Ready to hit the road in search of some sand? Steer your rental car south from Disneyland toward these three popular beaches.

Huntington Beach: Closest to Disneyland

A mere 21 miles south of the park, the city of Huntington Beach — also known as Surf City USA — makes the perfect place to unwind after a day on your feet. The shoreline stretches for 10 uninterrupted miles, and three of its five beaches have fire rings, including Huntington City Beach between First Street and Beach Boulevard. Remember to pack firewood, marshmallows and blankets.

Maybe you’ll want to join a yoga class on the beach or check out the Surfing Walk of Fame along Main Street, where you’ll see the names of such surf pioneers as Duke Kahanamoku, who helped popularize the sport in the U.S. Look for a statue of him not far from the Huntington Beach Pier entrance along the Pacific Coast Highway. If you time your visit for the end of July, you can catch the U.S. Open of Surfing, said to be the largest surf competition in the world. The weeklong event is free and open to the public.

San Clemente: SoCal’s Ideal Fishing Pier

San Clemente Pier, about 45 minutes south of Disneyland, offers a picturesque view of the seaside town and also brag-worthy ocean fishing. A license isn't required at this public pier, where leopard sharks, barred sand bass and kelp bass are often caught. Find out catch quotas and size rules in advance of fishing.

If you turn up empty-handed after casting a line, the Spanish Village by the Sea — as San Clemente is known — has an abundance of seafood restaurants. Try the Lobster Shack on West Avenida Palizada or Slapfish on West Avenida Vista Hermosa. Before or after grabbing a bite, enjoy the views along the San Clemente Beach Trail, a 2.3 mile-long hiking path that initiates at North Beach and ends at Calafia Beach. 

Carlsbad: Calling All Families and Beginner Surfers

Soak up the sun in Carlsbad, a small city in northern San Diego County that fronts the seashore along the Pacific Coast Highway, just 61 miles south of Disneyland. This kid-friendly destination has everything families big and small need to create a quintessentially Southern California road trip experience. Eight beaches are nearby, including Robert Frazee State Beach near the heart of town. Tamarack State Beach is a perfect spot to introduce the family to surfing  — take a lesson with the seasoned professionals at SoCal Surf Lessons.

Beyond the sand, Carlsbad Village offers blocks and blocks of shopping, casual and fine dining, art galleries and gift shops. The kids might also enjoy kayaking or stand up paddleboarding at Carlsbad Lagoon Recreation Area, where the water is calmer than on the ocean.

Heading north? Check out these four beaches where you can reconnect with nature. 

Manhattan Beach: A Glorious High-end Getaway

Manhattan Beach, just 45 minutes northwest of Disneyland and 5 miles south of Los Angeles International Airport, is where multimillion dollar homes, a seaside bike path and upscale boutiques mingle. People come to carve the world-class waves, play a few rounds of beach volleyball or cycle along that storied bike path. If you come here to indulge yourself, shop along The Strand or spend a night at the posh Shade Hotel in the heart of downtown.

Santa Monica State Beach: For Lovers of City Life

Part of Los Angeles County, Santa Monica is just over an hour northwest of Disneyland, and the city brings together the best of Southern California’s beach lifestyle and then some. Abundant bike paths and pedestrian-friendly areas such as the Third Street Promenade and Palisades Park make it a great place to enjoy a coastal vacation. On a stroll along Santa Monica Pier, you can ride the Pacific Park Ferris Wheel or the West Coaster and take in the fresh salt air at the same time. 

Topanga Beach: A Mecca for Outdoor Adventure

By reputation alone, this beach at the base of Topanga Canyon has become synonymous with outdoor adventure. About 1.5 hours north of Disneyland, the beach is one of the best advanced surfing spots in the Los Angeles area and also a short drive from top-notch hiking and mountain biking trails. At dusk, locals and tourists alike park along the highway and watch the sun go down from the comfort of their cars — an ideal way to end a day before heading to a local hotel or driving on to the city.

Leo Carrillo State Beach: A Camping Escape

Drive 70 miles northwest of Disneyland, pass through Santa Monica and Malibu, and you’ll reach Leo Carrillo State Beach. This popular camping destination offers a relaxing getaway within the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, parkland that comprises both beach and forest terrain.

Tucked away in a shady corridor of scrub oaks and sycamore trees, the campground is a short walk from the shore. By day, hike in the park or swim in the ocean, and spend the evening barbecuing or sitting around your campfire.


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