By Lisa Armstrong
That iconic, postcard-perfect image of California surf and sun really does exist, but the western coast is lined with beaches that run the gamut from activity-filled boardwalks to miles of sandy, pet-friendly strips. Whether you choose to walk in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark, ride antique trains in Oregon, or build sand castles in Texas, it’s easy to see that the west coast boasts more than just classic Southern Californian sun. Though it’s got that, too—in spades.
Rockaway Beach, Oregon
Known as being one of the best places for kite flying (the town holds a kite flying festival every May), Rockaway Beach also has tide pools teeming with sea life and seven miles of beach to explore. Check out Rockaway Beach’s tide table chart to figure out the best times to go if you plan to explore the tide pools or go beachcombing.
Insider Tip: Take an antique steam train excursion (90 minutes) for spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean.
Where to Eat: The Whale Spout serves kid-friendly staples like burgers and fish and chips, and is just 200 feet from the beach.
Where to Stay: Girabaldi House is perfect for families big and small. For maximum capacity, take the Family Suite, which has two queen beds and a pull out sofa.
Redondo Beach, California
Redondo Beach offers a range of water sports for kids and Seaside Lagoon, which is open May to September. Fed by the Pacific Ocean, the Seaside Lagoon is perfect for young children, as it’s a safe place to swim, sunbathe, and play volleyball. Along the beach is a beautiful 27 mile path for biking, skating, and walking that stretches from Redondo Beach to Santa Monica.
Insider tip: Redondo Beach has just debuted a mobile app for vacation planning.
Where to Eat: Good Stuff is a Southern California favorite for its organic, fresh take on wraps, burgers, and heaping salads. Kids love it for Mickey pancakes, natural corn dogs, and quesadillas.
Where to Stay: Book at the Portofino Hotel & Yacht Club for a relaxing oceanfront stay. Once you emerge from your airy, colorful room, you’re just steps from the beach.
Long Beach, Washington
This peninsula offers all kinds of fun beach activities, like clam digging and visiting nearby lighthouses. The best spot for families is Willapa Bay, where families can paddle through the shallow water, looking for wildlife along the rocky beaches.
Insider Tip: Ride though forest groves on the Discovery Trail and up to the overlook point for spectacular views of Ford’s Dry Lake/Holman Lake.
Where to Eat: Hungry Harbor Grille has a special kids menu and 21 flavors of handmade milkshakes, with outdoor seating for families with pets.
Where to Stay: Grab a quaint beachfront cottage at Klipsan Beach Cottages in nearby Ocean Park. Built in the 1940s, they’ve long been a family-favored destination with full kitchens and short trails to the beach.
Seaside offers classic beachside-activities like swimming, playing volleyball, and enjoying salt water taffy. In addition to just hanging out on the beach, families can ride a carousel and feed seals at the Seaside Aquarium. Check out Seaside’s new app for more on activities and places to visit.
Insider Tip: Be sure to walk the 1.5 mile promenade, retracing the footsteps of famed explorers Lewis and Clark.
Where to Eat: Enjoy homemade muffins, sandwiches made with fresh-from-the-oven bread, and specialty coffees (for the adults) at local favorite, Auntie M’s.
Where to Stay: Spring for a room at Rivertide Suites. It may be on the river (instead of the ocean), but its walking distance from all the fun to be had in town as well as on the boardwalk.
Carmel Beach, California
In gorgeous Carmel in Northern California, Carmel Beach is ideal for families—its well-maintained (partly due to dedicated volunteer cleanups), has mild temperatures year-round, and allows for beach bonfires (perfect for the s’more-loving family). What’s more, the town is incredibly pet friendly—pets are allowed in many restaurants and shops, so Fido can come, too!
Insider Tip: Find a parking spot for the car and leave it—Carmel has a free trolley that travels throughout the town.
Where to Eat: Katy’s Place Carmel is a cozy spot popular with locals who go for one of eight types of waffles, their long-loved eggs benedict, and the California-classic lunch menu.
Where to Stay: If the kids are a little older, book into the Bernardus Lodge, a stunning property in nearby Carmel Valley known for its impeccable service and beautiful grounds. The Hyatt Carmel Highlands is another stunning choice with views of Big Sur. The Hyatt is particularly well-suited for families with babies or toddlers, with activities and vital amenities at the ready.
South Padre Island, Texas
Located at the southern tip of Padre Island, the South Padre Island National Seashore is considered one of Texas’ seven natural wonders, and is the world’s longest remaining undeveloped stretch of barrier island. A number of companies offer activities just for families, like surfing and sand castle building. In addition to playing on the beach, families can go bird watching and visit the Dolphin and Nature Research Center.
Insider Tip: Want to see a baby turtle being released back into the ocean? Call the Sea Turtle, Inc. hotline (956-433-5735) and if you’re in luck, you’ll be able to watch and early morning hatchling release.
Where to Eat: In nearby Port Isabel, stop into Isabel’s Café for its mouthwatering Mexican breakfast and lunch dishes. It may not look like much from the outside, but you’ll find plenty of locals dining within.
Where to Stay: The Isla Grand Resort is right on the beach and near all the attractions, and offers standard rooms as well as condos with full kitchens and living/dining areas.
Butterfly Beach, California
This hidden gem of a beach sits unassumingly in front of the iconic Biltmore hotel in Montecito, Santa Barbara. It’s filled with locals (including the many celebrities that call Santa Barbara home, or vacation-home) picnicking on the sand with a four-legged friend in tow (it’s dog-friendly and they’re even allowed off-leash). Because it’s off the beaten path a bit, you’ll find you can really spread out. Plus, the entrance and parking are free!
Insider Tip: Off-the-beaten-path also means no facilities are found at this beach—go to the bathroom before you hit the beach and make sure to bring snacks and sunscreen with you.
Where to Eat: You’re just a short drive (or bike ride, or walk) from the center of Santa Barbara—either grab your picnic lunch from the Santa Barbara Farmer’s Market before you hit the beach, or head further up the beach to the Shoreline Cafe for lunch. Definitely don’t miss the chance to get some locally made (and loved) McConnell’s Ice Cream in town.
Where to Stay: The Biltmore Santa Barbara is directly across the beach, and offers kid-sized bathrobes and other amenities. With the "You Dine, We Play" program, parents can enjoy a romantic dinner while kids are entertained by the staff.
Live back east? Check out our picks for the best family beaches on the East Coast.
Photo Credits: Rockaway Beach: Twin Rocks by Paul HamiltonAttribution-ShareAlike License; SeasideCourtesy of Seaside Visitors Bureau; Long Beach: DSC_0186 by Katrina Br*?#*!@ndAttribution-ShareAlike License; Redondo Beach: Redondo Beach via Shutterstock.com; Carmel Beach: Courtesy of Carmel Chamber of Commerce; Butterfly Beach: Butterfly Beach via Shutterstock.com; South Padre Island: Courtesy of South Padre Island Chamber of Commerce