The ultimate guide to California’s beaches and how to get married on them
California’s coastline is iconic for more than the care-free surf culture. The entire state is lined in miles of natural beauty, with towering cliffs, rolling green hills, and soft sands all looking out onto the Pacific Ocean. The Pacific Coast Highway is regarded as one of the most scenic drives in the world. In Southern California, you can watch surfers riding the waves at sunset. If you head North, you can catch the fog rolling out from redwood forests into the ocean. Any type of oceanside scenery you’re looking for, you can find somewhere in California, making it an ideal place for a beach wedding.
So how do you actually go about making this dream a reality? This guide is a perfect place to start. I’ve researched the best beach wedding locations and compiled all of the most important information here to help you start your planning process. Below you’ll find some of the most beautiful beach locations in California, as well as information about permits, local activities and food, and places to stay. If you’re ready to start seriously planning your wedding, then contact me now for more information on photography packages!
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How to have a California beach wedding
As a wedding photographer, I know how much goes into planning a wedding. It can be hard to know where to begin. The first step to planning a wedding is deciding exactly what to plan for. Here are a few things to consider when planning a beach wedding in California:
- Who you want to include in your wedding
- When you want to have your wedding
- How you want your wedding day to look
- Where you want your wedding
Are you dreaming of a toes-in-the-sand elopement with just the two of you, plus a possible officiant and some witnesses? Or do you want a small beach wedding with just your immediate family and closest friends? There are plenty of options for both in California. You’ll be able to have a quick standing ceremony on pretty much any beach on the California coastline, and a permit may or may not be required depending on the area. You can also reserve sections of the beach for a small wedding (usually for 50 people or less). This will give you the option to include seating for your guests and more complex set-ups, like an arch or florals. California State Parks are great options for any small wedding day.
After you choose a location, then you’ll want to consider the best time of year to visit that location based on weather and tourist seasons. Winter is a great time to visit Southern California. For Northern California locations like San Francisco, the months before and after summer (May and September) will typically offer the most mild weather with less crowds. I always recommend trying to schedule weddings on a weekday if possible. Weekdays will always simply have less crowds and less tourists, no matter where you are.
I’ve photographed weddings on the beach with full styled florals and archways, and I’ve photographed intimate elopements with nothing but the bride and groom reading vows to each other. What you need on your wedding day is entirely up to you and your style. Some things to consider besides a photographer and officiant are florists, stylists, and rental companies who can help design and set up your wedding space to look exactly the way you want it to.
If you don’t have any specific area or city you want to stay close to, then the best place to start is by thinking about what type of scenery you enjoy the most. Do you want a classic sandy beach with swaying palm trees on your wedding day, or do you love the look of waves crashing up against rocky cliffs? Continue reading for a full guide with beach locations of every kind below.
Best California beaches for small weddings and elopements
- San Diego Beaches
- Orange County Beaches
- Los Angeles Beaches
- Malibu Beaches
- Central California Beaches
- Big Sur Beaches
- Northern California Beaches
San Diego Beaches
Best for: A destination wedding
Just a short drive from the border of Mexico, San Diego is pretty much as Southern California as you can get. San Diego is also home to the best tacos I’ve ever had – and some truly beautiful beaches. The soft white sands literally sparkle (due to the mineral mica found in the soil here). This all makes San Diego a perfect vacation destination, but that also means that many of it’s most beautiful beaches are crowded with tourists. This is not ideal if you’re hoping for a private wedding on the beach, but luckily San Diego’s 70 miles of coastline has plenty of options available. Here are some lesser-known scenic beaches in the San Diego area:
- Windansea Beach – 6800 Neptune Pl. San Diego, CA 92037
Although this is a well-known surf spot, this beach continues to stay fairly uncrowded as there are only a few parking spaces and does not offer public restrooms or showers. This beach offers classic flat white sands, as well as some rocks and boulders along the water’s edge. This beach is best for a low-key intimate elopement with only a few people.
- Sunset Cliffs – Ladera St, San Diego, CA 92107
Explore the tall arches and sea caves, or just watch the sunset from the coastal bluffs. Sunset Cliffs Natural Park allows you to get married on gorgeous sandy cliffs towering over the Pacific Ocean. While it’s not exactly an “unknown” spot, it is great for a small beach wedding because you can reserve one of three areas for up to 50 people.
How to have a beach wedding in San Diego
A permit is required to have a beach wedding in San Diego, California. You will need to apply for a special event permit with Parks and Recreation at least 45 days before your wedding.
Other things to do in San Diego
Besides hanging out on the beach, San Diego’s main appeal is really the food – the suggestions are endless, so here’s 31 things to eat just to start. Work off all the food by hiking in one of San Diego’s many nature reserves or try snorkeling or scuba diving. If a low-key day involving architecture and museums is more your style, try Old Town San Diego or the famous Balboa Park.
Orange County Beaches
Best for: A Disneyland Honeymoon
Let’s not pretend we don’t know that Disneyland is really the main attraction for Orange County. But outside the original Magic Kingdom are a string of beach towns with charm of their own. You’ll find lots of classic, clean beaches perfect for a serene wedding day here.
- Sunset Beach – Huntington Beach, CA 92649
Sunset Beach is a small and typically uncrowded section of Huntington Beach with a real local vibe. This is the kind of beach you can have a quick ceremony on, watch the sunset as newlyweds, then head over to a 24-hour diner for some just-married waffles. You can find more permit information from the city of Huntington Beach.
- Crystal Cove – 8471 N Coast Hwy, Laguna Beach, CA 92651
Crystal Cove State Park offers more than just a quiet section of surf and sand along Laguna Beach. You’ll also find picturesque reefs and patches of green and wildflowers lining the beach, making it a perfect location for a wedding. You can reserve areas for both elopements and small weddings directly from the state park here. Fees start at $125 per hour for basic standing elopements under 10 people and go up for larger groups and reserved areas.
- Crescent Bay Beach – 1399 Circle Way, Laguna Beach, CA 92651
Crescent Bay Beach is a relatively quiet yet easily accessible location in Laguna Beach, perfect for an intimate, low-key wedding day. You’ll have views of Laguna Beach’s winding coastline and large golden cliffs on either side. Weddings are only permitted here September-May. Permits for this location will need to be acquired through the city of Laguna Beach. The permit fee is $425 for two hours.
How to have a beach wedding in Orange County
For most beaches in Orange County, you’ll need a permit for any event (like a wedding) that includes contracted vendors, such as an officiant and photographer. Different cities may have different requirements, so be sure to check out the permitting information for each individual location above.
Other things to do in Orange County
Take a break from Disneyland for a local lunch at the Anaheim Packing District. You can also take a quick day-cruise out of Newport Beach to whale watch or visit Catalina Island.
Los Angeles Beaches
Best for: A classic Southern California vibe
Hollywood, sunshine and traffic: Los Angeles really does live up to all the stereotypes. The beaches are no Surf City USA, but if you have the same love I do for the bustle of the city and historic landmarks, don’t count out Los Angeles for your California beach wedding.
- Santa Monica State Beach – 200 Santa Monica Pier, Santa Monica, CA 90401
It’s hard to find a beach with a more classic LA vibe than Santa Monica. If you travel further down the coast, away from the pier, you’ll find quieter beaches for your wedding ceremony. The best part about a Santa Monica beach wedding is that there’s no permits required. You can get to the beach today, find a spot to have your wedding, even set up chairs and decor, then pack up and leave when you’re done. As long as you keep it under 150 people, you’re good. See the city of Santa Monica‘s guidelines for more information.
- Sacred Cove Beach – Rancho Palos Verdes, CA 90275
Accessible by a short hike near Abalone Cove Beach, this isolated rocky beach would be a unique backdrop for an intimate adventure elopement right in Los Angeles County.
How to have a beach wedding in Los Angeles
Permits required will vary by area, but Los Angeles County event permits can be requested between 3 weeks – 90 days before your wedding. Permit fees as of 2020 are $250.
Other things to do in Los Angeles
This list could go on forever and has been done many times before (see just one list of 55 things to do in LA here). My favorite thing to do if I have a day in LA is to take a slow and scenic drive through the Hollywood Hills and look at the historic houses on the way up to the Griffith Observatory. Seeing Los Angeles’s skyline from the observatory is an experience by itself.
Best for: A sophisticated wedding day
Malibu may be home to the truly rich and famous, but it’s pristine beaches are for everyone. A Malibu beach wedding doesn’t have to be swanky – see the gallery of a small Malibu beach wedding with only the couple’s closest family and friends here!
- El Matador – 32350 Pacific Coast Hwy, Malibu, CA 90265
One of three areas within Robert H. Meyer Memorial State Beach, El Matador is truly breathtaking. You’ll have a wide sandy area with a backdrop of large sea stacks and sea arches, which are absolutely gorgeous with the waves crashing against them.
- Lechuza Beach – 31711 Broad Beach Rd., Malibu, CA 90265
One of the lesser-known beaches in Malibu, you’ll find seclusion perfect for an intimate elopement here. You’ll find large black rocks and boulders scattered down the sandy beach and out into the water here.
How to have a beach wedding in Malibu
Permits for weddings on public beaches in Malibu can be obtained through LA County. As of 2020, the permit fee is $250 and can be applied for between 3 weeks – 90 days before the wedding date.
Other things to do in Malibu
Besides the beaches, Malibu offers amazing outdoor scenery with hikes through the Santa Monica Mountains, featuring beautiful canyons and even waterfalls. There’s also plenty of upscale dining in Malibu if you want a fancy indoor experience.
Central California Beaches
Best for: Escaping the tourists
Central California is often overlooked and overshadowed by the bigger cities of Los Angeles or San Francisco. However, this makes it more ideal for a simple beach wedding free of the huge tourism industry.
- South Palisades Park – 194 Beachcomber Dr. Pismo Beach, CA 93449
A quiet area of Pismo Beach, this secluded beach is sheltered by bluffs and features rock formations and tide pools. Contact the city of Pismo Beach for permitting information.
- North Point – Morro Bay, CA 93442
Morro Bay is a hidden treasure. It’s “secret season” in October and November is a continuation of perfect warm weather without summer tourists. North Point is just one of the beaches that offer a view of Morro Rock, as well as sandy paths to the ocean covered in greenery and wildflowers.
How to have a beach wedding in Central California
Permits vary by city, but this resource from San Luis Obispo County includes contact information for many nearby areas, including Pismo Beach and Morro Bay.
Other things to do in Central California
San Luis Obispo is home to many Central California landmarks, including the iconic Madonna Inn, Bubblegum Alley, and Hearst Castle. Explore the trails up and surrounding Bishop’s Peak for some non-beach related outdoor activity.
Big Sur Beaches
Best for: An adventurous beach wedding
If you’re a fan of dramatic scenery, Big Sur State Park is the location for your California beach wedding. Cliffs and actual mountains rise up from the teal colored sea. Forests of oak, pine, and redwood trees have trails leading out to beaches surrounded by coves. Here are just a couple beaches to have your Big Sur wedding on:
- Pfeiffer Beach – Sycamore Canyon Rd, Big Sur, CA 93920
Surrounded by Big Sur’s classic rock formations, you’ll find an extra surprise here in the purple-colored sands. This area is great for an intimate elopement or small standing-only wedding.
- Garrapata State Park – 34500 CA-1, Carmel-By-The-Sea, CA 93923
Trails through redwoods lead to rugged coastline covered in green and wildflowers swaying in the breezy sea air. There’s not much more you could ask for. This location is ideal for an adventurous eloping couple.
How to have a beach wedding in Big Sur
In select locations of Big Sur, California State Parks offer special permits for very small, intimate elopements with less than 10 people. For more information on permits, contact California State Parks.
Other things to do in Big Sur
While the views are breathtaking and 100% worth it, Big Sur has become a bit of a tourist hub. Despite this, accommodations are still fairly limited, so unless you want to camp, you’ll save a lot of money by staying outside of the Big Sur area in a city like Monterey.
Northern California Beaches
While Northern California is better known for its wine than for its beaches, it’s not without its coastal treasures. Here are just a few Northern California locations worth considering for a beach wedding:
- Baker Beach – San Francisco, CA
The appeal of this beach is the clear, postcard-like view of the Golden Gate Bridge. A part of Golden Gate National Park, you’ll need a permit from the National Parks Service for an elopement or small wedding here.
- Monterey State Beach – Monterey Peninsula Recreational Trail, Sand City, CA 93955
Monterey has plenty of options for a scenic beach wedding, with views of green cliffs or flat white sands. As of 2020, the city of Monterey’s website stated permits were only required for gatherings of 10 people or more, so Monterey is a great option for very small and low-key elopements or weddings with only a few witnesses and family members.
How to have a beach wedding in Northern California
Permits will vary by location, so refer to the specific location above for more information.
Other things to do in Northern California
Northern California is massive and so full of hidden gems I couldn’t list here. If you’re interested in eloping here, then check out 11 more Northern California Beaches worth considering for your beach wedding!