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Carpinteria Beach, California: Calm Waters and Clifftop Views on the Central Coast

For decades, the small town of Carpinteria, California, situated along the state’s Central Coast northwest of Los Angeles, has advertised itself as having “the world’s safest beach,” thanks to its southern aspect, wide sands, and lack of riptide.

The designation encompasses not only Carpinteria’s small, 500-yard-long City Beach, found at the end of main drag Linden Avenue, but also the much larger adjoining State Beach—though locals insist the safety stretches as far as you can walk on the sand.

To reach the beach, walk down Linden, where you’ll pass old-time candy store Robitaille’s, the booths of seafood restaurant Little Dom’s, surfer breakfast joint Esau’s Cafe, and the Lantern Tree bookstore.

When you reach The Spot, a retro burger shack, you have the choice of either walking the raised decking into the 62-acre state park or continuing straight ahead to the shore. 

Opposite the small Amtrak station is another path through the park that begins at the Tomol Interpretive Play Area. All routes will take you past a picnic area and the always-busy Santa Rosa Campground and RV park. 

To the east lies the Carpinteria Bluffs Nature Preserve, an oceanfront green space that locals are fighting fiercely to keep untouched. Depending on the season and time of day, the cliff trail can be an atmospheric, foggy route showcasing stripped, wind-bent trees, or a summer fusion of flowers and plants with lizards and rabbits in view. 

(L–R: tar pits and a sunset in Carpinteria, California | Credit: Shutterstock / Unsplash)

Another path leads down to Tar Pits Park, where naturally occurring black asphalt still oozes onto the sand. The tar was such an excellent sealant for canoes that the Indigenous Chumash people based a village and a carpentry here, later inspiring the city’s current name. (The village’s pre-colonial Chumash name was Šujtu.)

Note that the tar attaches itself to bare feet, requiring petroleum jelly for removal. 

After a walk of 30 minutes or so along the trail, you’ll arrive at the Carpinteria Seal Sanctuary. Harbor seals come here every winter to give birth. Access via the beach is prohibited, but you’ll get a view of the scene from far above.

Often you’ll see dozens of the spotted gray and brown seals lazing in groups, some gently lifting their flippers and heads like synchronized swimmers to avoid the incoming waves, while others swim around the kelp patches to hunt for fish and keep watch. 

(Harbor seals in Carpinteria, California | Credit: Scenic Corner / Shutterstock)

The trail continues farther into the nature preserve, but turn back and exit the path at Palm Avenue, close to the RV park entrance. That’s where you’ll find Santa Barbara Hives, a store specializing in honey and beeswax-derived candles and skin-care products (such as soaps and lip balms), as well as baked goods, including charcoal sourdough bread that always sells out. You can even try the shop’s avocado honey, a nod to the region’s beloved avocados, which are grown locally and celebrated in a festival every October.

While you’re in Carpinteria, always keep an eye on the ocean—there’s a good chance of spying dolphins dipping in the water and armadas of pelicans flying overhead. On a clear day, you can glimpse silhouettes of the Channel Islands. Head back to Linden Avenue to learn more about that archipelago at the soon-to-open Chrisman California Islands Center.