Santa Barbara Beach Guide

A Local's Guide to Santa Barbara's Most Beautiful Beaches

Santa Barbara is nicknamed the “American Riviera” for its similarity to the French Riviera’s beautiful juxtaposition of ocean and mountains and year-round temperate climate.  Located on California’s Central Coast, this pristine coastline runs for miles and is unusual for facing south.  It attracts millions of visitors annually, who flock to visit its stunning beaches.  The beaches face the Channel Islands, an archipelago of eight islands.  Along with the surrounding waters, these islands are part of a national park that forms one of the most diverse marine ecosystems in the world.  

Come visit, virtually, with me as your Santa Barbara beach guide. We'll travel the coastline from east to west, along with Butterfly Beach, East and West Beach, Shoreline Park and Arroyo Burro (better known as Hendry’s Beach by locals) where I spend time flying my drone in the clear skies above capturing the unique coastline and beaches.

Butterfly Beach

We’ll begin at Butterfly Beach, one of Santa Barbara’s most famous and popular beaches for its stunning and serene beauty. It is located in neighboring Montecito, just south of downtown Santa Barbara. Butterfly Beach gets its name from the butterflies that used to travel from a neighboring preserve and alight upon the surrounding flowers. It’s a favorite beach for beach walking, sunbathing and swimming, with its gentle swells. The long expanse of sandy beach is punctuated by rocky outcrops. At high tide, the beach narrows and the outcrops create mini-beaches. Visitors post up with their chairs and colorful umbrellas against the rock wall that runs along its back, sometimes with others sitting atop it, legs dangling up above their heads. Above the wall, an evenly spaced line of palm trees curves overtop as if reaching towards the ocean. Capturing the beach, the palm trees and the pool at the Coral Casino Beach and Cabana Club is fun and challenging. Just north of the beach is a cemetery the lines the cliff leading to the beach, the greens from the grass and trees really make photos pop.

As you walk down the beach, you pass below hotels’ stairways and private pool areas. These include the Coral Casino and the renowned Four Seasons Resort the Biltmore Santa Barbara (the original Biltmore), where you can take a break from the beach to enjoy a meal and drinks. Be sure to stay until sunset which can create great beach photos. Butterfly Beach is one of the Central Coast’s only Western facing beaches, with rare and glorious views of the sun sinking through a blaze of color into the ocean and below the horizon and one of my favorite place to photograph with my drone. During your visit, you likely see pods of dolphins jumping in the distance, and if you're lucky, you may spot movie stars who live in Montecito too.

To the north, you can see the Mesa and Harbor and on a clear day, can make out the pier. At low tide, it is possible to walk miles in each direction, all the way to East Beach, the most popular beach for tourists. East Beach is the first beach within Santa Barbara city limits and is proximal to Stearns Wharf and the downtown area. East Beach delivers classic Californian iconography with its evenly spaced row of towering palm trees and lifeguard towers and the many games taking place on its sand volleyball courts. On a clear day, I can fly around and take some amazing photos of the palm trees, volleyball courts and even capture some boats off the coast from time to time. One of my top selling prints is from East Beach. In the air, paragliders soar and swoop in zigzags like seabirds.

A bike path across the street runs all the way from Butterfly Beach to University of California, Santa Barbara. Beyond the bike path, you’ll find a unique attraction dedicated to the artists of the area. The Chromatic Gate rainbow arch was designed by renowned local artist Herbert Bayer and is a multi-color-hued geometric metal rectangle standing 21 feet high. Face the ocean with the rainbow arch in the foreground for a truly photogenic sight.

East Beach And West Beach

East Beach meets West Beach, a wide beach running westward towards the harbor, at the Stearns Wharf Pier. Stearns Wharf was first completed in 1872 as a necessary breakwater for Santa Barbara’s harbor. Over the years, it has been damaged by storms, earthquake, and fire, but has always been rebuilt. It still stands resolute, as California’s oldest working wooden wharf. It is Santa Barbara’s single most visited landmark by locals and tourists alike, who enjoy sweeping panoramic views of boats going in and out to sea from the picturesque adjacent harbor.

West Beach is also the location for Santa Barbara’s traditional Fourth of July celebration and festivities. Visitors enjoy an afternoon and evening of food and music at the beautiful waterfront along West Beach and Stearns Wharf, followed by a spectacular fireworks display.

Shoreline Park

Next, we’ll visit Shoreline Park, a strip of land upon the mesa above the ocean. You can pick your favorite spot to watch the breathtaking vista and people enjoying surfing and paddle-boarding below. Shoreline is a great place to fly your UAV (aka drone) and capture surfers, sailboats and crashing waves which makes for great beach photography.

A wooden staircase descends to a beach that can only be accessed during low tide. The park contains trails, picnic areas often used for weddings and other celebrations, a Japanese garden, and observation telescopes next to a whale tale statue. Shoreline Park is known as the best local spot for whale watching, and for its panoramic views of the Channel Islands, curving coastline, and Santa Ynez Mountains. You are likely to spot pods of dolphins leaping through the air, and from late November through April, some of the thousands of Pacific gray whales migrating through the Santa Barbara Channel.

Hendry's Beach

Continuing west bring us to our last stop and to my personal favorite beach in Santa Barbara, Hendry’s Beach. It is secluded by tall cliffs and a curving coastline, giving a feeling of protection from the outside world. This beach has everything: a long and wide stretch of sandy beach, a little lagoon that connects to the ocean at high tide, lofty bluffs topped by the Douglas Family Preserve, and Boathouse Restaurant for seaside dining with panoramic views. It is also a favorite beach for surfers, who ride its moderate swells, and for dog owners, whose happy dogs go off-leash to run, frolic in the waves, and make new four-legged friends.

As you walk down the coast, all your senses will be engaged, from the clean and salty smell of the ocean, to the feel of the surf cresting over your feet, to the sounds of marine birds calling to each other as they soar and dive overhead. On clear days, the Channel Islands are easily visible, and on hazy days, they rise out of the mist like ridges along the back of a great submerged sea creature. In the springtime, wildflowers cover the bluffs and obscure half-hidden staircases. This gorgeous beach is at the foot of coastal bluffs of the Douglas Family Preserve. The preserve was created and named for Michael Douglas for his contribution to local efforts that saved the bluffs from ecologically threatening plans for commercial development. Now people can enjoy the preserve’s trails, stunning views of the ocean, and even hang glide there from nearby Ellings Park, secure in its conservation in perpetuity.

I hope you enjoyed our virtual tour of Santa Barbara’s best beaches. If you enjoyed the fine art aerial photography in this post, feel to purchase any/all of them as large wall art prints in our shop! 

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