Southern California has a lot of incredible beaches, but without question, the best beach near Los Angeles is El Matador State Beach in Malibu, which is one of the pocket beaches in Robert H. Meyer Memorial State Beach (all of which are part of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area). In this post, I’ll share what makes this stretch of the Pacific Coast so special, along with tips for best-experiencing this “Megastar of Malibu.”
Actually, “megastar” might be a bit too strong of language. While I would not call El Matador a secret or hidden gem, it’s definitely not one of the more popular beaches near Los Angeles. Its visitation is dwarfed by beaches that are closer to the city, particularly those around the Santa Monica Pier. It is probably the most popular beach in Malibu (Point Dume might give it a run for its money). Thanks to its stunning rock formations, tide pools, hidden sea caves, arch rocks, and more, El Matador is certainly the most naturally beautiful beach in the area.
In fact, I’d go as far as to call this the most naturally-beautiful beach I’ve seen in the entire United States. While I love the seclusion and pristine parks of Laguna Beach, and there are some hidden gems throughout Big Sur and up towards San Francisco, I’ve yet to find anything that’s as unique or distinct as El Matador State Beach. If this sounds too good to be true so far, well, it is. Sort of…
While I emphasize the natural beauty of El Matador above, it comes with a downside: the people. Malibu being Malibu, you can always expect to encounter an Instagram-famous “model” or two (or 6) here prancing around topless (it’s not a nude beach) for photos. You can also expect to encounter the distinct aroma of marijuana as local kids have also found this beach to be a nice ‘hidden gem’ for that. Moreover, there’s often litter on the ground and people have felt the need to graffiti some of the rocks.
None of this is unique to Malibu’s beaches. Every beach I’ve visited between Redondo Beach and Point Mogu has varying degrees of these same issues. This is true of Manhattan Beach, Santa Monica, Venice, etc. You’re far less likely to encounter this in Newport Beach and south, or Santa Barbara and north. (Excepting beaches in the vicinity of Santa Cruz.)
If you can get past those things–and you should–El Matador State Beach’s natural beauty is second to none. The first thing you’ll encounter once you descend the final flight of stairs to El Matador is a massive rock formation containing several arches. If the tide is low, you can actually walk or crawl through these arches. This is also an incredibly popular spot for photographers, and getting the above photo without other people in it required exceptional luck.
In addition to photographers (mostly of the wedding, engagement, and modeling variety–not landscape shooters), you’ll encounter a lot of casual guests on this stretch of El Matador State Beach.
From there, I’d recommend walking north as far as you can on the main section of beach. It isn’t too long, but for whatever reason, there are always fewer people on the north side of the main stretch.
Now, here is where things get tricky. None of what follows is a recommendation on my part. If you’re an out-of-state visitor or are unfamiliar with tide charts, you absolutely should not venture any further than the main stretch of beach. If you do, proceed with caution, and at your own risk. You don’t want to have to be rescued by the Coast Guard (which happens more than you might expect).
With that warning in mind, at the far north end of the main stretch of beach, you’ll find a small opening in the rock that looks somewhat like a sea arch, somewhat like a sea cave. If the tide is low to moderate (I use Surfline to monitor tides so I don’t get stranded in a cove), you can pass through here, which unlocks another moderately-long stretch of beach.
This section of El Matador State Beach is often totally devoid of people, and is a really serene setting. You won’t see any engagement or wedding photo shoots (a photographer would have to be insane to have their clients walk through the sea arch), and even the aforementioned topless modeling ones are uncommon (as are top-on modeling shoots).
The north end of this stretch of beach is where you’ll find the best sea caves, too. Be careful in these caves; even if you’ve verified that tide is going down. All it takes is one wave to knock you back and you’re in an incredibly scary and dangerous situation. I speak from experience there.
There are some other things you should know about El Matador. First, the small lot directly above the beach charges for parking and you will get a ticket if you do not pay. If you’re going on a weekend or during summer, this lot will almost always be full.
Even if it’s not full, I’d recommend skipping the lot completely and parking along Pacific Coast Highway. Parking is free, it’s (at most) a 10 minute walk from the lot, and it’s perfectly safe. Be sure not to park in no-parking zones (you’ll also get a ticket for that), but that’s pretty simple.
In terms of when to visit, weekdays are always going to be less-crowded than weekends. Earlier in the day is also busier than later in the day, but that’s for good reason–this beach is most stunning around sunset. (Although it can be beautiful for sunrise, too; winter is your best bet for that.)
Official hours of the beach are 8 a.m. until sundown, but that’s pretty casually-enforced. The real goal is to prevent people from parking cars here overnight or camping on the beach. If you want to see sunrise from El Matador, you will have no issues parking along PCH and walking down.
Speaking of which, depending upon the time of year you’re visiting, I’d definitely recommend hanging around for a bit after sunset. Traffic on this stretch of Pacific Coast Highway can really back up during rush hour, and down by Santa Monica (if that’s the direction you’re heading) the traffic doesn’t die down until after 9 p.m. Why sit in traffic when you could sit at the beach?
As an additional means of avoiding traffic, I’d recommend dinner after watching sunset at El Matador State Beach. My favorite is the nearby Malibu Fresh Fish Market and Patio Cafe. Alternatively, Malibu Farm Cafe is a good option on the Malibu Pier.
Another thing to know is that the restroom situation leaves a lot to be desired. There are only Porta-Potty toilets, and they are perpetually disgusting. There’s also no shower, nor are there working drinking fountains.
Additionally, El Matador State Beach is only accessible via a series of pretty rickety stairs, so if someone in your party has trouble with stairs or needs an accessible beach, this is not a good option.
There’s also no lifeguard at El Matador State Beach. That, coupled with the craggy coast and undertow make this an awful choice if you want to go swimming. I always end up getting wet here (not by choice) but have never intentionally gone swimming here. Very few California beaches are good swimming options, though.
All in all, El Matador State Beach is an incredibly beautiful beach that I’d highly recommend to anyone visiting Los Angeles. The downsides I mentioned above are not really that bad (and are something you’ll potentially encounter unless you avoid beaches in this area entirely), and are really only mentioned in case you’re a parent with kids who you don’t want exposed to that sort of thing. To put this into perspective, El Matador State Beach is nearly 2 hours from us, but it’s still the beach we visit most regularly (outside of the beaches in Laguna Beach). El Matador really is that beautiful.
If you’re planning a California vacation, check out my California category of posts for other things to do. For Los Angeles-centric trips, we’ve found the most useful guidebook to be The Best Things to Do in Los Angeles: 1001 Ideas, which is written by locals (and we use it even as locals!). If you enjoyed this post, help spread the word by sharing it via social media. Thanks for reading!
Have you been to El Matador State Beach in Malibu? How would you rank El Matador relative to other beaches in Southern California? What did you think about the natural beauty of the rock formations, sea stacks, and caves? Have any issues or humorous anecdotes about other visitors to the beach? Have any questions or other thoughts? Please share below in the comments!