How to apply for a wedding permit in California

couple eloping at a California State beach

Do you need a permit to get married on the beach in California?

In most cases, yes you do. Most beaches in California are under state governance and require a permit for weddings of any size. Ditto the situation for California state parks–almost all of which do require a permit to elope (in case you’re planning a redwood wedding).

Note: the one exception to the above is in and around San Francisco, where many of the beaches are managed by the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. This is a Federal government entity with its own separate set of rules, pricing and procedures.

Applying for a wedding permit in California

You’d think that given the fact that all of the state parks and state beaches are under the governance of one entity (i.e. the state of California), the process for obtaining a wedding permit would be standardized for the entire state.

But if you thought that, you’d be very, very wrong.

California State Parks are divided into a number of governing sectors. Each sector has its own pricing and procedures for issuing wedding permits. For example, in the area of California where Blue Sky Elopements operates, we work with no less than eight different state of California agencies. Each has its own pricing structure, security deposit requirements, liability insurance minimums, payment procedures, timelines and regulations.

eloping on the beach in California

The challenges this structure presents:

Having a number of disparate entities issuing permits can present a significant amount of challenges to couples looking to procure a wedding permit for a California State Parks venue.

1. Response Time:

Response time to wedding permit application requests varies greatly by sector. Some staff are crackerjack about responding to our email requests for elopement venue availability. Others require multiple prods before we get an answer. We’re pretty much used to it and we know the drill for various sectors (so much so that if a usually slow to respond sector gets back to us after our initial inquiry, we wonder what’s going on!).

2. Staff Turnover:

The other challenge to obtaining information about the process for pulling a wedding permit in California is staff turnover. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve acclimated ourselves to the nuances of how to apply for a permit in a certain sector of the state, only to find that changes the minute one staff person leaves and another one comes on board.

Case in point: during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, one California state sector (we’ll leave out which one it was!) insisted that we had to check with the town government in which that particular state beach was located to see if we could procure a wedding permit. We knew this was blatantly incorrect info (towns have no jurisdiction over state property), but it was impossible to convince the state staff people of this. We ended up just transferring the couple to a beach in a different sector simply to avoid the runaround we were getting.

same sex elopement on the beach in California

This brings us to our next challenge.

3. Lack of proper staff training:

It’s unfortunate that the answer to one’s questions about applying for a wedding permit from the state of California can vary depending on which staff person you speak with. While this is not the same across the board, it’s definitely a problem with a couple of sectors in particular. There is nothing more frustrating than following the stated rules to a T, only to be told it’s all wrong and must be re-done after the wedding permit application has been received.

4. Lack of online updates

Do not assume that the info you read online about obtaining a wedding permit in California is correct. Not only is the state slow to update its online info, but many other wedding vendors will post information on their sites about how to obtain a permit. Since the process changes often (and the state sectors certainly don’t take the time to send out memos to wedding vendors about updates in wedding permit procedures), most info on wedding vendor websites that tell you how to apply for a wedding permit in California is flat-out wrong.

That’s one of the reasons, Blue Sky Elopements does not post this info on our website and why we always obtain your California wedding permit for you.

5. Details that are seldom communicated upfront

This can include things such as additional fees for last minute bookings (usually defined as applying for a wedding permit with less than 30 days advance notice); holiday weekend premiums; blackout dates (California prohibits weddings at some parks and beaches at various times of the year due to bird migration, for example); lack of clarity about whether or not your permit guarantees you will be the only wedding onsite on your date and time (don’t assume that will be the case); and the need for a security deposit.

kissing ona cliff overlook - California elopement

6. Nonexistent communication after the permit is issued

Do not assume that the State of California owes you anything just because you gave them money to secure a wedding permit at a given location. Once they take your money and issue your permit, for the most part, they feel their association with you is complete. I’ve had state of California sites change their access (i.e. park rangers put up ropes to cordon off certain areas that were previously accessible). One beach site in particular usually has its stairs washed out every spring–making beach access impossible. New trails are built and old ones filled in. Long story short, it’s always an adventure (and often a surprise) when you show up to a California State Parks venue on your wedding day.

Can you forego getting a California State Parks permit for your elopement?

It’s not wise to try and sidestep the California State Parks permitting process for a wedding. Granted, it’s tempting–given how difficult it can be to procure one. But for a number of reasons, we don’t advise it.

1. You may be asked to show your permit by a park ranger

Nothing will kill the joy of your wedding day faster than being told to leave by a park ranger right smack in the middle of your vows.

2. It’s the right thing to do

When it comes right down to it, the fees for a wedding permit at a California State Park are a fraction of what you’d pay for a private venue. Yes, the process can be arduous, but it’s one of those times where you should stick to the rules.

3. It supports park services

Keeping California State Parks safe, clean and maintained (including the bathrooms!) does not come free. Your wedding permit fee helps ensure that these gorgeous sites will be available for weddings and other activities for generations to come.

4. No reputable vendor will agree to do a non-permitted wedding at a site that requires a permit

Please don’t put a vendor in the awkward position of having to be your moral compass when you ask them to do something illegal. The welfare of their business relies on them maintaining goodwill with all permit-issuing agencies. And if you have a vendor that suggests you can slip in under the radar, well… ummm… run! The way you do one thing is the way you do everything and if a wedding vendor has questionable ethics when it comes to obtaining ceremony permits, that may spill over into other areas that will impact you directly.

apply for a wedding permit in California

So how does one go about pulling a permit for a wedding on the beach in California?

Now, you’re going to say I’m biased (and I am–but it’s for a good reason; this is not my first wedding-permit rodeo!), but the least stressful way to obtain a permit for a wedding on the beach in California (or at any California State Park) is to have Blue Sky Elopements do it. Not to sound creepy, but…. ummmm… “we know a guy.” Seriously, given that we apply for these permits all the time, the staff of the various sectors are familiar with us (and we with them). And to be fair, in spite of my whining about the “interesting” facets of working with some state park staff, the reality is that these same staff members deal with equally “interesting” people from their end. I’m sure there are a number of folks with the California State Parks Department that get really frustrated when they lay out the entire process for obtaining a wedding permit to couples who don’t bother to read the instructions and don’t follow the guidelines.

So it works both ways. When they see Blue Sky submitting an application, staff at the various sectors know that it’ll be done correctly. Human nature being what it is, knowing that they won’t have to go in and make an applicant re-do the application, is going to make them much more prone to process the application in the first place.

Two other benefits to having Blue Sky submit your application:

  • Many State of California Sectors require liability insurance from the couple before they will issue a permit. Blue Sky has this liability policy with the State of California named as a beneficiary. So this step is already done. It also saves you anywhere from $100 to $150 by not having to purchase a separate policy.
  • We also cover any refundable security deposits that the state might require. (Some sectors do.) Blue Sky will cover the security deposits and only bill if you if the State of California does not return it to us in full after the wedding. (This has never happened; it’s pretty hard to mess up a beach!)

apply for a wedding permit in California

If you do decide to apply for a California State Parks wedding permit on your own, expect it to look something like this:

  • Decide on the venue you want. Determine if it is a California State Parks site.
  • Figure out which sector the park you want is governed by. Note: the link above does not give this info. It does, however, provide a phone number. If you Google the phone number, you can often find out which sector manages that site.
  • Call the sector representative for that park. Expect to leave a message.
  • Wait three or four days. Maybe a week. Miss return call from the sector representative.
  • Play a seemingly unending game of phone tag. Note: one way to potentially bypass this step is to leave your email address on your first voice message. Spell it out slowly and phonetically (because, on the phone, “d” sounds like “b” and “f” sounds like “s”). Tell them you are calling for date availability (leave the date and time you want to be married, as well as the number of guests) and ask them to send you the permit-application along with the process for applying for a small wedding permit.
  • Wait another couple of weeks while you impatiently wait to book lodging, vendors, flights and basically everything else you need to get this show on the road.
  • FINALLY connect with someone from the California Parks Department.
  • Obtain application and confirm date availability. (Note: the date will not be held for you until you submit the application.)
  • Begin reading through the reams of instructions and hesitantly begin filling out the application. Scratch your head over some of the questions asked, but forge ahead because you really want this wedding permit.
  • Print out completed application. Scan it and email it to the proper sector. Ask what forms of payment they accept.
  • Wait another two weeks, during which you call several times to see if your application has been received, or if it is going into an abyss.
  • Finally track down someone in the office, only to be told, “We don’t accept scanned and emailed applications. You need to snail mail it in along with three separate checks (the application fee, the permit fee and the security deposit).”  No, they do not take credit cards or Venmo. Wonder how you woke up and it was 1995 all over again.
  • Spend two hours looking for the checkbook you haven’t used in years.
  • Write out the three checks, print the application and mail it to the correct address. If the post office loses your envelope, expect to repeat Steps 1 through 14 all over again.
  • Get super stressed during all of this and snap at your spouse-to-be (who begins to wonder if this getting married on the beach thingy is a good idea).
  • Call the sector and leave a message every three or four days to see if they have your application in hand.
  • Hear from sector staff. You skipped a vital section on the application, or your check was for the wrong amount, or the person who usually processes the applications is on vacation, or you used the wrong color ink, or you neglected to promise them your firstborn in exchange for the wedding permit.
  • Start over. Or ditch the whole thing and go to the courthouse.
  • Finally get the completed “pre-authorization” for your permit. (I’m not kidding – you can’t make this stuff up.) This means there is a temporary hold on your date, BUT the supervising ranger still needs to sign off on this.
  • By now, your wedding is less than a month away and you’re starting to panic. Increase phone calls to California State Parks to a daily barrage.
  • Ultimately obtain the final permit (usually). Treat it like gold.
  • Get hold of your makeup and hair stylist and tell them you need hair extensions to compensate for all the heir-tearing the permit application process has caused.

While it’s not likely that all of the unfortunate circumstances outlined above will happen to you, I can tell you that each of them has happened to couples that tried to go it alone in applying for a wedding permit from the state of California. All kidding aside, it really can be a mind-numbing process. And the reason you opted to elope in the first place was to have a stress-free wedding experience. Recent cutbacks in state funding have resulted in staff shortages and reduced working hours for the remaining workers, so these folks really have a lot on their plates. And don’t forget–as important as your wedding is to you–the parks department is not primarily focused on weddings. Issuing wedding permits is one small fraction of the requests they get bombarded with on a daily basis. There is only so much of them to go around.

Eloping couple in the surf - California State Parks

The best advice I can give you when applying for a California State Parks wedding permit

As previously stated, I highly advise you to hire a pro to handle this process. Blue Sky Elopements offers free permit procurement (you just pay the cost of the permit) as part of our Location Consulting Services. Our fee of $500 will also give you location info and permit specifics on all of the venues we serve. Even if you opt to DIY the rest of your wedding, the peace of mind from letting a pro handle this might be well worth the investment.

One last tip – don’t be taken in by vendors who attempt to persuade you to book their services by telling you they “help with” venue selection and permit application. That basically means they provide you with some referral links and suggestions and then leave it up to you to handle the details. It’s not the same thing as handing off the entire messy process to professionals that work with these California sectors all the time.

Please contact us if you’d like us to handle the permit application process for you.