Eloping on the Beach in California
The shores of California are enticing when it comes to thinking about a beach wedding. They’re distinctive, with sand that practically shimmers–especially at sunset–with crashing waves and one-of-a-kind rock outcroppings that make for a wonderfully unique backdrop for an outdoor elopement.
Each beach has its own distinct personality. You can elope on the beach in California with your toes in the sand to the melody of the surf hitting the rocks, on your private hotel balcony looking over the tranquil waters of the bay, on a bluff with ocean views as far as the eye can see, or in a pristine park with the ocean waters peeking through the cypress trees.
Whichever you choose, it’s almost impossible to get it wrong. Mother Nature gave us a spectacular array of natural resources in California and we can’t think of anyplace that is more beautiful or romantic than California’s sunny shores to express your vows to one another. And after you’re married, the fun continues with a wealth of inns, restaurants, attractions, shops and outdoor activities. Whether you want to cocoon, mingle or a combination of the two, you’ll have the opportunity in California!
Is an Elopement on the Beach for You?
2021 Update: We published this guide to eloping on the beach in California a few years back (with periodic updates to keep things fresh). The advent of the coronavirus pandemic has made small beach elopements more popular than ever before. Many couples are discarding the idea of a large indoor wedding in favor of smaller events held outdoors. Still, even with a desire to go small, beach weddings are not for everyone. There is no doubt that an elopement on the beach can be spectacular–intimacy, nature, and romance all rolled into one. Not to mention a combination wedding and honeymoon for most couples! One look at the photos on this page might just be enough to convince you that a beach elopement or micro-wedding is a must-have.
And even though elopements and micro-weddings have considerably less fuss and planning than traditional “pearls, pumps and pantyhose” events, there is still some thought and planning that needs to take place in order to pull off the perfect-for-you beach wedding.
Some things to think about include:
- Your tolerance for unpredictable weather conditions. Beach venues in California can be windy; beaches can be foggy; and yes, beaches can get rained on too! Sometimes we need to implement a backup indoor location plan at the last minute.
- When it comes to eloping on the beach in California, simple is usually best. Simple attire, bare feet or flip-flops (and think about leaving the veil at home); uncomplicated props (save the Champagne toast for your post-ceremony dinner unless you’re okay with a bit of sand in your glass!); minimal decorations (with the ocean as your backdrop, arches and urns of flowers are not needed).
- Your tolerance for strangers. If you’re planning a destination wedding on the beach, it may be your fondest wish to have it be just between the two of you. However, unless you’re a gazillionaire, securing privacy at a beach on a glorious summer day can be difficult to come by. Even with a permit, you’re only guaranteed that there will be no other weddings in that exact location on your day and time–a permit doesn’t mean you have exclusive beach access. So, if having swimsuit-clad beach-goers watching from a distance and applauding when you’re having your first married kiss is a turnoff, then we invite you to let us suggest some alternatives.
- Beaches shrink (or disappear altogether) at high tide. Check tide tables.
- Your tolerance for unpredictable happenings. Beaches have seagulls. Seagulls poop–and fly overhead. ‘Nuff said. Also, beaches have events scheduled on them–like windsurfing competitions and kite festivals. Check the local calendar of events.
- The needs of your guests, if you have any. A toes-in-the-sand wedding may sound idyllic to you, but if you’re inviting guests, consider the walking conditions for any family members for whom mobility might be a challenge or the fact that the cliffside spot has no guardrail on the side to protect your inquisitive three year old daughter.
California Beach Elopements
In addition to the general things to bear in mind when getting married on any beach (above), there are a few specific things to things to think about in regards to getting married on the beach in California.
- Weather-related conditions. Mid-summer is not always the best time for a beach wedding in California. In central to Northern California, the temperatures actually peak in late August through October. Overall, the fog and wind on the California coast are unpredictable. The famous California fog is generally not a ground fog that other parts of the country experience; think more like low-lying clouds. It’s still possible to have a beautiful beach wedding even on a foggy day. It’s not like you can’t see your hand in front of your face, but more likely that the views of the Pacific Ocean may not be as expansive as you imagined.
- Permit Requirements for a Wedding on the Beach. California can be a bit persnickety when it comes to getting permission for a beach wedding. Do NOT assume that you and your sweetie can just show up on any ol’ beach that offers a fabulous view of the Pacific with your officiant and photographer in tow and you will not be bothered by a park ranger who asks to see evidence of your beach wedding permit. We can help you with permit requirements for California beach and ocean-side venues.
- Traffic & Parking. The majority of California beach towns are also California tourist towns. Tourists love our coastal towns so much that they keep coming back to frolic on our beaches. (Oh yes, California tourists do love their frolicking!). But all that frolicking, and people and cars does tend to cause us to burst at the seems a bit, especially come summer. It can get a little…shall we say…interesting to get from one end of town to the other on a Friday afternoon in August! And then there is the parking situation. California beach cities and towns are known for parking lots that fill to overflowing in the tourist season. Bottom line? Factor in enough time for you and your wedding vendors to troll for a parking place. Or take a taxi. We also encourage you to plan your ceremony venue and post-ceremony activities (drinks, dinner) to be as close to your lodging as possible. It’ll make your wedding ever so much more frolicky!
- California Marriage License Requirements You’ll need your California marriage license in hand in order to have a legal ceremony performed anywhere in this state. County Clerk’s offices are NOT open on weekends, so you’ll need to plan accordingly.
How to Ward off Potential Stressful Events from Impacting you on your Wedding Day
- Have a Plan B. Whether it’s the flexibility to push off your wedding ceremony by a day, or you have a gorgeous indoor backup location that you won’t feel badly about using for your ceremony in the event of a downpour, stress will be alleviated if you can seamlessly transition to a viable Plan B.
- Plan your California beach wedding for a weekday before Memorial Day or after Labor Day to avoid crowds. September and October are gorgeous on the California Coast and the crowds diminish on weekdays once the kids go back to school.
- If you’re coming into California from outside the state, plan to arrive a minimum of two days prior to the wedding. That way, you won’t be running around trying to obtain your marriage license on either the day you arrive in town (planes get delayed, ya know!) or on the wedding day itself.
- Do your homework on your chosen venue. Check the calendar of events for the city and county where your venue is located. If possible, visit the site the day before your wedding at around the same time so you can see what the crowd/parking situation might be like for the next day.
- Be sure you have all the proper permits and that your guest count is within the limit stipulated on the permit. And please, do not attempt to go rogue for your ceremony and ignore getting a permit, figuring you won’t get busted. As much of a pain as it is to acquire these permits, the fees paid to purchase one go to support California State parks and beaches and are a fraction of the price you’d pay for a traditional wedding venue. Trying to circumvent paying for a beach wedding permit by having a guerilla-style, pop-up (translated: unapproved) ceremony can not only lead to you getting booted off the beach, it’s just tacky. Do the right thing; get the permit. It’s a small price to pay to support the state’s natural resources.
- Never turn your back on the ocean. That’s the Number One Safety Rule of getting married on any Pacific Coast beach. Sneaker waves and log rolls can be deadly.
- As we’ve already mentioned, check tide tables for optimal beach conditions.
- Wear the proper clothing. Beach wedding attire can range from the very casual to the super formal. It’s all good. But regardless of the type of attire you prefer, leave the 5 inch stilettoes at home. At best, you’ll stumble around in the sand drunkenly; at worst, you’ll twist an ankle. Be sure to either dress in layers or bring a wrap. Even when it’s hot and calm a few miles inland, it can be gusty and cool by the water.
- Hire a photographer that is familiar with the beach you’ve chosen and specializes in beach wedding photography. Getting great images outside in various weather conditions is a vastly different animal than photographing indoors. And shooting intimate events requires an entirely different set of talents than photoshooting your typical large soiree. For one thing, most eloping couples want their photographs to showcase their playful side and their unique personalities, so your photographer should not only have technical expertise, they should be adept at putting you and your guests at ease so you forget they’re even there (the photographer, that is… please don’t forget that your guests are there!). And familiarity with the site will be invaluable for getting really cool backdrops that are more than just crashing waves. You don’t want your photographer’s first visit to the site to be on your wedding day.
- And while we’re on the subject of wedding vendors (full disclosure: this is my personal pet peeve), don’t try to save a few bucks by hiring amateurs, or (probably worse) vendors that offer rock-bottom pricing. You’ve already saved thousands of dollars by opting to have an elopement or a micro-wedding on the beach, do you really need to see how low you can go? Yes, maybe you’ve lost a ton of money in deposits on your big wedding that was cancelled due to wildfires or the pandemic. But please don’t try and go bottom of the barrel. There’s a reason why some vendors are so cheap. Either they’re not reliable, or they know they have an inferior product, or they make their money on volumes of bookings (meaning they won’t have the time to give you much personal attention), or they’re just getting started in the profession. After all the planning you put into the day, we hate to see that all get flushed down the toilet when you get your photographs back and say “Ugh!” or your makeup runs or fades in the first hour, or your newbie wedding officiant (the one who got ordained online just for your wedding!) doesn’t speak loudly enough to be heard by your guests over the surf. Buy the best you can afford, especially for your photographer. After all, the photos of your beach wedding are all you’re going to have to show the 200 people you didn’t invite to your beach wedding.
- Don’t let your guest numbers get out of hand. IMHO (which–according to my husband–is not so humble) a beach wedding is not the place for a 150-person event! Weddings on the beach with that many guests are only going to add to your stress level, not detract from it. You’ll have to hire a shuttle to get them all there because the parking lot won’t accommodate that many cars; and what are you going to do for your Plan B with that many guests? Not to mention the nightmare of turning things on a dime at the last minute in the event of inclement weather. Relocating fifteen people is a piece of cake. A hundred and fifty? Not so much. If you want to do a beach wedding with that many people, do yourself a favor and hold it at a resort that specializes in larger weddings (and that has a covered area onsite… just in case…). It probably won’t be any less expensive than having a wedding at a traditional indoor wedding venue, but the reduction in stress will be worth every penny.
And speaking of hiring the absolute best wedding professionals for your California beach wedding…
See prior remark about my lack-of-humbleness. I make no apology for that. I know what I do really, really well, and I’ve made it my mission to perfect the art of the small beach wedding for my couples. Since I’m in bragging mode, I also make a killer lasagna, can hold my own in a game of Scrabble, and can clearly write a lengthy web post about eloping on the beach in California better than most. Don’t however, ask me to change the oil in my car, read a map with any degree of accuracy or trim my cat’s toenails. I know my limitations…
But planning a beach wedding? I’ve got that nailed down. And I can tell you without hesitation, we’ve scouted the best locations, contracted with the best vendors and will provide you with the best small wedding planning services anywhere, hands down.