The Best Beaches in Santa Cruz, CA
Visiting the beaches in Santa Cruz, CA is an unanticipated pleasant surprise. For those accustomed to the Bay Area’s foggy, windy beaches, discovering that the stretch of coastline in Santa Cruz is sunnier and warmer than other nearby beach options is a thrilling revelation.
Before you start picturing tropical beaches, remember that Santa Cruz is not Hawaii. The ocean temperature is usually between 55-60 degrees and once the sun goes down it gets chilly quickly. Summer mornings are frequently foggy, but unlike other sections of coastline in the Bay Area, the fog does typically burn off my mid-afternoon. Chances are you’ll start your beach day in a sweatshirt and by late afternoon you’ll be slathering on the spf.
A word of warning before I share some of the best Santa Cruz beaches with you, please be responsible and respectful when enjoying your beach day in Santa Cruz. Nothing makes a Santa Cruz local more angry than visitors trashing their beaches. So if you can’t be bothered to pack out your trash, (placing your trash next to an overflowing trash can doesn’t count!) then you probably should head elsewhere.
Now that we got that out of the way, read on!
Seacliff State Beach/Rio Del Mar State Beach
The beaches in Aptos, a community on the southern end of Santa Cruz County, can be plagued by fog, especially in the summer months. However, on a sunny day these lesser known beaches are absolutely amazing.
If you’re waiting for the fog to burn off before starting your beach day, take a walk along the one-mile paved pathway that stretches between Seacliff and Rio Del Mar. Unlike West Cliff which can be a chaotic smorgasbord of bikers, joggers, skaters, and surfers, the pathway at Seacliff is mostly people on foot.
One of the biggest perks of Seacliff State Beach is the large picnic area. From the parking area the picnic tables are mere steps away the beach, making it almost effortless to have a beach front BBQ.
Parking: $10 if you park at Seacliff State Beach. There’s a small free lot at Rio Del Mar.
Tips: The “cement ship” is a decrepit ship at the end of the pier at Seacliff State Beach. Back in its glory days it was a glamorous locale for drinking and dancing. These days it’s a perch for sea birds. Some days the pungent smell of bird poop can be quite strong if you’re too close to the boat. As long as your upwind or a decent distance away from the pier you’ll be fine.
Dogs: On leash
New Brighton State Beach
If you’re okay with a little fog and a few great white sharks then throw on your flip flops and head to New Brighton State Beach. This long stretch of sand is perfect for a beach stroll. Even at high tide you can walk for miles. It’s also a great area for paddle boarding and kayaking, the only caveat being that in the last few years this section of ocean has become very popular with juvenile great white sharks. They’ve probably always been out there, but now with drone technology it’s become very apparent that this stretch of coast is one of their favorite hang outs.
For those wanting to maximize their time by the ocean, New Brighton State Beach Campground has great campsites. You’ll need to book a site six-months in advance during popular months but during the winter it’s quite possible to snag a site last minute.
Parking: $10 in the New Brighton State Beach parking lot. Currently the lot is under construction and parking if limited to the nearby neighborhood.
Tips: In the winter months there is an abundance of driftwood scattered across the beach. With some effort and creativity you can create driftwood houses and shade structures.
Dogs: On leash
Love it or hate it, it’s undeniable that Capitola Beach is one of the best beaches in Santa Cruz for kids. The ocean is rarely rough and you’re steps away from a slice of cheese pizza or a scoop of ice cream.
On a hot summer day the water is packed with kids on surfboard and boogie boarders. Don’t have a surf board and want to learn? There is a stand adjacent to the beach (next to the bathrooms) that rents surfboard and can help organize a surf lesson.
Now for the downside of Capitola Beach.. finding parking. It wouldn’t be fair to paint this picture of Capitola Beach as a magical land of surfing and rainbow sherbet without warning visitors about the parking situation. Snagging a parking spot in Capitola Village takes patience, good luck and a couple of bucks. In other words, be prepared to do a few laps around the block and pay for a metered spot. Or alternatively there is a lot up the hill where beach goers can park.
Parking: Horrendous. Upload the app “Park Mobile” to your phone to take the guesswork out of how much to put in the meter.
Tips: There are often fun events that happen on Capitola Beach. Check out the Capitola-by-the-Sea website to find out more about street festivals, outdoor movie nights,
Dogs: No dogs allowed on the beach
Located on the eastside of Santa Cruz, 26th is one of the warmer beaches in the area, especially if you find a protected spot near the rocks. Families tend to congregate in the section of sand closest to the parking lot. As you walk north along the beach you’ll find clusters of twenty- somethings stretched out on blankets or tossing a frisbee around. During high tide much of the beach is covered by water and there’s a limited amount of sand available. If you are visiting this beach during high tide, the section near the parking lot is your best bet.
Parking: There is a small parking lot with a bathroom and a water fountain on East Cliff Drive a few blocks south of 26th ave. Parking here is limited and you’ll want to arrive early on a sunny weekend to get a spot.
You can also park on 26th ave and walk down the stairs to the beach. During the summer months this neighborhood is permit parking only on the weekend. However, this permit requirement only applies to the blocks closest to the beach. If you don’t mind walking a few blocks, it is possible to park in the neighborhood.
Dogs: Dog on leash are allowed.
Tips: Sometimes the waves that crash onto the shore at 26th ave are large and powerful. Use caution. The Point Market is a fifteen minute walk from 26th ave and has some of the best burritos in Santa Cruz!
Possibly the most rambunctious and borderline lawless beach in Santa Cruz, Sunny Cove is a narrow inlet of sand in the Live Oak neighborhood. Dogs are allowed, drinking is allowed, and bad tattoos are the norm. The ocean here is frequently rough if the surf is pumping, enter the water at your own risk, and certainly be careful with children.
One of the smallest beaches in Santa Cruz, you’re not coming to Sunny Cove if you want privacy and serenity. This is the place to go if you don’t mind hearing loud music and the occasional dog running over your towel.
Parking: street parking on Sunny Cove Drive or Geoffray Drive
Tips: Don’t forget to hydrate and reapply sunscreen. It’s easy to forget basic beach common sense when you’re at Sunny Cove.
Dogs: Allowed on-leash but often off-leash
Technically part of Twin Lakes State Beach, Blacks Beach is a local favorite. Located at the end of 14th ave this beach doesn’t have many amenities. However, there’s no better motivation to take a quick dip in the cold pacific ocean than avoiding a wretched port-a-potty.
What Blacks Beach lacks in clean bathrooms it makes up for in picnic potential. Blacks Beach is one of my favorite beaches in Santa Cruz for an easy picnic. Grab a burrito from Taqueira Michoacan which is a few blocks up 14th ave, and walk down to the beach. This is quite possibly the best cheap date in Santa Cruz.
The waves at Blacks aren’t particularly good for surfing but you can take out a boogie board if you feel like getting tossed around in the ocean. Some people do surf near the cliff at the southern end of the beach. Just be careful, the waves that pound the shore can be deceptively powerful.
Parking: There isn’t a parking lot. Most people try to find a parking spot on 14th ave.. Certain times of year, it is permit parking only on 14th ave. If you don’t have a permit you’ll be looking for parking outside of the three block permit parking radius.
Dogs: Dogs on leash only
Tips: This beach can get a little windy in the the afternoon, bring some layers!
Twin Lakes/The Harbor
Some call it Twin Lakes State Beach, some call it Harbor Beach or Crow’s Nest Beach. I like to refer to it as the Harbor. The Harbor has some of the conveniences of Capitola Beach (ie. places you can buy food) but without as much traffic. It’s not a great surf beach however the waves that pound the shore can be fun for kids on boogie boards, as long as the swell isn’t too big.
If you’re looking to get out on the ocean, an afternoon sail on the Chardonnay or a morning paddling a SUP are both fun activities based in the harbor area. For sailing it’s best to book in advance and, just a heads up, the office is on the opposite side of the harbor. To rent a SUP reservations aren’t typically needed. Since it’s no fun to take an SUP out when it’s windy or rough, check the ocean conditions before getting geared up at the SUP Shack. For sporty landlubbers, there are beach volleyball nets set up behind the Crow’s Nest Restaurant.
Parking: Some free street parking or a pay lot nears the Crow’s Nest restaurant
Tips: In the summer the Crow’s Nest has free Thursday night beach parties with live music, dancing and food. The music and dancing are free. Food and drinks cost extra.
Dogs: On leash
Seabright State Beach
Walking across this massive beach on a hot day laden with beach toys and gear can feel like you’re crossing the Sahara Desert. However, the bright side of this huge expanse of beach is that even on a crowded day there is plenty of space.
Located between the Harbor and the Boardwalk, Seabright State Beach is central to many other Santa Cruz attractions. It’s also only a few minutes drive to the great shops and restaurants of midtown. If you’re looking to combo some time at the beach with other Santa Cruz activities, Seabright State Beach is a very easy choice!
Parking: Parking is free. Look for spots in the neighborhood adjacent to the beach.
Tips: This is a great spot for an evening bonfire. Arrive early to get a fire ring and don’t bring alcohol. The park rangers will ticket if they catch you with something stronger than soda!
Dogs: On leash
If you need a ride on a rollercoaster and a belly full of cotton candy to go with your beach day, head to Main Beach. One of the most photographed beaches in Santa Cruz, Main Beach is nestled up against the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. With the beautiful Santa Cruz Mountains in the distance and the bright red Big Dipper in the background, there’s something so timeless about Main Beach.
Parking: Metered parking. Using ParkMobile App is the easiest. You can also park at the Beach Boardwalk (rates vary).
Tips: Admission into the Beach Boardwalk is free, it’s just the rides you pay for. If you only want to do a few rides it’s best to just buy individual tickets. If you’re doing more than a few rides it makes sense to buy a day pass for unlimited rides. Or just skip the rides and walk up from the beach for an ice cream cone!
Dogs: No Dogs
Sometimes it feels like every novice surfer in the Bay Area is out on a foam board at Cowells. Understandable since it’s one of the best places to learn to surf in Santa Cruz and the Bay Area. Interested in catching a wave? Club Ed Surf School will get you in a wetsuit and on a wave. When your arms are too tired to paddle any longer rest your body on the section of sand in front of the Dream Inn.
The stretch of beach in front of the Dream Inn isn’t quite as hectic as Main Beach and is definitely a good bet if you’re wanting to alternate surfing and sunning. You can hear the sea lions that reside under the wharf barking and it’s surprisingly peaceful for being right in the midst of a lot of chaos.
Parking: There’s a tiny lot right next to the Dream Inn with metered parking. If you can’t get a spot here drive towards downtown. You’ll see more metered spots on the right hand side of the road and a little further down the road is a larger pay lot.
Tips: Avoid going in the ocean here after a storm. The water can be polluted.
Dogs: No Dogs
Another Santa Cruz beach that has a few names is Dog Beach. Dog Beach is also referred to as “It’s Beach” but since this beach is almost always packed with dogs, Dog Beach is a logical name. As the only beach within Santa Cruz city limits that allows dogs to be off-leash, this beach is a mainstay with the dog community.
The waves that pound the shore along this stretch of coastline can be a bit rough, after all legendary surf spot Steamer Lane is just around the corner. If your pup wants to get in the water, do use caution and good judgement. Even if the ocean is too rough for dog paddling, it’s fun watching really happy dogs run around!
Parking:. Within a ten minute walk of Dog Beach there are three different parking lots. This sounds like ample parking but if the surf is good you’ll be competing for a parking spot with amping surfers!
Tips: Bring poo bags for cleaning up beach messes. If your pup isn’t keen on playing with large groups of rambunctious pups, go to Dog Beach on a weekday morning when it’s less crowded. Weekends are the busiest!
Dogs: Dogs On/Off-Leash Allowed
Natural Bridges State Beach
As you head north along West Cliff Drive from Dog Beach you will eventually come to Natural Bridges States Beach. It’s only about a five to ten minute drive depending on how many times you stop to take in the gorgeous scenery.
There are a lot of things that make Natural Bridges a special Santa Cruz spot. The famed arch rock formation is a pretty natural feature and at low tide there are tide pools with bright green sea anemones. The beach has a lot of space and sand so you’ll never have to worry about a high tide swallowing up the beach.
More exciting then an arch shaped rock are the monarch butterflies that visit for a few months every year. Near the visitor center is a eucalyptus grove that is a peaceful sanctuary for migrating monarch butterflies. To look up into the trees on a warm winter day and see bright orange butterflies fluttering in the sunlight is a truly magical experience.
Parking: You can pay to park in the parking lot or look for street parking. If you’re opting to park on the street, your best bets are to park on either Swanton Blvd or Deleware Ave. If you have a tendency for overpacking, I recommend paying the $10 to park in the lot. Occasionally you can get lucky and find a spot on the street close to the entrance but typically it’s a bit of a trek.
Tips: Check out the Monarch Grove up by the visitor center. A warm winter day is the best time to see the monarchs fluttering in the eucalyptus trees but even if there aren’t butterflies it’s a pretty spot.
Dogs: No Dogs Allowed
Things to Know About Santa Cruz Beaches
- Many of the beaches have a seasonal lifeguard but it’s best to be safe rather than count on someone rescuing you from a rip current
- You might have heard about the great white sharks that live in the area. It’s true. There are sharks, but attacks are rare.
- Traffic on Highway 17 can be horrendous on a hot summer Saturday. Arrive early or download your fav podcast for a better stuck in traffic experience if you’re heading to Santa Cruz midday.
- Only a few beaches allow bonfires. (Seabright State Beach and Twin Lakes are a few that do). Get there early to claim a fire pit and don’t try to have a fire on a beach that prohibits bonfires.
What to Bring to the Beach in Santa Cruz
- Sunscreen: Even the fog has a sneaky way of giving you a sunburn
- Sweatshirt: for chilly sunsets or foggy mornings
- Beach Chair: I like the ones that can be worn on your back.
- Water/Food: Many of Santa Cruz’s beaches don’t have restaurants nearby, bringing your own food/water is always a good idea
- Something to do: beach toys aren’t just for kids. Bring a smash ball set, a soccer ball, a good book, or whatever you like to do!
- A Wetsuit: if you’re planning on surfing or boogie boarding you’ll want at least a 3/2 wetsuit! Most surfers in Santa Cruz wear a 4/3 wetsuit.
- A Phone Bag: A sandy cell-phone is inevitable but you can keep it a little cleaner if you throw it in a reusable plastic bag.
- A Towel or Blanket: a microfiber towel will pack down smaller in your beach bag and still provide a spot for a sunny nap by the sea.
Picking the Best Santa Cruz Beach for You
Best Beaches for Families: Capitola Beach, Seabright State Beach, Main Beach
Best Beaches for Dogs: Dog Beach, New Brighton State Beach
Best Beaches for Watching the Sunset: 26th ave, Blacks Beach… (really all the beaches!)
Best Beaches for Learning to Surf: Capitola Beach, Cowells Beach
Best Beaches for a Booze+Beach hang: Sunny Cove
Best Beach for a Bonfire: Twin Lakes, Seabright State Beach
Best Beach for Walking: New Brighton State Beach, Seacliff/Rio Del Mar State Beach
The Bottom Line: The beaches in Santa Cruz are amazing. Come prepared, be respectful, clean up your trash and you’ll have a great day!