The Best Beaches to Visit in Santa Cruz
Are you looking for beaches in Santa Cruz? Then you’re liable to be spoiled from choice. From beach boardwalks to bonfire beaches and even dog-friendly beaches, there is truly something for everyone.
Not all beaches are equally suited to all visitors, though, and with that in mind, we compiled a list of some of the best Santa Cruz’s beaches and broke them down for you. While Santa Cruz beach hours and weekend availability can vary, there’s bound to be something for everyone.
Beaches make wonderful places to run your beloved dog. But while you might enjoy holidaying with man’s best friend, not everyone–or everywhere–welcomes him with open arms.
That shouldn’t stop you taking your dog along on holiday, though. There are all kinds of dog-friendly beaches in Santa Cruz. That being the case, we assembled a list of some of the Santa Cruz beaches where dogs are allowed.
Lighthouse Field State Beach
Also called Its Beach, Lighthouse Field Beach is a Santa Cruz beach that is the first beach north of the local lighthouse and West Cliff Drive. It has stair access and is so popular with man and canine that it’s colloquially dubbed ‘Dog Beach.’
This Santa Cruz beach for dogs allows dogs on-leash, making it a lovely, scenic walk for you and your dog. If you’re looking for somewhere that allows more freedom for your dog to explore the shore, there are more than enough options to add variety to your Santa Cruz beach holiday.
Mitchell’s Cove Beach
From 10 AM to 4 PM, dogs are allowed off-leash on this Santa Cruz beach. Mitchell’s cove is located between West Cliff Drive and Almar Avenue, with steps that take you and your pet from the cliffside down to the beach.
Keep your eye on the tide, though. If you don’t time it to coincide with a tidal ebb, you may find there’s more of Monterey bay than just a beach. Hardly ideal for a coastal ramble! When the tide’s out though, this beach is a beautiful cliffside excursion for you and your pet.
Seabright State Beach
With lots of sand for digging, walking, and burying beloved treasures in, this Santa Cruz beach is a favorite with visitors. Dogs are allowed on-leash here. The view of the harbor and wharf contribute to this beach’s famously evocative views.
Its sunrises and sunsets are particularly noteworthy, making this dog-friendly beach ideal for the early riser as well as the sunset worshipper.
Both stairs and a trail grant you access to this beach, but it’s steep gong, so if you do decide to visit, take your time on the descent. There’s no need to spoil your walk with a turned ankle, and the bluffs and ocean views are worth the effort.
Few people love fun in the sun as much as kids, but sometimes finding the best Santa Cruz beaches for families can be a challenge. Whether the crowds, access, or other concerns defeat you, there’s nothing like the disappointment of driving out to a beach and discovering it’s not as suitable for kids as you had thought.
To prevent disappointment, we’ve put together a list of Santa Cruz beaches for families you and your children are bound to enjoy.
Featuring a wild, evocative coastline, this beach looks out over the Pacific. Accordingly, keen-eyed aspiring scientists can hunt for a variety of wildlife in the rockpools, including anemones, starfish, and crabs.
Moreover, if you visit Davenport Landing at the weekend, then you can eat out on shellfish at the nearby American Abalone Farms. If shellfish isn’t to the young peoples’ taste though, it still makes an enjoyable treat for attending adults while offering an opportunity for the kids to catch a glimpse of an Abalone close-up.
While access to this Santa Cruz beach can be reached by a rocky dirt path, in addition to a short and level walkway for kids to run rampant through, providing alternative and easier access for you and your family.
Natural Bridges State Beach
There are many appealing features to this iconic Santa Cruz beach. Of particular note, if you’re traveling with children are the dunes that border the cove, preventing little ones from wandering too far away. Further along the beach is a rock shelf full of secret pools and hidden wildlife.
Perhaps Natural Bridges’ most attractive feature to families on holiday, though, is the cluster of picnic tables and barbeques. If you’re looking for a reason to pack a lunch and picnic in the sun, look no further. Or, if the mood for a picnic comes on you suddenly, there’s a local bakery a short walk up the road.
And if the weather unluckily turns, a nearby visitors’ center is full of activities to keep your children engaged and entertained. If it holds, though, you can follow a sheltered eucalyptus trail to a monarch butterfly sanctuary for some respite from the sun and a chance to spot more than just sea creatures.
Much as you’d expect, Main Beach is the beach at the heart of the city’s seaside activities. It connects the mouth of the San Lorenzo River with popular attractions such as the Santa Cruz Boardwalk and Wharf.
Ever popular with tourists, Main beach is bustling with families and holiday-makers taking advantage not only of the sun but surrounding rides. Nearby this Santa Cruz beach are a variety of funfair-type attractions that run the gamut from rollercoasters to mini-gold and arcades.
A walk to the end of the Wharf will bring your family to a range of shops and seafood restaurants, while Main Beach’s thoroughfare, Beach Street, offers still more selection.
If you choose to stay on the beach, you’ll soon discover that the Santa Lorenzo River backs onto this beach to form a placid lagoon. The beach’s popularity also means lifeguards are almost always on hand, which makes it a safer place to swim than some of Santa Cruz’s other beaches.
You’ll still want to check the water quality before taking a dip, though; nearby beach, Cowell beach, routinely scores low water quality, and sometimes that spreads. Even so, there’s more than enough here to keep your family active for several days, and for first-time visitors to the Santa Cruz beaches visiting is a must.
Beaches for Surfing
Ever a beach favorite, surfing draws hundreds of people to beaches annually. Water level, degrees of shelter, and a range of other factors all contribute, though, to make Santa Cruz’s many beaches more or less suitable for surfing.
If surfing is on your list of must-do things this summer, here are some of the Santa Cruz beaches we think best suited to the exercise.
If you’ve come to the Santa Cruz beaches for surfing, then this is a well satisfactory choice. Cowell’s Beach is popularly dubbed ‘Surf City.’ This beach is thick with surfers, as well as those who enjoy watching the spectacle.
Other frequent visitors are the sea lions. They aren’t often seen surfing though; they prefer to sunbathe in the shade of the pier, taking morning and afternoon naps where the pier juts out into the sea.
A selection of nearby shops will sell you just about anything in the event you need to pick up an emergency surfboard or a gift for a family languishing back home. The only drawback is that the shops err on the pricier side, as do the restaurants. The surf costs nothing, and it’s first-rate.
Pleasure Point Beach
Beloved of locals, Pleasure Point is quieter than many beaches recommended for surfing and doubly worth a visit if you enjoy a sunrise.
Located on the east end of Santa Cruz, this hedonistic, fun-loving shoreline first got its name in Prohibition-era American misadventures. Today it continues thick with colorful characters, surfboards, and local charm.
For those less inclined to surf but still wanting to watch spectacular waves come in, the nearby waterfront promenade is a worthwhile excursion. It winds through views overlooking the bluffs and Monterey Bay, with glimpses of flying surf and restive seaside coves.
Close by, the Penny Ice Creamery and Live Oak Farmers’ Market comprise some of Santa Cruz’s best-beloved beachside attractions.
Its position in the wider resort district of Santa Cruz beaches means that inevitably the surrounding shops and restaurants cost a bit extra, but a neat trick is to get chatting to the many local surfers. Chat enough and you might find out what restaurants they favor, and the prices are bound to be easier to swallow.
Santa Cruz Harbour Beach
Nestled between Twin Lakes Beach and the Santa Cruz harbor, this beach boasts stunning scenery and a view of the nearby lighthouse.
As Santa Cruz beaches go, this one features a range of activities and while surfing is high on the list, it also has access to a volleyball court and rental boats that range from kayak to sailboat.
Visitors advise that if you bring your own boat, you should take care to wash it free of sea salt after use. However, the warm water and proximity of amenities continue to make Harbor beach a popular destination.
Because of its close access to the eponymous harbor, the Santa Cruz harbor beach is also a stone’s throw from the beach boardwalk for less adventurous beach-goers. Nearby restaurants and coffee shops will keep you well supplied with food, and the harbor entrance is easily accessed with several parking options on offer.
Twin Lakes Beach
Twin Lakes adjoins the Harbour beach and runs from the San Lorenzo River to Black Point. It’s best suited to visitors who want a taste of the Santa Cruz beach experience but without the crowds of the main beaches.
The water on this beach is warm, making it a favorite for water activities from surfing the waves to a casual kayak. As ever with ocean activities you’ll have to be careful of currents and undertow; it’s all too easy for the swell to catch an unsuspecting surfer unaware.
That said, there’s a lot to recommend at Twin Lakes as a Santa Cruz beach. There’s a good selection of parking on hand, and The Crow’s Nest, a highly popular restaurant, is close by should you go looking for food.
Twin lakes also host a wide selection of beach wildlife, from seal colonies to sea lions and otters, and even whales. Wildlife varies by the season, so there’s always something interesting to watch out for.
And, should you stay late into the evening or arrive after sunset, Twin Lakes is one of several beaches that offers a selection of fire pits for a bonfire.
Beaches for Bonfires
An evening bonfire can be the perfect cap for a day in the sun. While a selection of Santa Cruz beaches have fire pits for those visitors wanting to roast marshmallows, host an evening singsong, or just enjoy the moonrise, not all beaches do.
We’ve put together a list of our favorite Santa Cruz beaches amenable to the evening bonfire.
Sunset beach is a secluded beach with an adjoining campground and 8 bonfire rings. If you’re looking for it during the day it is barely discernible as you look across Sequel Cove from the boardwalk.
With miles of sand and dunes, this remote Santa Cruz beach is an appropriately romantic place for an evening bonfire. To save you the hassle of hunting for wood in the dark, campfire wood is sold on the preemies. All you have to do is bring along food and drinks of your choosing. Remember to clean up afterward though; this Santa Cruz beach is at its loveliest unspoiled by litter and interloping detritus.
If you’re quiet enough and arrive in good time, you might spot quail and brush rabbits out this way. And if you time your visit right the blackberries are in season.
If you are looking to get away from fellow tourists, Manresa Beach may be the answer. This Santa Cruz beach is privately considered the locals’ beach, but that shouldn’t discourage you from seeking it out.
El Patio, a nearby shop, sells everything from firewood to paperbacks. It stays open until 9 PM, so there’s no need to rush and gather materials ahead of time. The beach has four fire pits, which is less than other beaches with bonfires. However, it tends to be quieter because of that.
There are more birds here too. If you arrive in time for the sunset, you might get to hear them calling to each other, or even see them. With mile after mile of shore, this beach is too remote to get overcrowded. The water might be a tad cool, too, if you were thinking of a late-night swim. But for a beach bonfire of a summer evening, it’s perfect.
New Brighton Beach
Found at the end of ten northern Santa Cruz beaches, New Brighton Beach features ten fire rings, making it ideal for an evening bonfire. There’s an attached campground where the owner sells wood for $10 a bundle, saving you the bother of eking out enough driftwood and fire starting material to set your bonfire alight.
Despite being close to both the popular Capitola beach and Highway 1, this beach has a serene quietness to it that makes it well-suited to an evening wind-down around the fire. The surrounding scrub and forest offer shelter, and with the sand extending out to Moss Landing, it’s easy to forget the hustle and bustle of the surrounding area.
New Brighton is also within easy distance of a portable bathroom, as well as the campground amenities. The beach also has a pavilion overlooking the bluffs, which offers spectacular scenery and a worthy alternative to a bonfire should you need one.
While the water’s not much for surfing, it’s a great place to mine shells and other seaside treasures at low tide. Or, if you’re lucky, you may spot a passing flock of dolphins. If you time your visit for late summer or autumn, you might even be in time to catch the migratory birds, who were so populous they became the inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock’s cinema graphic thriller The Birds.
Whatever you’re looking for – surf, sun, scenic dog-friendly beach runs – there truly is something for everyone on offer in Santa Cruz’s beach selection. From the bustling Main beach and thriving harbor to quieter, remote spots, Santa Cruz’s beaches cater to all tastes.
Undoubtedly things will be slightly different as Santa Cruz’s beaches re-open, but it’s more than possible to continue to enjoy the pleasures they offer at a safe social distance.
The wide variety of Santa Cruz’s beach camping and house rentals make it easier than ever to enjoy a protracted bit of fun in the sun. All you need to worry about is how to decide on a beach that’s right for you. But with so much on offer, it’s hard to go wrong.