Explore Coastal California: Santa Cruz’s Best Beaches

map of Monterey Bay
Monterey Bay
At the tip of Santa Cruz’s West Side, Natural Bridges State Park (2531 West Cliff Dr., 831/423-4609, daily 8am-sunset, $10) used to have three coastal arches right offshore. Even though there is only one arch remaining, this picturesque state park has a beach that doesn’t stretch wide, but falls back deep, crossed by a creek that feeds out into the sea. An inconsistent break makes surfing at Natural Bridges fun on occasion, while the near-constant winds that sweep the sands bring out windsurfers nearly every weekend.

Hardy sun-worshippers brave the breezes, bringing out their beach blankets, umbrellas, and sunscreen on rare sunny days (usually in late spring and fall). Back from the beach, a wooded picnic area has tables and grills for small and larger parties. Even farther back, the park has a monarch butterfly preserve, where the migrating insects take over the eucalyptus grove during the fall and winter months. Rangers offer guided tours of the tide pools that range out to the West Side of the beach. You can access these by a somewhat scrambling short hike (0.25-0.5 miles) on the rocks cliffs. These odd little holes filled with sea life aren’t like most tide pools—many are nearly perfect round depressions in the sandstone cliffs worn away by harder stones as the tides move tirelessly back and forth. Just don’t touch the residents of these pools, since human hands can hurt delicate tide pool creatures.

A surfer stands on the wet sand in front of Natural Bridges State Park's only freestanding arch.
Natural Bridges State Park’s sole remaining freestanding arch. Photo © Vadim Kurland, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

At Cowell’s Beach (350 West Cliff Dr.), lots of beginning surfers have rode their first waves. This West Side beach sits right at a crook in the coastline that joins with underwater features to create a reliable small break that lures new surfers by the dozens.

At the south end of Santa Cruz, down by the harbor, beachgoers flock to Seabright Beach (East Cliff Dr. at Seabright Ave., 831/427-4868, daily 6am-10pm, free) all summer long. This miles-long stretch of sand, protected by the cliffs from the worst of the winds, is a favorite retreat for sunbathers and loungers. While there’s little in the way of snack bars, permanent volleyball courts, or facilities, you can still have a great time at Seabright. There is a lot of soft sand to lie in, plenty of room to play football or set up your own volleyball net, and, of course, easy access to the chilly Pacific Ocean. There’s no surfing here—Seabright has a shore break that delights skim-boarders, but makes wave riding impossible.

Down in Capitola, one of the favorite sandy spots is New Brighton State Beach (1500 Park Ave., Capitola, 831/464-6330). This forest-backed beach has everything: a strip of sand that’s perfect for lounging and cold-water swimming, a forest-shaded campground for both tent and RV campers, hiking trails, and ranger-led nature programs. If you plan to camp, call in advance to make reservations at this popular state park, or just come for the day and set up your spot out on the sand. New Brighton can get crowded on rare sunny summer days, but it’s nothing like the wall-to-wall people of the popular Southern California beaches. There’s also an old cement ship down the beach that can be accessed by walking out on a pier.

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