Summer has no uniform. You can wear whatever you want, from flip-flops and tank tops to absolutely nothing at all. Of course, if you're going to dive into California's time-honored tradition of public nudity, you should know what you're doing. If you're a veteran, you don't need our help. But beginners take note, because skinny dipping, nude sunbathing and naked Frisbee aren't as easy as they appear. First tip: use plenty of sunscreen. Second tip: use a little more sunscreen. Third tip: exercise your traditional git-nekkid rights carefully and with respect for others by stripping down only at one of the starter-list nude beaches below.
This guide lists some of the best nude beaches in Santa Cruz County, just a quick hop from Silicon Valley. We give ratings of "A" to places that are large or long-established and where the crowd is mostly nude, "B" to ones where fewer than half of the users are nude, "C" to small or emerging nude areas and "D" to spots we don't recommend.
One of the Santa Cruz area's finest skinny-dipping coves is Bonny Doon, much beloved by skinny-dippers for its wind-protected cove, sense of community and mixed crowd of men, women, families, singles, straights and gays. It's off Highway 1 and the Bonny Doon parking lot at milepost 27.6 is about 11 miles north of Santa Cruz. To get to the beach, climb the steep berm next to the railroad tracks adjacent to the Bonny Doon parking lot, cross the tracks, descend the berm and take one of several trails to the sand. Walk north past most of the beach to the cove on the north end. Rating: A
To enjoy an interesting stop along Highway 1 near the little town of Davenport's public beach, check your map for the tiny towns that dot the coast north of Santa Cruz. Known locally as Shark's Tooth Cove, this little beach is a nice place for a little au naturel sunbathing. A steep trail takes you to a cave you can explore and some interesting rock formations. The water, though, is usually too cold for swimming. Look for Davenport Cove off Highway 1 north of Santa Cruz. The turnoff to it is 39.1 miles south of the junction of highways 1 and 92 in Half Moon Bay and 12.2 miles north of the meeting of highways 1 and 17 in Santa Cruz. You can park at the main public Davenport Beach; find the railroad tracks and take the trail that starts there a half-mile south to the cove--or check for a turnoff half a mile south of Davenport, pull off the highway, park in the rutted, 10-car lot and go around a long metal gate to a path that leads to the sand. It has a poor, steep trail that winds up and over the tracks, but it will take you directly to the cove. Rating: C
Want to take advantage of some of the area's best sand? Picturesque Panther Beach, about 10 miles north of Santa Cruz, is where whale-watchers, suit-wearing sunbathers, surfers, a few people brave enough to swim in the cold water and nudists all seem to get along fine. Bring good walking shoes for the sloping, crumbly trail to the shore, which features high rock towers, natural bridges and a wall of rocks, complete with caves, on the southern end. Panther is located between mileposts 95 and 96 on Highway 1, some 10.6 miles north of the junction of highways 1 and 17 in Santa Cruz and 40.7 miles south of the intersection of highways 1 and 92 in Half Moon Bay. Park on the small dirt road on the west side of the highway, where you'll see other cars. The rutted parking area lies on a ridge between the highway and the railroad tracks. From the north end of the lot, cross the tracks and follow the steep, somewhat eroded path down to the main part of the beach.
Hole in the Wall Beach
Separated from the south end of Panther Beach by an opening in a wall of rocks, access to this B-rated beach is via Panther during low tide only. The 200-yard-long beach, which attracts up to 50 persons on the hottest days, has tall cliffs that end in a rocky shelf. The tide sometimes rushes in swiftly. Follow directions to Panther, then walk south from there along the sand through the hole in the wall, and you're there. Rating: B
Laguna Creek Beach
Bring a towel, water, suntan lotion and, for some excellent bird-watching, a pair of binoculars, and you will be all set to work on your "total body tan" at a half-mile-long swath of sand that attracts both naturists and naturalists. The beach, which has a nice lagoon where you might find grebes, gulls and song sparrows, widens at the south end. "But the north end is the warmest part," says Bill, a visitor who likes its "little, protected coves." Even on warm days, fewer than 50 people, and sometimes just one or two, use the sand. The beach is now somewhat of a gay hangout, especially in the middle part of the shore.
Directions: Some 9.8 miles north of the junction of highways 1 and 17 in Santa Cruz and 41.5 miles south of the meeting of highways 1 and 92 in Half Moon Bay, park in the dirt lot on the inland side of Highway 1 or the unmarked side road (actually Laguna Road) next to the lot. A road cut on the west side of the highway faces the lot at the intersection of Laguna Road and Highway 1. Just north of the road cut, follow a narrow path through the bushes. It will become a jeep path. Take it to the north end of the beach, where most of the skinny-dippers hang out. Or walk along the shore to the south end, which attracts suited and nude users. Rating: A
Known more for its surfers and family visitors, Wilder Ranch Estates Park still gets visits from a small cadre of buff bathers on weekdays. To find them, walk to the south end of the sand. And to avoid citations along this mile of glistening white sand, suit up fast if you see a ranger approaching. On a typical afternoon, only five to 10 visitors use the nude portion. Four-Mile Beach is off Highway 1, exactly four miles north of the junction with Mission Street in Santa Cruz. San Franciscans may prefer to think of it as 44-Mile Beach, because its distance from the junction of highways 1 and 92 in Half Moon Bay is exactly 44 miles. Park where you see a clump of cars pulled over on the unpaved turnout next to where Highway 1 crosses Baldwin Creek. Take the dirt road that begins here. Stay on the road as you cross the railroad tracks and wind left of the marsh. In less than 10 minutes, the walk will take you to the beach. Rating: B
One of three nude spots within the city limits of Santa Cruz, Its Beach has its own landmark. Just find the lighthouse at Lighthouse Point, on West Cliff Drive, and you're practically there. The site faces one of America's best surfing sites, Steamer Lane. A few nudists started showing up several years ago.
Directions: Take Highway 1 to Swift Street in Santa Cruz. Follow Swift to the sea, then turn right (north) on West Cliff Drive. Follow West Cliff until you see the lighthouse. Park here and walk down to the little, pebble-lined shore of Its Beach. For more fun, check the butterfly refuge at Natural Bridges State Park, just north on West Cliff, the Santa Cruz Wharf to the south, any of the bed and breakfast inns along the way (also on West Cliff) and the surfing museum in the lighthouse.
A nude beach that's only as big as the average backyard? One of the world's smallest nude beaches, called 2222 because it is across from 2222 West Cliff Dr., Santa Cruz, not only draws visitors down its dangerous, steep paths nearly every sunny day, but it also gets rave reviews from the handful of college students and other local residents who have become regular users. "It's a small, delicate, baby beach," says Richard Pasco of San Jose. We counted only five visitors on a warm Sunday. Users are visible to people walking along West Cliff Drive above the beach, but most tourists and residents never look down.
The beach is a few blocks south of Natural Bridges State Park beach and about 2.5 miles north of the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. From either north or south of Santa Cruz, take Highway 1 to Swift Street. Follow Swift to the sea, then turn right (north) on West Cliff Drive. Keep your eyes open; 2222 is only about five blocks away. Past Auburn Avenue, look for 2222 West Cliff Dr. on your right; the beach is directly across the street. If you come to Chico Avenue, you've gone too far. Park in the nine-car lot across the street, on the ocean side of West Cliff. If the lot is full, continue straight and park along Chico Avenue. Follow the path below the lot to the sand.
Cowell State Beach
Though it's not a beach in the usual sense, on the hottest summer days we've seen some visitors drop their clothes on the deck next to the ocean at Cowell State Beach, and instead of putting on wetsuits to go surfing, either sunbathe in the raw there or plunge into the water while wearing nary a stitch. But nude use of the site is infrequent. You'll usually find surfers at Cowell Steps, which lead down to the deck and are often used as a launching point. Follow directions in the previous entry, but park when you first turn on West Cliff Drive. Space is usually easy to find. Walk to the stairway at West Cliff and Monterey. Leave your clothes on the deck, where access to the water begins (there is no beach per se). Watch out for frequent rough waves. Skinny-dippers usually prefer to stay near the shore. Rating: C
San Lorenzo River
While many people know about Santa Cruz's nude beaches, few realize that the area also has three "sun spots" just inland from the sea. This trio of easy to miss skinny-dipping holes can be found by looking for cars pulled over on Highway 9 between Santa Cruz and Felton. All of them are part of Henry Cowell State Park, which bans nudity. However, rangers seldom patrol the creek where the nude activity takes place. One of the holes is called the Garden of Eden.
Directions: From Santa Cruz, drive north on Highway 9. Look for turnouts on the right side of the road. Visitor Robert Carlsen says the first, a wide turnout with a tree in the middle, is just north of Santa Cruz. The trail starts about where the tree is. The many forks in the trail all lead to the river; Carlsen says the best area off this turnout can be reached by bearing left until the end of the trail. Farther up the highway is the second and biggest turnout. Park and follow the fire road across the railroad tracks. The road winds down steeply to the creek. "The path continues to the left, where there are several spots for wading and sunbathing," Carlsen says. His favorite hole is accessible from a trail that starts at the third turnout, a small one on the right side of the road, about 4.5 miles from Highway 1 and just before Felton. A gate marks the start of the path. The trail bends left. When you come to the road again, go right. At the railroad tracks, go right. From here, look for the river down the hill on your left; many paths lead to it. "When we got to the river, we saw suited families, so we walked upriver until we saw skinny-dippers," John of Monterey says. Trails may be slippery. Other problems include poison oak and occasional young rowdies. Rating for each site: C
Rio Del Mar Beach
Rio del Mar Beach is the first in a string of four dune-laden beaches used by a sparse crowd of nude sunbathers on sunny weekdays in south Santa Cruz and north Monterey counties. Stay between sands hills, and you probably won't be bothered here. But suit up if you see law enforcers at this mixture of sand, dunes and grassy knolls. Look for the beach 0.8 of a mile north of Manresa State Beach and 2.1 miles south of Aptos Beach State Park, just south of the town of Aptos. Take Highway 1 to the Rio del Mar exit. Go all the way to the coast (about a mile or two), then turn left (south) on Sumner Avenue. Follow Sumner to San Andreas Road. Take the first right off San Andreas. The nude beach is just south of the Seascape condos and inn. Walk toward the condos. Look for a security fence over a gully and follow either of the well-worn paths that are on either side of the fence to the dunes near the gully. Rating: C
La Selva Beach
You can wear your birthday suit at La Selva Beach, just south of Rio del Mar, but only if you're careful. Although the area is mostly a clothed, family property, a few serious naturists avoid tan lines by doffing their togs in the dunes on weekdays or when there aren't many visitors around. "It's duney but also so wide open in places that rangers can drive up and down and harass people," a longtime visitor says. Follow directions to Manresa (see next entry), then walk north along the sand to La Selva. Head for the dunes that are before and after homes overlooking the ocean.
Manresa State Beach
"In some of the more remote areas, there were people who would sunbathe without clothing," remembers ex-Manresa ranger Ron Schafer, now San Francisco Bay Area district superintendent for the state Department of Parks and Recreation. "It was a plain old nonissue [to rangers]." Today, the tradition continues. In return for hiking to the sand dunes on the north end of the beach, naturists get lots of sun and few hassles. The rest of the beach is mostly flat, sandy and beautiful. In those areas and in spots frequently used by families and other visitors, rangers will probably ask you to put a suit on. Elsewhere, enforcement of the park's nudity policy seems to be left up to the individual ranger.
Directions: From Santa Cruz, follow Highway 1 south past Watsonville to the Larkin Valley Road exit and look for the town of La Selva Beach. Turn right on San Andreas Road. Follow San Andreas to its terminus near the beach. Walk north to the dunes near the beach border, just south of La Selva Beach. Rating: C