Santa Cruz’s beaches are world-famous, but not all of the best beaches here are well-known outside of the local community. Surfing spots like Pleasure Point and Steamer Lane usually get the most attention, but Santa Cruz’s most gorgeous—and sometimes tucked away—shores offer stunning sunsets, fascinating marine life, and endless family fun.
Bonny Doon Beach
This small and secluded clothing-optional beach is off the radar for most Santa Cruz visitors. Located along the base of a cliff about eight miles up Highway 1, it's well protected from gusts of wind, and for that reason it is perfect for a naked lunch—or even just a regular lunch. The only downside is the slightly difficult walk down the cliff. But once there you can actually hear the waves crashing on the shore and the birds calling to each other. Highway 1 at Bonny Doon Road. Drive north from Santa Cruz on Highway 1 about eight miles to the intersection of Bonny Doon; park in dirt lot on the left.
Cowell Beach/Main Beach
Beach St., Santa Cruz
Tourists and families tend to flock to this city-run beach in summer, and for good reason. Restaurants line the nearby Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf, and the games and rides at the adjacent Boardwalk go nicely with an afternoon dip in the Bay. This is also prime territory for learning to surf, playing volleyball or just relaxing in the rays.
Lighthouse Point/Its Beach
Lighthouse Point, Santa Cruz
The Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, perched on the cliff above Its Beach, tells all about how Hawaiians introduced the sport of surfing to Santa Cruz in the late 19th century, while just below at Steamer Lane, actual surfers demonstrate how far the sport has come in haoles' hands. On the other side of the museum is dog-friendly, and sometimes clothing-optional, Its Beach, which offers great sunset views in wintertime and a nice pooch play area at low tide. West Cliff Drive at Lighthouse Point, Santa Cruz.
Natural Bridges State Beach
West Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz
Named after an arched rock formation jutting offshore, this beach features stunning views of the coastline and its animal inhabitants. There's plenty of space to spread out, and marine critters crawl and cling in the tidepools on the West side of the beach. Take a break from the heat and picnic in the eucalyptus grove that looks over the sand. During the fall and winter, you can easily spot thousands of migratory Monarch butterflies, who call this beach their home for a few months every year. West Cliff Drive at Swift Street, Santa Cruz.
New Brighton State Beach
One of the most popular beaches in town, New Brighton anchors the northernmost end of a long stretch of beach that extends some 15 miles down the coast, forming a thin crescent limning the Monterey Bay. Visitors love the combination of seashore and forested bluffs, where Monterey Pines, cypress and eucalyptus shade picnic areas and campgrounds that are open year-round. From Santa Cruz, take Highway 1 south toward Capitola; exit at the New Brighton/Park Avenue ramp, turn right and then follow the signs.
This long stretch of beach is perfect for romantic walks, sea life viewing and all types of beach sports. Located about 10 miles up Highway 1, it's accessible via a short hike across the railroad tracks and down a narrow trail. Once there, beachgoers are treated to stunning sandstone formations and a bit of privacy. Highway between mileposts 95 and 96.
Seacliff State Beach
This long strip of beach, which abuts New Brighton State Beach, has a few key attractions that make it irresistible to visitors. One is the beach itself, long and uninterrupted except for one intriguing feature: a pier and half-sunken cement ship, the USS Palo Alto. From Santa Cruz, take Highway 1 south toward Aptos and take the State Park exit. Follow the signs to Seacliff State Beach.
Sunset State Beach
South of Santa Cruz
The last Santa Cruz County beach in a long string of them lacing Monterey Bay, Sunset State Beach is a gorgeous, remote stretch of sand lying at the foot of bluffs and 200-foot-tall sand dunes that see toy airplane enthusiasts congregate every weekend. A wooded campground with hot water showers (that takes quarters) and picnic areas, Sunset is a popular gathering place for families and groups seeking a getaway that truly feels far from the madding crowd. From Santa Cruz, follow Highway 1 south toward Watsonville and take the San Andreas exit. Follow San Andreas Road several miles past Manresa State Beach and as it curves to parallel the sea and watch for signs.
Twin Lakes State Beach
East Cliff Drive at 7th Ave, Santa Cruz, CA
Twin Lakes Beach runs east along East Cliff Drive from the harbor jetty to the bluffs. Along with lots of sand and good waves for bodysurfing, this beloved local beach has fire rings and bathrooms. As a bonus, Schwann Lake, across the road from the beach, has a trail skirting a picturesque inland lagoon where birds congregate.
East Cliff Drive at Seabright, Santa Cruz
The most easily accessed stretch of sandy fun in town starts on the banks of the San Lorenzo River across from the Boardwalk and runs eastward to the harbor as Seabright Beach (the locals call it Castle Beach, after a kitschy turreted restaurant that used to jut out from the bluffs). A popular place for suntanning and picnics, Seabright is expansive and family-friendly, and is walking distance to the charming Seabright district and its restaurants and bars.
Rio Del Mar State Beach
Rio Del Mar
Located by the sleepy fishing village-turned-vacation-neighborhood of the same name, Rio Del Mar is the southernmost end of a stretch of beach that includes Seacliff and New Brighton. From Santa Cruz follow Hwy 1 south to Aptos. Take Rio Del Mar exit toward the right and follow signs to Rio Del Mar.
Manresa and Manresa Uplands State Beach
South of Aptos
Just north of Sunset Beach is Manresa Beach, a true gem. Surfers often come here to escape the crowded sets a few miles north, and, unlike most state beaches, at Manresa your four-legged friends can join you (on leashes). From Santa Cruz, follow Highway 1 south to the San Andreas Road exit past Aptos. Turn right and go three miles for beach, four for the campground.