Like declaring a ‘best potato in Idaho,’ choosing one beach that’s head and shoulders above all others in Santa Cruz is an exercise in futility.
With so many to choose from – each with its own personality and charm – Santa Cruz is the quintessential beach town.
So, if you’re California dreamin’, and only sun, sand, and surf will cure what ails you, head to Santa Cruz – you won’t be disappointed.
Below, you’ll find the 15 best beaches in Santa Cruz, in no particular order.
1. Santa Cruz Main Beach
With its world-class surfing, stunning scenery and nearby amenities, Main Beach is a popular attraction for Californians and those who wish they were.
People watchers won’t be disappointed either; the area draws a diverse and eccentric crowd.
Since it’s a municipal beach, you’ll have to pay to get in, but only if you want to park close to the beach.
For those who don’t mind pounding the pavement, there’s free parking a mile or so away.
The walk will give you a good chance to get a feel for the town, and there’s a wharf and boardwalk with shops and restaurants nearby too.
2. Mitchell’s Cove Beach
Known for the dramatic views from the high bluffs behind the beach, Mitchell’s Cove is a favorite of sunrise and sunset aficionados and local artists looking to capture its splendor.
The trail and stairs leading down to the beach area are a bit long and steep in places, so take your time if you decide to head down.
Not a particularly popular beach for swimming or sunbathing, a better idea may be to pack a picnic lunch, grab that novel you’ve been wanting to read since the ’90s, and plan on staying until the lazy sun disappears into the Pacific.
3. Capitola Beach
From the beach, the view inland facing the town will take your breath away.
Set on terraces, the small, angular houses painted in colorful pastels will make you swear you’re in the Mediterranean – or perhaps on a remote Pacific island.
Parking can be tricky – especially on weekends and holidays – so pack lightly and be prepared to carry whatever you need.
When you’ve absorbed as much sun and sea air as you can stand, check out the pier, cruise the town’s streets, stop for a sandwich or cappuccino, or check out some of the local artist’s work.
4. Natural Bridges State Beach
Named for the dramatic, natural, rock bridge protruding from the sea just offshore, this beach is a favorite of nature lovers.
In addition to the views, the beach is a great place to whale watch and get a glimpse of the Monarch butterflies which migrate here in the fall and winter.
As the tide recedes, isolated pools appear, which make fascinating places to investigate for any marine life left behind, especially for children.
Be careful that you don’t get stranded if you go for a walk, as parts of the beach become impassable as the tide rises.
5. Panther Beach
With its difficult access and hard to find location, Panther Beach doesn’t get the crowds associated with many other Santa Cruz beaches.
If you’re not put off by those two hindrances, however, your rewards for descending the steep and narrow trail will be great.
Panther Beach is picture-perfect and secluded, and a place you may have all to yourself.
The stunning rock formations that wall off the beach give the area a private feel.
For a kick, pretend you’re a movie star at a private resort, hiding out from the paparazzi and common riff-raff.
6. Waddell Beach
About 20 miles from Santa Cruz in Big Basin State Park, Waddell Beach doesn’t get the foot traffic that’s so typical of many of Santa Cruz’ municipal beaches.
If you’re up for a scenic drive, looking to do a little fishing, or eager to try out the kite that’s been collecting dust in your garage attic since the Clinton administration, Waddell Beach is a great choice.
It’s also a place where you may find world-class windsurfers strutting their acrobatic stuff.
Due to its remoteness, wide beach, and unobstructed views, it’s also a great place for a long walk or a romantic picnic under an umbrella.
7. Twin Lakes State Beach
Many Santa Cruz beaches are famous for their surfing, and Twin Lakes State Beach is no exception.
It’s staffed with lifeguards and there are designated areas for swimming and surfing.
From the beach and the rises behind it, you’ll be able to see the scenic Walton Lighthouse.
There’s often an ample breeze, which makes this beach a favorite with kite fliers too.
At low tide, lots of interesting things wash up on shore, making it a great place to take a long walk – especially if you’re a shell junky or an inquisitive beachcomber.
8. New Brighton Beach
Shaped like a long, graceful crescent, the views from the cliffs behind the beach are simply stunning.
It’s a state beach, so there’s a $10 a day fee per car – don’t forget your wallet.
There are large camping and picnic areas too, though they can get annoyingly crowded, especially during peak times like weekends and holidays in the summer months.
If you’re planning on a day at the beach, it’s best to bring your own food so you don’t have to fight the crowds and traffic any more than necessary.
9. Bonny Doon Beach
Rumor has it that clothes are optional at Bonny Doon Beach, and due to its seclusion and relative remoteness, that may be true.
About 10 minutes up Highway 1 from Santa Cruz, it doesn’t get much attention from tourists who’d probably rather not waste a day in Cali looking at naked people.
The walk down to the surf from the cliffs above can be steep and treacherous, so pack lightly.
Thankfully, the cliffs block most of the wind, but don’t obstruct the amazing views or the therapeutic sound of crashing waves.
10. Pleasure Point Beach
Another favorite surf spot for locals, Pleasure Point Beach is located between 41st Avenue County Park and Pleasure Point Beach County Park.
Like nearly all of Santa Cruz’ beaches, the scenery is magnificent, as are the sunrises and sunsets.
Pleasure Point Beach is in the resort district, which makes lodging, nourishment and California memorabilia easy to find.
It’s also a great place to watch some talented surfers; if you can find out where they eat, chances are you’ll get a substantial and tasty meal for a reasonable price.
11. Santa Cruz Harbor Beach
Located between Twin Lakes State Beach and Santa Cruz Harbor, Harbor Beach is a favorite for its easy access, volleyball courts, and the restaurants and shops nearby.
It goes without saying that the scenery is amazing too.
Peppered with colorful catamarans and an unimpeded view of the uniquely blue California sky stretching all the way to the horizon, you’ll just want to grab a seat and take it all in.
Once you’ve had your fill of sun and sand, head to the town for a little shopping or sustenance.
12. Lighthouse Beach State Park
If the term, ‘undeveloped’ is sweet music to your ears, look no further than Lighthouse Beach State Park.
Full of walking and biking trails, you’ll feel like you’re farther away from civilization than you really are.
It’s another favorite spot for those want to see the famous Monarch butterflies that flock here late in the year.
There are public restrooms and showers to wash away the salt water and sand after a long day at the beach.
Be sure to hit the nearby Santa Cruz Surfing Museum before you head home.
13. Seabright State Beach
With so much to offer, Seabright State Beach is often crowded, especially on weekends during the summer months.
There’s something about its picturesque, grass-covered dunes and the view of the lighthouse – which juts out into the sea on its boulder jetty – that make it an irresistible draw to many.
There’s a boardwalk too, and lots of little shops and restaurants where you can pick up a souvenir or fill your rumbling stomach.
Since bonfires are allowed on the beach, the place lights up with revelers after the sun has gone down.
14. Cowell’s Beach
Known as the original, ‘Surf City,’ Cowell’s Beach draws in the surfers, surf groupies, and those who just like to watch them.
In addition to surfers, you may get to see the local sea lions, who take their morning and afternoon naps in the shade under the long pier that sticks out into the sea.
There are plenty of shops close by in case you need to pick up a string bikini for your Aunt Martha in Topeka, but be careful – the prices at the shops and restaurants can be a bit on the high side.
15. Seacliff State Beach
Another beach prone to crowding due to its amenities and beauty, Seacliff State Beach does have a lot to offer.
The beach is wide and the surf isn’t too menacing, making it great for families with kids.
RV spots are available, and dogs are okay as long as they’re on a leash.
There’s a large, sunken ship just offshore, which is slowly disintegrating and has become home to countless pelicans.
Seals, dolphins, and whales are not uncommon occurrences either.
There’s a $10 park fee per car, though you can park outside and walk if you’d like to save your greenbacks for a chilly beverage or two.