A local’s guide to the best beaches in Santa Cruz, California, from the hidden to the most popular.
Growing up in Santa Cruz, many of my earliest memories involved birthday parties, bonfires, volleyball conditioning, and sunsets on the beaches in Santa Cruz.
I guess it’s to be expected if you grow up in a beach town – most of your life will revolve around the beach.
This is all to say that I’ve had a lot of time to get to know Santa Cruz beaches inside and out, from my childhood but also as an adult on the many visits I’ve made back to my hometown over the years.
And there’s a lot to love about Santa Cruz beaches.
The water may not be as warm or the landscaping as pristine as what you’ll find in Southern California, but there’s a laidback charm and rugged beauty to the beaches in Santa Cruz that’s hard to beat.
Since there are so many beaches to choose from, I wanted to put together a local’s guide to my favorite sandy spots around Santa Cruz County.
From the hidden coves to the convenient and most popular beaches to those that are a little bit of both, these are my picks for the best beaches in Santa Cruz!
Note: this post contains affiliate links, which help run this site at no extra cost to you so I can keep providing free travel advice and tips.
Natural Bridges State Beach
Parking: Paid parking inside the state park; $10 day-use fee per vehicle. You can also find free street parking along and off West Cliff Drive if you’re up for walking a short distance to the beach.
Amenities: Picnic tables, barbecues, restrooms.
Dog-Friendly: Only allowed in the parking lot and picnic areas but not on the beach or trails.
Located at the end of West Cliff Drive, Natural Bridges State Beach is one of the best beaches in Santa Cruz for photographers, tide poolers, and sunset enthusiasts.
The most photographed sight at Natural Bridges State Beach is the natural bridge sea arch that can be found near the shore.
Natural Bridges State Beach is also a popular place for birdwatching and to spot migrating whales, seals, and even otters.
During low tide, look for the tide pools at the far end of the beach where you might come across some colorful sea life in the form of sea stars, sea anemones, crabs, and more.
If you have more time, one of the coolest things near Natural Bridges State Beach is the Monarch Butterfly Grove.
Just a short walk from Natural Bridge State Beach, you’ll find a wooden boardwalk that takes you through the eucalyptus grove where as many as 8,000 Monarch butterflies live during the winter.
The best time to see them is in November, although you might still see a few anytime between mid-October to mid-February.
And if you’re looking for more beaches to explore, the West Cliff Drive area is one of the best places to find hidden coves and rocky cliffs to watch the sunset from in Santa Cruz.
Just walk along West Cliff Drive from Natural Bridges State Beach to see what you can find.
Related: What to do in Santa Cruz in Winter
Santa Cruz Main Beach
Parking: Paid parking lot off Beach Street, right across from the main entrance to the Boardwalk; $5-10 per vehicle. There’s also metered street parking on Beach Street and its side streets.
Amenities: Restrooms, lifeguards, plenty of nearby food, 16 volleyball courts (first-come, first-served), nearby amusement park rides, and surf lessons.
If you’re looking for a convenient beach to visit that’s right next to some of the most popular attractions in Santa Cruz, look no further than Santa Cruz Main Beach.
Santa Cruz Main Beach is located right next to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and only a short drive from West Cliff and downtown Santa Cruz.
It’s also near the Santa Cruz Wharf if you want to grab dinner at sunset from Riva Fish House or another delicious seafood restaurant.
Its convenient location means that it’s one of the busiest beaches in Santa Cruz, so don’t expect to have the beach to yourself.
If the Boardwalk is open, you’ll probably hear distant screaming from the Boardwalk rides, so it’s probably not the best beach to visit if you’re looking for some peaceful time near the water.
The main draw to Santa Cruz Main Beach, besides its location, is its long sandy stretches, beach volleyball courts, and plenty of food options nearby at the Boardwalk and Santa Cruz Wharf.
It’s also one of the best Santa Cruz beaches for swimming and if you’re visiting in the summer there’s a fun free concert series on the beach.
On the other side of the Santa Cruz Wharf, you’ll find Cowell’s Beach, which is a popular spot to learn how to surf in Santa Cruz.
As a city beach, Santa Cruz Main Beach is free to visit (as is the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk if you want to walk around), although parking in the area can be steep.
Fun Fact: Santa Cruz Main Beach played a big role in Jordan Peele’s movie, US. Luckily, there’s no Fun House at the Boardwalk in real life so you hopefully won’t come across any Tethered while you’re there.
Parking: Free street parking along Sunny Cove Drive and Geoffroy Drive during the week, although it fills up fast so you might have to find parking on side streets. Permits are required on weekends, so you’ll need to find side streets to park along.
Amenities: None but there’s a Starbucks down the street and food options nearby.
Dog-Friendly: Yes, on a leash.
Although it has become a slightly busier beach in recent years, Sunny Cove was the local beach when I was growing up in Santa Cruz. Even today, it still has a local feel to it and rarely feels too crowded.
As the name suggests, this is very much a cove with a small area to swim, boogie board, or body surf. You’ll just want to watch out for riptides.
And although it’s not a long beach, it still has plenty of sand to lay on since the beach goes back quite a bit from the water.
Up along the cliffs on the east side of Sunny Cove, you’ll find a bench and various areas to lay a blanket out for a picnic or if you want to watch the sunset.
Overall, if you’re looking for a local and quieter beach, Sunny Cove is a good option. Plus, it’s located in the Pleasure Point area, which is one of the most beautiful parts of Santa Cruz.
If you’re able to visit during the week, you’ll get even more of a local feel and parking will be easier.
Parking: Free street parking.
Amenities: Restrooms, showers, lifeguards during the summer, fire pits, nearby restaurants.
Dog-friendly: Yes, on a leash.
Another one of the most popular beaches in Santa Cruz, Seabright Beach is a centrally-located beach in a residential neighborhood near the Santa Cruz Harbor.
When I think of summer in Santa Cruz, my mind always drifts to Seabright Beach. Perhaps it’s because I had so many birthdays and sports parties there, but there’s a lot to enjoy at this beach.
This half-mile beach isn’t the largest in Santa Cruz, but it offers a good mix of local vibes and attractions that out-of-towners would enjoy too.
It’s also not too far from the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk if you’re looking for a more relaxing alternative to Main Beach.
At Seabright Beach you’ll find the Walton Lighthouse and harbor right there, there’s plenty of room to lay out, and it’s one of the best Santa Cruz beaches for bonfires and swimming.
And Since it’s near the harbor, you can often watch sailboats head out into the Monterey Bay. From late Spring through October, there are sailboat races on Wednesday nights that are a fun local event to see from the beach.
The Santa Cruz Natural History Museum with its iconic grey whale statue that kids love to climb on is also right across from Seabright Beach.
Combine all of this with free street parking around the beach and nearby delicious Santa Cruz restaurants like Aldo’s, Seabright Brewery, Linda’s Seabreeze Cafe, and Betty Burgers, and it’s easy to see why Seabright is such a popular beach to visit in Santa Cruz.
Pleasure Point Beach
Parking: Free street parking and there’s a free parking lot next to the beach.
Amenities: Restrooms, showers, benches to watch the surfers from.
Dog-friendly: Yes, on a leash.
Although Pleasure Point Beach isn’t much of a beach, especially if you’re not visiting during low tide, this area is a fun spot to explore the rocky bluffs and watch the surfers.
Above the tiny Pleasure Point Beach, you’ll find Pleasure Point Park where you’ll get a good view of one of the most famous surf spots in Santa Cruz, called The Hook.
Pleasure Point Beach isn’t exactly a beach where you can lay out on the sand, but it’s a great area to walk around the rocks during low tide and either surf or watch the surfers when the waves are decent.
And there are some good restaurants near Pleasure Point Beach too. My picks would be Pleasure Pizza, Taqueria Vallarta, or Chill Out Cafe (for breakfast burritos) if you’re looking for a snack to eat with a view of the Monterey Bay.
Twin Lakes State Beach
Parking: Free street parking, but be mindful of permit-only parking in the area on the weekends. And there’s always the paid parking lot near The Crow’s Nest if you can’t find street parking.
Amenities: Restrooms, showers, benches, lifeguard during the summer, fire pits, volleyball courts, and a nearby coffee shop and restaurants.
Dog-friendly: Yes, on a leash.
Twin Lakes State Beach is on the other side of the Santa Cruz Harbor from Seabright Beach.
This is one of the larger beaches in Santa Cruz that’s broken up into different sections, including Santa Cruz Harbor Beach and Black’s Beach.
Near the west end of the beach, also known as Santa Cruz Harbor Beach, you’ll find a different view of the Walton Lighthouse, volleyball courts, and a coffee shop.
There are some local restaurants, including The Crow’s Nest (which is a Santa Cruz favorite), and a paid parking lot as well.
This part of Twin Lakes State Beach is also a good place to rent standup paddleboards from the SUP Shack Santa Cruz.
And if you’re there for the day or late afternoon, this is one of my favorite areas to watch the sunset after West Cliff Drive.
The middle section of Twin Lakes State Beach is where you’ll find most of the crowds. This is where the fire pits and the restrooms are, as well as a scenic view of Schwan Lagoon.
And, finally, the Black’s Beach section of Twin Lakes State Beach is a calmer part of the beach that is mostly frequented by locals.
This part of Twin Lakes State Beach is accessible near Sunny Cove, at the end of 14th Avenue.
If you’re hungry, you can grab burritos from Taqueria Michoacan on East Cliff Drive to eat out on the benches looking out over the beach – just watch out for the seagulls!
Parking: Metered parking near the beach.
Amenities: Restrooms, showers, benches, volleyball courts, fishing pier, plenty of shops and restaurants nearby.
Located next to the picturesque Capitola Village, Capitola Beach features postcard views of colorful houses, waterfront restaurants, and a creek that cuts through the beach.
Although Capitola is a bit touristy, this is one of the best beaches in Santa Cruz to bring the whole family with plenty of things to do nearby and calm waters (especially closer to the Capitola Wharf) that are perfect for taking a dip in on a hot day.
Right next to the beach there’s boutique shopping, art galleries, an arcade, ice cream shops, and plenty of foodie spots and bars with stunning views.
Capitola Beach is another one of the most popular Santa Cruz beaches so you can expect it to be crowded most days, especially during the summer.
And, similar to Main Beach, during the summer, there are free movies on Friday nights and free concerts on Wednesday nights near the beach.
Seacliff State Beach
Parking: Paid parking lot inside of the state beach; $10 day-use fee per vehicle. Or, you can find free parking along Seacliff Drive near the Seacliff State Beach Stairs. Just note there are a lot of stairs to get down to the beach so be prepared for a good workout.
Amenities: Picnic tables, visitor center with exhibits, restrooms, showers, fishing pier, lifeguards in the summer, and campsites.
Dog-friendly: Yes, on a leash.
Located on the eastern side of Santa Cruz County in Aptos, Seacliff State Beach is unique in that it features a sinking cement ship at the end of its pier.
The cement ship, officially called the SS Palo Alto, was built as a tanker for World War I, but was never used since the war finished soon after it was built.
It was decommissioned until 1929 when it was bought by a company that moved it to Seacliff State Beach and turned it into an entertainment complex.
Unfortunately, the Great Depression hit soon after that and it never really reached its full potential. It was left at Seacliff State Beach and effectively abandoned to become a habitat for shorebirds and marine life.
Today, there’s not much left of the cement ship but it’s still a cool sight to see from the beach.
Seacliff State Beach itself is not quite as pristine as the beaches that you’ll find on the west side of Santa Cruz. However, it’s a huge beach that never gets too crowded and is ideal for swimming.
And if you include New Brighton State Beach and Sunset Beach, the Seacliff beach area covers 12 miles, so it’s also a good area for long walks or runs on the beach.
Overall, if you’re looking for a good place to lay out with plenty of space and a different feel from the usual Santa Cruz beaches, Seacliff State Beach is a good one to visit.
It’s also not too far from Nisene Marks State Park, which is one of the best places to go hiking in Santa Cruz.
Note: The fog sticks around in Aptos much longer than other parts of Santa Cruz so you might find overcast skies if you visit Seacliff State Beach. I always recommend bringing layers because that fog can get chilly.
Panther Beach & Shark Fin Cove
Parking: Free parking areas near both beaches along Highway 1.
I’m putting Panther Beach and Shark Fin Cove together because they’re only a few minutes from each other along Highway 1.
These two beaches are located on your way out of town to the north of Santa Cruz as you head towards Davenport along the Pacific Coast Highway.
And let me just say, the beaches near the Davenport area are some of the best for a secluded and rugged escape if that’s your jam.
Panther Beach and Shark Fin Cove have a much different feel from any other beach in Santa Cruz due to their remote atmosphere with no services or amenities nearby.
But if you’re looking to find some hidden beaches in Santa Cruz or you’re a photographer, these two beaches are a good place to start.
At both beaches, you can expect to find caves and unique rock formations, although swimming isn’t recommended at either with the strong rip currents in the area.
During low tide at Panther Beach, another section of the beach, called Hole-in-the-Wall Beach becomes accessible. If you want to find it, be mindful of sneaker waves and tide times though.
Panther Beach has also become a bit of a party beach for UCSC students over the years and there’s unfortunately a lot of graffiti along some of the rocky walls now.
If you only have time for one, I’d recommend heading over to Shark Fin Cove (also sometimes called Davenport Cove), since I find it to have a nicer atmosphere.
Plus, there’s a beautiful path above the beach if you’re looking for a short hike.
Both of these beaches are clothing-optional so you may or may not see some people in their birthday suits on a nice (or, really, even chilly) day.
Note: Be prepared for steep trails down to both beaches that might require some scrambling.
Best Dog Beaches in Santa Cruz: Mitchell’s Cove Beach & Its Beach
Parking: Free parking along West Cliff Drive and on side streets.
Amenities: Restrooms and benches nearby.
Dog-friendly: Yes, dogs are allowed on-leash at any time for either beach and can be off-leash at Mitchell’s Cove before 10 am and after 4 pm.
Located next to the scenic Lighthouse Point and the famous Santa Cruz surf spot called Steamer Lane, Its Beach (aka Lighthouse Field State Beach) is a dog-friendly beach that’s perfect to visit just before sunset.
A little further down the road, you’ll come across Mitchell’s Cove Beach which is a smaller alternative.
Just note that for Mitchell’s Cove Beach you’ll have to time your visit during low tide since the beach becomes almost non-existent at high tide.
Note: If you want your dogs to be able to hangout leash-free at Mitchell’s Cove, make sure to come during the off-leash times (before 10 am or after 4 pm). Its Beach technically requires dogs to be on a leash at all times, but every time I’ve visited dogs have been running around off-leash so you can make of that what you will. It seems like locals have made their own rules for the beach, but there’s probably still a chance you could get fined if you have your dogs off-leash at Its Beach.
Other Santa Cruz Beaches to Visit
- New Brighton State Beach
- Santa Maria Beach
- Bonny Doon Beach
- Rio Del Mar Beach
- Davenport Beach
- Four Mile Beach (At Wilder Ranch State Park)
- Seven Mile Beach – And its secret cave
- La Selva Beach
- Sunset State Beach
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