Planning a summer trip to Northern California? Carve out time to dive into all the best beaches in Santa Cruz. With turquoise waters, fine golden sand, and coastlines catering to all tastes, Santa Cruz has plenty to offer for sun-seekers.
If you’re familiar with American surf culture, you’ve likely dreamed of riding the waves at Steamer Lane or Pleasure Point. But there’s more to Santa Cruz than just great surfing. For both families and couples, Santa Cruz County’s beautiful beaches are the perfect getaway for a California seaside vacation. From city shores with markets, lots of activity, and music, to wild beaches secluded in nature, you’ll find a suitable place on the shorelines here.
Ready to plan your ultimate Northern California beach vacation? Get started with this complete guide to the top-rated Santa Cruz beaches.
Top-rated Santa Cruz beaches
Santa Cruz Beach
Eager to have fun on the coast in the heart of the city? Head to Santa Cruz Main Beach. Opened in 1907 as the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, the beachfront park is a California Historic Landmark and offers plenty of recreational options.
The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk amusement park has two attractions considered National Historic Landmarks: The Giant Dipper roller-coaster and the Looff Carousel. The sandy beach and warm waters attract laid-back sunbathers and active sportsmen alike.
The Boardwalk Beach is the ideal destination for beach days with your family or as a couple. You can choose a relaxing day in the sun, with calm bathing in the warm waters. Or add excitement to your day with more lively activities in the amusement park, beach volleyball, surfing, and bodyboarding.
Built up an appetite on your Santa Cruz Main Beach adventure? Grab a bite at one of the many restaurants lining the boardwalk along Beach Street.
Lighthouse Field State Beach
Want to escape the buzz of central Santa Cruz? Head down West Cliff Drive to Lighthouse Field State Beach for a nature experience. A world surfing reserve, a refuge for Monarch butterflies, diverse species of birds, and sea lions, Lighthouse Field State Beach offers a range of beautiful experiences in contact with the natural world.
At the Lighthouse Point, you can visit the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum. Located in the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse, the museum covers the history of surfing at Steamer Lane, one of the most famous surfing spots around Santa Cruz.
Since the sport’s humble beginnings, experienced surfers have come to ride the waves at Steamer Lane. The popular surfing spot is so acclaimed it was named a World Surfing Reserve in 2012.
Located just east of the city center, Seabright Beach is a wide, sandy beach on the shores of Monterey Bay. The sands stretch for nearly five miles, from the St. Lawrence River to the west to Santa Cruz Harbor to the east, with its marina and fishing boats.
Seabright State Beach has the usual amenities and is dog-friendly, so you can bring your pup with you. The sandy beach is among the widest in Santa Cruz County. You’ll usually have plenty of space here to settle down with your partner or family without feeling too crowded.
On your Seabright State Beach visit, enjoy a walk along the coast until you reach the Walton Lighthouse. Although it’s gorgeous at all hours, the views from here are especially beautiful during sunset.
Natural Bridges State Beach
Less than 10 minutes from downtown Santa Cruz lies Natural Bridges State Beach, one of the top-rated Santa Cruz County beaches for nature lovers.
The most distinctive feature of Natural Bridges State Beach is its imposing natural rock arch, one of the area’s most Instagrammable spots, along with several tide pools. The sandy beach is rather narrow, but surrounded by high cliffs, creating a wonderful landscape.
From the Natural Bridges Visitor Center, you can access the enormous eucalyptus grove, sheltering an impressive biome. The park’s Monarch Grove serves as a refuge for Monarch butterflies. Take a walk along the Natural Bridges Monarch Trail within the forest to learn more about this protected species.
Located just south of Highway 1, Natural Bridges State Beach offers ample parking and public restrooms for your convenience.
Twin Lakes State Beach
Connected to Black’s Beach to the east, Twin Lakes State Beach extends from Santa Cruz Harbor, lapped with calm waters. The sandy beach is pet friendly and equally nice for a lazy day on the sands or a more active one.
On the Santa Cruz Harbor Beach section, you can play beach volleyball on the courts. The tide here is ideal for boogie boarding and swimming, too.
RELATED: What to Do in Santa Cruz
End day at Twin Lakes State Beach with a trip to the Schwan Lagoon on the way to Black’s Beach to enjoy bird watching at sunset.
Seacliff State Beach
Located on Monterey Bay, Seacliff State Beach is famed for its massive concrete freighter, the SS Palo Alto, and fishing pier. After the navy ship was decommissioned, it was towed to Seacliff Beach where it settled in as an amusement center.
Just a few short years later, in 1932, the ship was cut in half by lightning during a stormy night. Today, it stands beside its pier as an emblem of days gone by in Santa Cruz County.
Besides getting a glimpse of the freighter, Seacliff Beach is a popular spot for swimming and fishing off the pier. Be sure to take a walk on the sandy beach to admire its coastal bluffs and watch the migratory birds flapping their wings above.
Seacliff Beach is located just 15 minutes from downtown Santa Cruz. Amenities at Seacliff State Beach include a visitor center, RV camping sites, ample parking, covered picnic tables, and restaurants.
Longing for European ambiance? Head to the shoreline of Capitola Village, whose colorful waterfront cottages lend a picturesque appearance to its main stretch of sand: Capitola Beach.
Capitola Beach is small and quiet. You can swim, play volleyball on its beach court, and spot sea lions and seagulls. If you’re a fishing fan, take a walk on Capitola Wharf, rent some fishing equipment, and join the other fishermen in casting out a line to reel in the catch of the day.
At night, delight yourself with a typical meal of seafood in one of the superb restaurants on the coast. If you have to choose a day of the week to go to Capitola Beach, keep in mind that every Wednesday during the summer months, the town’s cultural organization offers musical concerts at nightfall.
If you’re craving a more exclusive natural setting, drive 15 minutes west on Cabrillo Highway to the small seaside town of Davenport. From the high cliffs bordering the coast, you can appreciate a natural setting of great beauty at Davenport Beach.
As it’s a secluded beach, there’s little tourist infrastructure at Davenport Beach, adding to its charm. Strap on some hiking shoes and take the coastal trail from Davenport Crack to Davenport Pier, where you can have fun on their giant swing. At low tide, you can also spot tide pools along the shoreline, especially at Davenport Landing Beach to the north.
To extend your beach day, bring some sandwiches for a picnic in the sand and some matches to light a small fire at night.
Mitchell’s Cove Beach
Mitchell’s Cove Beach has a similar laid-back coastal vibe to Davenport, with rocks covered in green algae, a sandy beach, and minimal tourist infrastructure. The only difference is that it’s much closer to the center of Santa Cruz and you won’t feel so far away from the buzz. A nearby car park and stairs facilitate access to the beach.
Although Mitchell’s Cove Beach is small, you can bring your pup and let them run free. Pets are allowed off-leash before 10 am and after 4 pm. Outside these hours, pets are still welcome but must be kept on a leash.
Keep in mind that at times of high tide, Mitchell’s Cove Beach is left with little bare sand to walk upon.
Located just west of Santa Cruz Main Beach, Cowell Beach is one of the most popular beaches in Santa Cruz. Compared to other stretches of sand in Santa Cruz County, the atmosphere at Cowell Beach is more urban, with large buildings overlooking the sea. As it’s one of the most central beaches, it’s also usually crowded.
Cowell Beach is a fantastic place to take surf lessons, buy souvenirs at the craft shops, and eat at one of the many surrounding restaurants. It’s also a great swimming spot for children, as the waters are calm, with a wide shallow strip. Cowell Beach has all the tourist comforts, too, including bathrooms, parking, lifeguards, volleyball courts, and proximity to the downtown.
While at Cowell Beach, be sure to take a walk on the Santa Cruz Wharf. If you’re hungry or thirsty, grab a bit to eat or indulge in a drink with views over Santa Cruz Harbor. You can also rent fishing equipment to try your luck at reeling in the big one alongside the local fishermen.
On the way to Davenport, along the Cabrillo Highway, is another little gem of nature: Panther Beach. This beautiful sandy beach is enclosed by high rock formation walls, surrounded by grass and flowers. It’s the perfect environment to escape from the urban buzz and plunge into nature.
From Panther Beach, you can take a serene coastal walk to Hole in the Wall Beach and a little further to the Secret Cave at Seven Mile Beach. The landscape is breathtaking, and the sunsets from any of these three beaches are unforgettable.
These mysterious natural attractions are ideal places to enjoy the calm of mother earth away from the hustle and bustle of Santa Cruz. Bring a blanket, glass of wine, and some cheese, and enjoy watching the sun set over the sea horizon.
Bonny Doon Beach
Want to free yourself from Northern California’s urban chaos? Bonny Doon Beach is a wild beach, decked out with thin golden sand and turquoise waters sheltered between huge cliffs. Less than 15 minutes from Santa Cruz, with plenty of parking spots available, it invites you to relax to the sound of the waves.
If you’re looking for a full-body suntan, Bonny Doon Beach is the right place as it has a nudist area. Even if you don’t want to bare it all, you can bring your puppy or your surfboard: the waves here are superb for surfing.
More into staying on land? Strap on your backpack and follow the nature paths, starting from the beach and traveling along the green cliffs.
Within a radius of a few miles of Bonny Doon, you can access several other equally good beaches. The best of them? Shark Fin Cove.
Shark Fin Cove
Another wild beach well-suited for the adventurous, Shark Fin Cove features huge rock formations and leafy greenery, giving it a picturesque appearance. Both dole out natural shade, making the stretch of sand the perfect spot around Santa Cruz for escaping the heat of the midday California sun.
Shark Fin Cove charms visitors with its turquoise waters and fine golden sand. The vertiginous cliffs stand out with their soaring height. Several excellent hiking trails start on their margins.
Bring your picnic gear for a relaxing day at Shark Fin Cove. Stretch out your mat under the shade of a cave during the hours of strong sun. Enjoy the landscape, spot wild rabbits in the forest, and fill your lungs with pure sea and mountain air.
Manresa State Beach
Longing for a relaxed beach to rest? Bring your picnic lunch and camping gear to Manresa State Beach. The sand on the beach is soft and the views are mesmerizing: to the north, you’ll see the Santa Cruz Mountains and wooded hills to the south.
Keep in mind that the waters at Manresa Beach are quite dangerous for swimming and surfing. Only experienced surfers should attempt to ride the waves here. As its waters are “wilder,” the coastal vibes at Manresa State Beach tend to be calmer than other popular Santa Cruz beaches.
There’s ample parking available, and picnic tables where you can have lunch with your family or partner with a view of the sea. Although they must always be kept on a leash, you can bring your puppy and take a walk along the coast.
As the area is home to several interesting bird species, locals often come to Manresa Beach to bird-watch. Stay until nightfall to build a small campfire, watch the stars, and entertain the little ones with marshmallows and horror stories.
Pleasure Point Beach
Pleasure Point is one of the most renowned areas on East Cliff Drive. Pleasure Point Beach is the second-most popular surfing spot in Santa Cruz, after Steamer Lane World Surfing Reserve.
This popular surf spot is dog-friendly. Hit up the sand with your pup, take a walk and sunbathe. If you’re not a surfer, the best option for a pleasant day at Pleasure Point Beach will be to follow the tradition of the locals. Pick up a snack at one of the markets surrounding Pleasure Point Park, and enjoy watching professional surfers work their magic on the waves.
The view from the cliffs at Pleasure Point is beautiful. With the sun gently falling during the golden hour, the surfers on the waves, and the greenery and flowers of the park, the atmosphere felt during the sunset hours is unmissable.
With green forest and golden sands colliding, Waddell Beach is one of the most beautiful beaches in Santa Cruz Country. Although it’s located about 20 miles from the city, Waddell Beach is perfect for enjoying magnificent mountain views, trekking in green areas, and lazing upon an extensive beach of fine golden sand.
Leading to Waddell Beach, the Cabrillo Highway is a dream coastal route that’ll let you enjoy the short trip from town, marveling at spectacular views of the sea and the mountains. Once you’ve arrived, you can choose between a day of swimming, walking, and sunbathing, or opt for a visit to Big Basin Redwood State Park.
Follow the Skyline-To-The-Sea Trail to Rancho del Oso. If you’re thirsty for adventure, make a reservation to sleep at Rancho del Oso Horse Camping, immersed in nature.
Sunset State Beach
For a Santa Cruz beach day immersed in nature, slip over Sunset State Beach. Perched upon Monterey Bay, the beach is surrounded by flowering vegetation that naturally gives way to the coastal sand dunes.
Sunset State Beach Camp hosts various events during the summer months such as group nature walks or campfires. If you want to grab your tent and adventure gear, reserve a spot at the campsite. It has all the creature comforts, including bathrooms, picnic tables under the trees, and parking spots.
For a romantic evening at Sunset State Beach, take a blanket to the sands, whip out the wine & cheese, and dazzle at the sun dipping under the waters.