Los Angeles may have Baywatch, but where California's beaches are concerned, Santa Cruz more than holds its own. The choices are plentiful: primo surf spots and an off-leash dog beach are complemented by open sandy stretches and craggy, bird-watching coves.
Most visits start with Main Beach. Here the scenic boardwalk divides a huge slice of family-friendly beachfront and an old-American funfair complete with ancient Big Dipper.
To the west of Main beach, West Cliff Dr is lined with scramble-down-to coves and plentiful parking. If you don’t want sand in your shoes, park yourself on a bench and watch enormous pelicans dive for fish. (FYI the best bathrooms, including showers, are in the lighthouse parking lot.)
Less-trampled are the East Cliff Dr beaches, which are bigger, have calm waters and are more protected from wind. Parking can be tough on summer weekends, but you can buy a daily permit at East Cliff and 9th Ave.
Every beach has its own personality, but here are some of the best:
- Main Beach - This is the scene, with shops, volleyball and swarms of people. It's also where Lost Boys was filmed if you want to reenact!
- Cowell Beach - Best for beginner surfers, just west of the wharf.
- Its Beach - The only official off-leash beach for dogs (before 10am and after 4pm, but everyone cheats) is just west of the lighthouse. The field across the street is another good romping ground (same hours).
- Natural Bridges - A family favourite with lots of sand, tide pools and Monarch butterflies (in winter).
- Twin Lakes - Big beach with a lagoon, good for kids.
- 23rd Ave - Less trampled, also with a nice lagoon.
- 26th Ave/Moran Lake County Park - A surfer fave (good beach break) and good all-around spot with a metered parking lot, and bathroom.
- Capitola - Warm beach, with gentle waves for the kiddies and easy access to shops, restaurants and bathrooms.
- New Brighton - Long, quiet stretch of sand that’s ace for running and camping.
Check the Santa Cruz METRO for buses along the coast.