Best Beaches In & Around Santa Cruz

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Set on the northern edge of Monterey Bay, about an hour and a half's drive from San Francisco it Santa Cruz, the epitome of a West Coast beach town. With its boardwalk, pier and seafront amusement park it really ticks all the boxes.

Few places can boast quite the surfing heritage of Santa Cruz. As far back as 1885 a trio of vacationing Hawaiian princes pioneered surfing here, and more recently it was the place Jack O'Neill invented the wetsuit (it can get chilly!). Despite losing out on the title of "Surf City" to Huntington Beach, Santa Cruz is a great place to learn to surf on the town's mellow beach breaks or rip it up at the legendary Steamer Lane.

One of the great things about Santa Cruz beaches is there is plenty of choice and it's not just about surfing. There are family-friendly beaches, dog beaches and even a few secluded spots that are clothing optional not far from town.

  • 1. Santa Cruz Main Beach

    Santa Cruz Main Beach
    David Merrett

    Travel time from Santa Cruz: approx 0.5 hrs

    Santa Cruz Main Beach is also known as Boardwalk Beach because it sits in front of the boardwalk amusement park. Dating from 1907, it contains the historic Big Dipper rollercoaster, a swimming pool, mini golf, and restaurants among its attractions.

    On the opposite side of the municipal wharf from Cowell Beach, Main Beach faces south and stretches on to the mouth of the San Lorenzo River. Despite its size, Main Beach… read more »

  • 2. Capitola Beach

    Capitola Beach
    Dale Cruse

    Travel time from Santa Cruz: approx 0.5 hrs

    Often voted one of the top ten beaches on the US West Coast, this beach of fine sand lies at the northern end of Monterey Bay. It sits in front of the almost-neon homes of the village of Capitola, where you can also find a good choice of restaurants and shops. Very popular on sunny summer days when lifeguards are on duty, Capitola Beach is a south facing beach… read more »

  • 3. Seabright Beach

    Seabright Beach
    Mike Fernwood

    Travel time from Santa Cruz: approx 0.5 hrs

    Situated just along the coast from Main Beach and the boardwalk, Seabright Beach runs from the mouth of the San Lorenzo River to the entrance of Santa Cruz Harbour. The beach is accessed via the western end of East Cliff Drive, near the Museum of Natural History, and where there is free parking.

    Seabright Beach is a wide stretch of richly-coloured sands that continue on for around 800 metres, with… read more »

  • 4. Natural Bridges State Beach

    Natural Bridges State Beach
    David Merrett

    Travel time from Santa Cruz: approx 0.5 hrs

    Located at the end of West Cliff Drive, this sand beach is protected by its status as a 26-hectare California state park and marine reserve. Relatively sheltered, it is named after the natural archways that have formed over time in the rocks, of which only one now remains.

    Its marine reserve status means there's a possibility of observing seals and California's famed sea otters, while tidal pools provide a way of… read more »

  • 5. Cowell Beach

    Cowell Beach
    loboford220

    Travel time from Santa Cruz: approx 0.5 hrs

    Cowell Beach is located on the westside of Santa Cruz's wood-built municipal wharf in the downtown district. Stretching from the wharf to the cliffs overlooked by West Cliff Drive, this broad sweep of golden sand is popular for a number of reasons.

    Beyond the delights of its sands, it is close to the amusements of the boardwalk, and is also popular for those looking to be a little more active than… read more »

  • 6. Lighthouse Field State Beach

    Lighthouse Field State Beach
    Don DeBold

    Travel time from Santa Cruz: approx 0.5 hrs

    Lighthouse Field State Beach lies at the north end of Monterey Bay in downtown Santa Cruz, and can be accessed via West Cliff Drive. A protected state park covering 15 hectares, it overlooks the famous Steamer Lane surf break, making it incredibly popular with experienced surfers and body boarders.

    The beach itself is formed of flat, lightly-coloured sands surrounded by smooth platforms of sedimentary rock that act as the… read more »

  • 7. Mitchell Cove Beach

    Mitchell Cove Beach
    David Merrett

    Travel time from Santa Cruz: approx 0.5 hrs

    The Santa Cruz beach of Mitchell's Cove is marked by a pinnacle of sandstone that stands right at the centre of its sands. South facing, much of the depth of the beach is lost during high tide, although there is the possibility of catching sight of migrating grey whales.

    Free parking is available at the top of the steps that lead down the cliff to the beach, between the turnings… read more »

  • 8. Twin Lakes State Beach

    Twin Lakes State Beach
    Don DeBold

    Travel time from Santa Cruz: approx 0.5 hrs

    read more »
  • 9. Shark Fin Cove

    Shark Fin Cove

    Travel time from Santa Cruz: approx 0.5 hrs

    Located just a few miles up Highway 1 from Santa Cruz, Shark Fin Cove is a different world. It isn't hard to see where the beach gets its name from; viewed from the right angle the hulking rock that guards the bay's entrance cuts the same profile of a huge shark's fin. The sandy beach is also known as Shark Tooth Cove, for the same reason.

    But there's more to Shark… read more »

  • 10. New Brighton State Beach

    New Brighton State Beach
    Richard Masoner

    Travel time from Santa Cruz: approx 0.5 hrs

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  • 11. Laguna Creek Beach

    Laguna Creek Beach
    Miles Gehm

    Travel time from Santa Cruz: approx 0.5 hrs

    Laguna Creek Beach is within Coast Dairies State Park in Santa Cruz on Cabrillo Hwy. It is popular for sunbathing, birdwatching, exploring tidal pools and surfing. It is also unofficially a naturist clothing-optional beach, just so you know.

    There is a free parking lot at the north entrance of Laguna Road off Hwy 1. Cross the highway and look for a well-trod trail through the vegetation. Cross the railroad… read more »

  • 12. Bonny Doon Beach

    Bonny Doon Beach
    Nick Amoscato

    Travel time from Santa Cruz: approx 0.5 hrs

    Pretty Bonny Doon Beach is a gorgeous sandy cove backed by high cliffs and flower-covered slopes creating a natural amphitheatre.

    Situated just off the Cabrillo Highway near Bonny Doon Road in Santa Cruz, it is part of Coast Dairies State Park with free parking but no facilities. The paved parking lot is open 8am to sunset but it quickly fills up. Beach access involves walking across the railroad tracks… read more »

  • 13. Davenport Beach

    Davenport Beach

    Travel time from Santa Cruz: approx 0.5 hrs

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  • 14. Manresa State Beach

    Manresa State Beach
    Naotake Murayama

    Travel time from Santa Cruz: approx 0.5 hrs

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  • 15. Scott Creek Beach

    Scott Creek Beach
    Alen Ištoković

    Travel time from Santa Cruz: approx 0.5 hrs

    read more »
  • 16. Moss Landing State Beach

    Moss Landing State Beach

    Travel time from Santa Cruz: approx 0.5 hrs

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  • 17. Marina State Beach

    Marina State Beach
    karaian

    Travel time from Santa Cruz: approx 1 hr

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  • 18. San Gregorio State Beach

    San Gregorio State Beach
    Nathan Siemers

    Travel time from Santa Cruz: approx 1 hr

    Close to Silicon Valley in the South Bay Area, San Gregorio State Beach is a popular beach with a large car park and good amenities. Located on a wild stretch of the California coast this is a great place for picnics, birdwatching, beach activities, walking, hunting for fossils and exploring the trails.

    Accessed from La Honda Road and Cabrillo Hwy, you will find restrooms, picnic tables and barbecues. There is a… read more »

  • 19. Fort Ord Dunes State Park Beach

    Fort Ord Dunes State Park Beach
    Justin Dolske

    Travel time from Santa Cruz: approx 1 hr

    read more »
  • 20. Carmel Beach

    Carmel Beach
    © Blake Carroll

    Travel time from Santa Cruz: approx 1 hr

    Located in the town of Carmel-by-the-Sea, in central California's Monterey County, Carmel Beach is formed of a stunning arc of pale sand that runs for close to a mile in length. Edged by vegetation to one side and clear Pacific waters to the other, it looks almost tropical in appearance.

    Despite slightly chilly water temperatures, which top out at around 61°F/16°C, Carmel Beach is a popular surfing spot. It is also… read more »