Beachcomber's Guide to Santa Cruz

sea glass on santa cruz wharf

If you are craving a beach weekend getaway with enough fun activities to fill a year, then consider a trip to eclectic Santa Cruz County, located on California’s Central Coast. Situated on the northern end of the Monterey Bay, this university town is full of personality and natural beauty, and the county boasts some of the best beaches for combing. There is so much to experience and explore, and all of it lies no more than 15 minutes from the ocean. The year-round mild weather and the laid-back atmosphere have made Santa Cruz a surfing and vacation destination for more than a hundred years. 

The second-smallest county in California (only San Francisco County is smaller), it’s easy to enjoy the best of Santa Cruz County in just a few days. Life here is focused on the beaches, but a vibrant downtown, cute seaside villages, a world-class university, and redwood forests with secluded swimming holes in the coastal foothills provide plenty of diversions aside from the beach. 

The quintessential beach town

Santa Cruz’s signature attraction is the iconic Beach Boardwalk (beachboardwalk.com), opened in 1907 and famously featured in movies like Sudden Impact, The Lost Boys, Bumblebee, and, most recently, Jordan Peele’s horror film Us. With a carousel, sky ride, pirate ship, Ferris wheel, and so much more, this beachside amusement park is set right on Main Beach. Get a picture of yourself on the Giant Dipper, the fifth oldest roller coaster in the U.S., get dizzy on Shockwave, the amusement park’s newest spinning ride, or hit the midway for classic games. You can also play miniature golf and tons of arcade games at Buccaneer Bay. 

And if those types of thrills don’t appeal, take a walk onto the Santa Cruz Wharf next door, buy a bag of salt water taffy or an ice cream cone from Marini’s (mariniscandies.com), and watch the sea lions playing and resting underneath the pier. 

trolley theater santa cruz

After a day by the beach, visit downtown Santa Cruz, a historic area that features eclectic shops and an energetic street scene. Bookshop Santa Cruz (bookshopsantacruz.com) is an iconic independent bookstore that offers a huge variety of bestsellers and books by local authors, gifts, and souvenirs—perfect if you are looking for something to read on the beach or something to bring home for a loved one. If you want to take a break from the sun, movie lovers can choose from The Nickelodeon, a quirky movie theater that shows indie and foreign films, the Del Mar Theater, an elegant art deco theater (frequented by Alfred Hitchcock when he lived here), and the Regal Santa Cruz, a multiplex with the latest in movie theater comforts. 

Just as diverse are the fun dining options downtown. If you love pizza, visit Pizza My Heart (pizzamyheart.com), which features big slices to go at affordable prices, or Kianti’s (kiantis.com), a lively restaurant with weekend-night dough-spinning performances by the servers and chefs. Betty’s Burgers (bettyburgers.com) is a traditional 1950s-style diner with classic comfort food, while Marianne’s Ice Cream (mariannesicecream.com) is a local staple that is always full of beachgoers cooling down with one of 105 ice cream flavors. Laili (lailirestaurant.com) serves Mediterranean and Middle Eastern fare at affordable prices, while Hula’s Island Grill (hulastiki.com) is a fun tiki-inspired restaurant with a tropical décor and fun service. 

natural bridges beach santa cruz

Take a walk down West Cliff Drive, which winds from the Boardwalk to Natural Bridges State Beach, with a stunning view of Monterey Bay. Stop at the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum at the Mark Abbott Lighthouse and watch the surfers from the cliff overlooking Steamer Lane and the Wharf and Boardwalk beyond. The Monarch Butterfly Grove at Natural Bridges State Park is a sanctuary for butterflies that gather here by the thousands to spend the winter. If the tide is out, the tide pools here teem with life, including colorful anemones, tiny crabs, and other critters that love living in the splash zone.

santa cruz redwoods

Santa Cruz isn’t all about the beaches; it’s also home to the majestic redwood trees. If you’re interested in all things weird and wacky, The Mystery Spot (mysteryspot.com), nestled in the Santa Cruz Mountains in the giant evergreen forest, is home to a supposedly natural anomaly that warps perspective and gravity. Another great place to view the redwoods is on UC Santa Cruz’s campus, which rests among the trees and offers an amazing view of the city from above. And if you want to walk inside a redwood tree, take the one-mile Redwood Grove loop trail at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, and pop across the tracks to get a look at the working steam trains at Roaring Camp (roaringcamp.com).

santa cruz lighthouse

If you want to get out onto the water, you can take surfing lessons from any number of schools in the area or head to the Harbor and take a lesson or rent a board at the SUP Shack (supshacksantacruz.com). Or for a relaxed couple of hours on the water, check out Chardonnay Cruises (chardonnay.com) where you’ll be spoiled with local wine, beer, and food and get a whole new view of the area while sailing along the coast on this classic 70-foot yacht. Make your way to the Crow’s Nest (crowsnest-santacruz.com), a restaurant with live entertainment right on the beach and harbor—a perfect spot to watch the sunset over the lighthouse and plan for your next adventure. 

Capitola Village

Farther down the coast is Capitola Village (capitolavillage.com), a quaint and colorful town with brightly painted shops and charming restaurants. The beach along the Esplanade is filled with sunbathers and surfers enjoying some of the best weather on Monterey Bay. Paradise Beach Grill (paradisebeachgrille.com), a Hawaiian-themed restaurant and bar, and Zelda’s (zeldasonthebeach.com), a casual beachfront eatery specializing in seafood, both have outdoor patios with beach views. Don’t miss Gayle’s Bakery (gaylesbakery.com), with sandwiches and hot food in addition to a huge—and I mean huge—variety of baked goods. The line can look long, but energetic servers make sure the wait is not. 

capitola beach and wharf

If you’re looking for an elegant dinner to round out your day, perched above the village is Shadowbrook (shadowbrook-capitola.com), a romantic destination restaurant resting on the cliffside with high-class dining, a funicular that brings you down through the lush hillside gardens, and live music on the weekends. 

Miles of Beachcombing

While Davenport Beach in north Santa Cruz County gets lots of attention, there is some awesome beachcombing in Capitola and Aptos. Head south to the beach that runs from New Brighton State Beach in the north through Seacliff State Beach and Rio Del Mar Beach to Beer Can Beach. You can park in either of the state parks ($10/day) or arrive early to find a free parking spot in Rio Del Mar. The cliffs along New Brighton are filled with fossils, which you can still see in the sedimentary layers that stripe the cliff walls. Look for the prize find of a fossilized sand dollar, along with the more common bivalve and snail fossils. 

view of seacliff state beach

Seacliff State Beach, home of the abandoned ship SS Palo Alto, which sits in pieces in the shallow water just off the wharf, is a great place to look for sea glass and pottery, possibly remnants from when the ship was a casino, restaurant, and dance hall in the early twentieth century. Head to the beach at low tide and look for the piles of pebbles from Seacliff to Rio Del Mar that hide the sea glass, fossils, driftwood, and shells. Take a break at Café Rio (caferioaptos.com), which has a great outdoor patio just steps from the beach, or grab a coffee, pastries, pizza, or sandwich at Flats Bistro (flatsbistro.com) and enjoy them on the sand. If you have a minute, be sure to look up and you might catch some of the local wildlife: seals, sea lions, otters, whales, great white sharks, and countless sea birds make this area of Monterey Bay their home.

blue sea glass from california

Continue south on the beach past the last of the beachside homes and you’ve arrived at Beer Can Beach. If the tides are right, you can grab a million bucks, or at least a bunch of sand dollars that wash up from the sand dollar beds that lie just offshore in the shallow water south of here. Be sure the sand dollars are not covered with fuzzy moving spines, and if they are, gently return them to the water.

white ocean bird

After you’ve washed off your treasures and your sandy feet, make your way to Palapas (palapasrestaurant.com), a lively and friendly Mexican restaurant with great food, awesome margaritas, and a view of the setting sun. For an elegant brunch, lunch, or dinner, head to Sanderlings (sanderlingsrestaurant.com) located inside the Seascape Resort. 

Where to Stay

For quick access to downtown Santa Cruz and the Beach, check out the contemporary Hotel Paradox (hotelparadox.com), boutique hotel Beach Street Inn (beachstreetinn.com), or the retro-chic Dream Inn (dreaminnsantacruz.com). If you want to stay in and around Capitola Village, the sumptuous Inn at Depot Hill (innatdepothill.com), the casual Capitola Hotel (capitolahotel.com), and the funky Capitola Venetian Hotel (capitolavenetian.com) are all walking distance from the Esplanade. In Aptos, the luxurious Seascape Beach Resort (seascaperesort.com), perched on the cliffs overlooking the beach, and the comfy Rio Sands Hotel (riosands.com) in Rio Del Mar, are both just steps away from the beach.

Don't miss the Sea Glass Festival!

Visit Santa Cruz the first week of November, and you can catch the Santa Cruz Sea Glass & Ocean Art Festival.

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine September/October 2019 issue.

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