If it’s outdoor adventure you seek, Santa Cruz has a lot to offer. The following listings of beaches, whale watching, birding, fishing, horseback riding, and surfing opportunities aim to provide the kind of info you need to choose the outing for you.
Santa Cruz County offers 29 miles of beaches from which to choose. If you are visiting the city for just a few days, try only the best ones. If you’re not from the area, its helpful to know that one stretch of sand may go by two or three names. Our list of the following 20 beaches uses the official names – the ones you’ll find on area signs. However, if you ask a local for directions, you may learn a few of the other names for your destination.
1) Main Beach/Cowells Beach
Santa Cruz invites you down to Cowell Beach whether you want a nice place to walk the dog or you want to learn to the sport of surfing. This beach features the boardwalk, the wharf, volleyball, frisbee, jogging, close to downtown, and it’s equipped with lifeguards in summer. Portions are available to rent for casual weddings, corporate beach parties.
Visit www.santacruzparksandrec.com or call 831.420.5270 for more information.
2) Ano Nuevo State Park
Famous for elephant seal viewing opportunities, tours available Dec. 15 – Mar. 31. For reservations call 800.444.4445. April 1 – Nov 30, self-guided access by permit only (you can get this at the park). Seals present year-round. For more information, visit http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=523
3) Capitola Beach
Upscale, old world beach in Capitola Village along the well- known Esplanade. Great for a day of shopping or a walk along the beach after a lovely evening meal. http://www.ci.capitola.ca.us/
4) Davenport Landing Beach Access
Once a thriving whaling town, this protected cove is less crowded than other Santa Cruz County beaches. This popular tourist dining spot is loved by locals for the surfing, windsurfing, and kite flying. Davenport Landing is a great place for an evening picnic as you watch the sun set. Wheelchair accessible ramps & restrooms. http://www.scparks.com/beaches_coastalaccess.html tel: 831.454.7956
5) East Cliff Coastal Access Points
East Cliff Drive offers 13 spots for beach and point access. Open daily from sunrise to sunset. http://www.scparks.com tel: 831.454.7956
6) Greyhound Rock Beach
Enjoy surf fishing, hiking, bird watching (with seasonal viewing of Turkey Vultures and Black Oystercatchers), whale watching, or some scuba diving, though locals report it is challenging. The park features a paved parking lot, family picnic area, and nature trails. View area and public restrooms offer wheelchair access. http://www.scparks.com tel: 831.454.7956
7) Manresa State Beach
Enjoy beautiful views, sand, and sunshine. Beach access includes walk on long stairs- important to keep in mind if you’re traveling with children because the bathrooms are at the top. Outdoor showers available. Parking fees – self-registration every day. 831.724.3750
8 ) Manresa State Beach – Uplands
Breathtaking ocean views from the bluffs; enjoy surf fishing, surfing, and other beach activities. 64 walk-in, tent-only campsites, showers (camping showers are 25 cents; bring quarters), day-use restrooms available. Use fees – self-registration every day. http://www.thatsmypark.org/cp-parks-beaches/manresa-state-park/
9) Moran Lake Park
This 9.2 acre regional park provides beach access, picnicking, surfing and fishing. Day use restrooms and picnic areas; charge for weekend parking. Call 831-420-5270 or visit
10) Natural Bridges State Beach
Great spot for bird watchers, whale watchers, or seal watchers. Monarch butterflies Oct. – Jan. This beach, with its famous natural bridge, offers a picnic area off the main parking lot in a eucalyptus and pine tree grove. Tables, barbecues, water faucets and restroom facilities are also available. Make sure to bring a little cash for the day-use parking fee. AT&T Wi-Fi available. http://parks.ca.gov/?page_id=541 (831) 423-4609
11) New Brighton State Beach
Up for a beach hike? Seacliff Trail goes from New Brighton State Beach to Seacliff State Beach- 3 miles round trip. Beach and campground open all year. Day-use fee $10. Campsites $35-$50. Camping by reservation only. http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=25181
12) Palm State Beach
Palm State Beach is a popular day use area with a wide beach, perfect for a long stroll or a day in the sun. Go fishing, swimming, picnicking, or walking with your dog (must be leashed). Picnic tables, BBQs, restrooms, outdoor showers. Parking fees – self-registration every day. http://www.thatsmypark.org/cp-parks-beaches/palm-state-beach/
13) Pleasure Point Beach
One of the most picturesque points on the West Coast, this coastal access point is a popular Santa Cruz surf spot. Pleasure Point Beach is very clean and rarely crowded. Wear proper shoes that will help you climb over wet rocks before reaching the sand, or take the newer concrete stairs that take you right down to the beach area. Off- leash dogs allowed. http://www.scparks.com tel: 831.454.7956
14) Rio Del Mar Beach
A wide strip of clean sand with nearby shopping and restaurants. Dogs must be leashed. Lifeguards in the summer. Day-use fee for platform area. No camping available. http://www.thatsmypark.org/cp-parks-beaches/rio-del-mar-state-beach/
15) Santa Cruz Harbor Beach
Harbor Beach is a beautiful beach located next to Santa Cruz Harbor and Twin Lakes State Beach. It has volleyball courts and catamaran storage, with restaurants & shops located nearby. http://www.santacruzharbor.org/harborCams/harborBeach.html
16) Seabright Beach
A long sandy beach between the Boardwalk and the Santa Cruz Harbor. Rock wall makes it more secluded than its location seems. Fire rings available for bonfires, but arrive early to get a spot as it gets crowded on the weekends. Dogs permitted on leashes. Restrooms and outdoor showers. http://www.thatsmypark.org/cp-parks-beaches/seabright-state-beach/
17) Seacliff State Beach
Home of the S. S. Palo Alto (“The Cement Boat”)- the most famous concrete ship on the west coast. This long stretch of sand has great accessible facilities including picnic areas, multiple BBQ pits (bring foil), and RV camping. Day-use fee. Camping reservations suggested year-round. $10 parking. http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=543
18) Sunset State Beach
Tent and RV camping – no RV hookups. Clean restrooms with coin operated showers (25 cents for 2 minutes). Picnic tables, BBQs, outdoor showers. Use fees – self-registration every day. $10 parking; not very close to eating establishments, so it’s a good idea to bring drinks and snacks along. http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=544 (831) 763-7062
19) Twin Lakes State Beach
Beautiful beach with a lighthouse and a gorgeous view. Good location for birdwatching. No dogs are allowed off-leash because of the shore birds that feed here. Outdoor showers and restrooms are available. Enjoy a nighttime bonfire to top off a perfect beach evening. http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=547
20) Waddell Creek/Rancho del Oso
This windy beach is known worldwide as one of THE spots for windsurfing and kite surfing. The steady strong North West winds and good surf provide ideal conditions for this demanding sport. Surfers, hang gliders, kite surfers, windsurfers & tide pool explorers also frequent this spot. Spectacular cliffs, free parking. http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=863
Whale watching and water activities
Whale watching is especially fun in the in the Monterey Bay area. Seven different species of whales and seven different species of dolphin & porpoise visit the area year-round. The humpback whale is the most common whale found out of Santa Cruz, seen usually from April through November. Then, from December through April, over 20,000 gray whales pass through the waters off Santa Cruz.
1) Santa Cruz Whale Watching
Stagnaro Charters has a new passenger yacht and a 95% success rate with whales and dolphins. The narrated 3-4 hour trip runs year round and includes as much marine life as possible.
$30.95 Children under 14
2) Chardonnay II Sailing Charters
Come aboard the 70-foot luxury sailing yacht to experience the perfect excursion. With Chardonnay II Sailing Charters, you can enjoy a myriad number of trip types, including Afternoon Pizza, Fireworks, Champagne Brunch, Sunday Sushi, Whale Watching, Sunset Sail, and so many more. Whether you’re new to sailing or a seasoned adventurer, Chardonnay II has much to choose from.
Whale watching tour includes complimentary Champagne, orange juice, coffee, fresh pastries, and fresh seasonal fruit.
3) Kayak Connection
During the months of March, April and May Kayak Connection paddles out into the bay to view the California gray whale on its trip to Alaska. The whales usually have their calves with them and the journey to their northern home is often slower and closer to shore, allowing easier views. Kayak Connection can make no guarantees of whale sightings but they do guarantee a good time!
When: 8:30 am, every Sunday during March, April and May
Cost: $50 per person for a 3 hour tour
4) Santa Cruz Harbor
Note from the harbor: the docks at Santa Cruz Harbor were severely weakened and damaged by the March 11, 2011 tsunami are particularly vulnerable in the heavy swell and surge conditions typical of winter. If you plan to visit this winter, use caution dockside, watch for potential hazards, and report any issues to the harbor office at (831) 475-6161.
Santa Cruz Harbor is a full-service marina with charters offering sailing, fishing, whale watching, eco-tours, kayaking and more. If you’d rather stay on land, enjoy restaurants, beach, RV park and retail shops.
5) Venture Quest Kayaking
Choose from a 2 hour or all day guided kayaking tour. View all sorts of sea life including sea otters, seals, dolphins and whales. Check website for cost and tour dates.
Kayak Hotline: 831-427-2267
Rental Office: 831-425-8445
1) Arboretum at UCSC
This world famous public garden houses plant collections from Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and California attracting birds of all kinds. A complete list of visiting avians can be found at http://arboretum.ucsc.edu/visit/bird-list/
2) Big Basin Redwoods State Park
The Big Basin Redwoods State Park’s 2,000 year-old redwoods offer a haven for bird watchers. Their 80 miles of trails offer opportunities for both self- guided and guided walks. Leashed dogs are allowed on paved roads only. http://www.bigbasin.org
3) Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve
Elkhorn Slough tops the list for bird watching sites in the western United States. More than 340 species visit or have settled in this relatively small space. Five miles of trails offer opportunities to view oak woodlands, grasslands, fresh & saltwater marshes, and seasonal wildlife. A birding guide is available: http://www.elkhornslough.org/sloughlife/birds/birding_guide.htm
4) Santa Cruz Bird Club; Wetlands of Watsonville Nature Center
Offers exhibits on wetlands animals & history, family activities, bird watching, and more. Exploration walks Sundays at 1:30.
5) Neary Lagoon
A wooden pontoon walkway and trail system allows bird watchers access around the refuge as they seek mallard and wood ducks, pied billed grebes, a multitude of coots, the world’s meanest geese, along with several varieties of fish and the occasional great blue heron or hawk. Park open from 7 until dusk when gates are locked. No dogs allowed in wildlife refuge area.
1) Hidden Villa
Over 8 miles of hiking trails provide access to a working, organic farm and wilderness area. Trails vary in difficulty and length so both beginners and advanced hikers are welcome. If you are looking for longer hikes, Hidden Villa’s trails connect seamlessly with the Rancho San Antonio trail system. http://www.hiddenvilla.org
2) Big Basin Redwoods State Park
Big Basin Redwoods State Park is California’s oldest state park. The 2,000 year-old redwoods house 80 miles of trails for hiking. Leashed dogs are allowed on paved roads only. http://www.bigbasin.org
3) Skyline Trail
The Skyline Trail runs parallel to Skyline Boulevard and thus the ridge of the Santa Cruz range in a lush and mossy forest. This picturesque location is great for both hiking and biking along gentle rises and falls. The 32 miles of hiking and horseback riding trails feature views that are postcard perfect.
Castle Rock State Park
4) Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
With four trails to choose from, this spot can’t be beat for hiking. The shorter Redwood Grove Nature Trail takes you among one of the best first- growth redwood groves in Southern California. River trail travels along the east bank of the San Lorenzo intersecting Eagle Trail which leads out of the redwood forest along Eagle Creek. Pine Trail leads up to the observation deck, and River Trail’s steep decent takes you back to the picnic areas.
5) Wilder Ridge Trail, Wilder Ranch State Park
This 7.7 mile multi-use trail is most popular with cyclists, but offers a moderately easy hike on dirt trails and fire roads. $10 entrance fee. Restrooms and drinking water at trailhead. Park is open from 8 a.m. to sunset.
1) Depot Park Bike Park
BMX bike park with a variety of jumps and trick elements. Open daily, 9am – sunset.
2) The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park – Five Finger Falls Bike & Hike
Great for those who like combo trips, this trail is part biking, part hike with the goal of reaching Five Finger Falls. The 14 mile trail is open year round. http://www.trails.com/tcatalog_trail.aspx?trailid=BGS100-010
3) Wilder Ridge Trail
This 7.7 mile moderately easy trail ascends about 900 gradual feet in all. Reviews of the hike note that it is nice any time, but best in early spring. $10 entrance fee. Restrooms and drinking water at trailhead. Park is open from 8 a.m. to sunset. All trails are multi-use, except for the path on the south side of CA 1, which is closed to equestrians. No dogs. 831.426.0505
1) Monterey Bay Equestrian Center
Offering ocean beach rides on Monterey Bay. Accommodates riders age 8 and up; call in advance to schedule your ride. $65 and up; price contingent on the number of riders and the length of the ride. Riding lessons also offered at $35 and up.
2) Horse-N-Around – The Mitchell Ranch
Horseback riding lessons offered to kids and adults of all experience levels. One hour lessons start at $35/ hour. Located on the Mitchell Ranch in Watsonville, CA. Summer camps also available.
3) Pebble Beach Equestrian Center
Ride and experience the beauty of Pebble Beach. The approximately hour long rides are offered to those age 7 and up, departing year-round, seven days a week at 10:00am, 12:00pm, 2:00pm and 3:30pm. Lessons, horse riding camps, and horse shows also offered. Call for pricing.
Hunting And Fishing
1) Stagnaro Sport Fishing
Fishing excursions feature sand dab, salmon, cod, and albacore. Beginners welcome! Rod and reel rental available. Day trips start at around $50. (831) 427-2334 http://stagnaros.com/fishtrips.html
2) Monterrey Bay Charters
Charted trips available for salmon, halibut, tuna, lingcod, sea bass and rockcod. Tours start at $130/ person or $650/ boat of 6 max. Charter includes rod, reel, bait, tackle kit and parking pass. All you need to bring is food, beverages and a fishing license.
Phone (888)662-9800 or (831)818-8808
3) Ultimate Fish Charters
This charter company owned and operated by a certified U.S. Coast Guard Captain offers a variety of fishing opportunities. During the spring months, they generally fish for near- shore species like salmon, rock cod and halibut. During summer they target offshore albacore tuna. Group prices available, call for individual rates.
1) DeLaveaga Golf Course & Driving Range
Perched atop the hills surrounding Santa Cruz, this 18-hole championship golf course offers spectacular views, tree- lined fairways, deep canyons, and the infamous 10th hole. Full-service golf shop, restaurant, cocktail lounge and night-lighted driving range. Open daily, dawn to dusk.
2) Pasatiempo Golf Club
Built by world renowned golf architect, Alister MacKenzie, this semi-private top 100 course opens certain tee times for public play. Green fees up to $250; spectacular views of Monterey Bay.
3) Seascape Golf Club
Located on the rolling hills of the northern Monterey peninsula, this classic course offers 18 holes with the sound of ocean waves in your ears. Also houses a well stocked pro shop, driving range, and 2 practice putting greens. This course has a unique history!
If you are interested in golf, you may appreciate also our local golf course guide & review and Santa Cruz Disc golf courses and guide.
1) Surf School Santa Cruz
Offers lessons in the full surfing experience by pro surfer Bud Freitas: standing up and riding the waves, ocean safety, surfing etiquette, and ocean knowledge critical to the sport. Cash or check only.
http://www.surfschoolsantacruz/ – The top Santa Cruz surf lessons
2) Richard Schmidt Surf School, Inc.
849 Almar Avenue, #192, Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz’s original surf school has taught thousands with techniques that guarantee students will surf on their first day.
Open daily, 9am – 5pm.
3) Cowell’s Beach Surf Shop
Cowell’s Beach is the best spot in Santa Cruz for beginner surfers. $80 includes a board and wetsuit for the day and two hours of instruction. No experience necessary.
4) Richard Schmidt Surf School
Learn from an internationally renowned big wave rider with 40 years surfing experience. Group, semi-private, and private lessons available. See website for varying rates, $80 and up. Surfboards and wetsuits provided.
Surfers coming to Santa Cruz may be interested also in the list of Santa Cruz surf shops.