On busy summer weekends, Santa Cruz County’s most popular beaches can look like human parking lots with throngs of beachgoers spread out on beach blankets beneath colorful umbrellas. And while the beach scene is always festive with kids splashing in the water and kites twirling in the air, it’s not the place to find solitude.
But with 29 miles of beaches along Santa Cruz County’s sun-kissed stretch of coastal bliss, you can still find quiet, mostly desolate beaches where birds often outnumber the people. You just have a travel a little further south or north along the coast.
Santa Cruz County’s southern beaches are really just one long, crescent-shaped stretch of sand that extends for miles south to the Pajaro River. It’s a wide, sandy beach backed by ocean bluffs as it runs south from Rio Del Mar. The bluffs gradually taper into rolling sand dunes as it reaches the river. Beachcombers can walk for miles in either direction along these beaches. It’s not uncommon to catch sight of dolphins playing offshore and find multitudes of birds skittering across the sand.
Two access points with easy parking include the day use area at Manresa Uplands State Beach and Palm State Beach, which is the day use area of Sunset State Beach. To reach Manresa Uplands State Beach from Highway 1, turn south on San Andreas Road. Just past La Selva Beach, turn right onto Sand Dollar Drive and then left on Manresa Uplands Road and follow the signs for the day use parking area. From the parking lot, follow the walking path to a long set of stairs that lead down to the beach.
To reach Palm State Beach, take the Riverside Drive exit off of Highway 1 near Watsonville and head west to Lee Road. Turn right on Lee Road, then left on West Beach Street. Follow West Beach Street past the farm fields to the parking lot entrance of Palm State Beach. Follow the paths over the grassy sand dunes to reach the beach.
North Coast Beaches
Santa Cruz County’s north coast beaches are more rugged and isolated, hemmed by rocky, windswept cliffs and headlands. Several gorgeous beaches just a few miles north of Santa Cruz are within the boundaries of Wilder Ranch State Park, but all require hikes of various lengths. Fern Grotto Beach is a deep sandy cove backed by sandstone cliffs and a shallow cave draped with ferns. To find the beach, follow Old Cove Landing Trail from the Wilder Ranch visitor center parking lot, located off Highway 1 just north of Santa Cruz. The trail skirts agricultural fields and the bluff above the Wilder Beach Natural Preserve. A small footpath descends to the back of Fern Grotto Beach while the main trail loops past Sand Plant Beach and then back to the parking lot.
Three other beaches at Wilder Ranch State Park—Four Mile Beach, Three Mile Beach, and Strawberry Beach—are best accessed from the Four Mile parking lot, which is literally four miles north from the Santa Cruz city limits on Highway 1. Four Mile Beach is the largest and most accessible of the beaches, requiring a just short hike from the parking lot along Ohlone Bluff Trail toward the ocean. Intrepid hikers seeking even more seclusion can continue south allow the bluff trail to reach Three Mile Beach or Strawberry Beach, which is the most remote of the Wilder Ranch beaches. Just keep in mind that these beaches are considered clothing-optional.
Further north on Highway 1, the tiny town of Davenport has several photogenic beaches with few people. The most easily accessible of the beaches is Davenport Beach, which is located directly across Highway 1 from the center of town. From the parking lot on the ocean side of Highway 1, walk across the railroad tracks and turn left to catch the trail that leads down to the beach. The beach is backed by steep cliffs and features a towering sea stack that rises from the surf.
Three miles north of Davenport, Scott Creek Beach is a half-mile long expanse of sand nestled between two bluffs with a shallow creek meandering through it and tide pools on the northern end that can be seen at low tide. The beach is also a nesting habitat for the endangered snowy plover. Despite the easy access and parking off Highway 1, Scott Creek Beach doesn’t attract the crowds due to its remote location and the chilly winds that can deter sunbathers. But for jacket-clad beachcombers in search of a quiet beach, this is the place.