When we think about California, we often imagine the sun, palm trees and long, white beaches we saw on Baywatch. But that is not the whole truth, especially in Northern California. Winters on the coast line are cold and even in the summer time it often gets windy, and the water is COLD! But during the summer all the locals head to beaches with their picnic baskets and lawn chairs. Here are three of our favourite beaches in the Santa Cruz area that are less than a couple of hours drive from San Francisco.
1. SANTA CRUZ BEACH BOARDWALK
Our favourite? Yes and no. If we go to the beach with just our family, we would most likely not go here. But when ever we get guests from Europe, especially if there are some teenagers with them, we often bring them to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Along with the beach there is also the boardwalk with it's rollercoasters and rides, game rooms and fast food places. While others work on their tan on the beach, some of the group can spend their time by having fun at the amusement park. There is no entrance fee, so at any time, you can go walk around or buy some snacks. I recommend to check their website before heading there; they often have coupons or events going on. On the other side of the road you will find a big, paid parking lot. In the summer time, especially on the weekends, the boardwalk turn into a big hullabaloo. In winter time you should check that the rides are open before you go.
Right by the beach you will find all of the services. We usually head to little restaurants outside of the boardwalk since they mostly serve fast food. Don't forget to do a little stroll at the pier. You can see the sea lions living under it from multiple different spots, and you can often see dolphins swimming along the coast line.
2. CAPITOLA BEACH
Beautiful Capitola Beach is for people who are seeking something little more a down to earth but still want some services. The town of Capitola is located just south of Santa Cruz, but still in Santa Cruz county. This beach is great for kids because a small creek with calm water goes thru the beach. You might not be able to swim in it but it gives the little ones an great area to play in. Right on the beach you will find many nice restaurants and cafes which are missing from Santa Cruz Beach. You can sit on a patio eating seafood and look at the ocean, or just have some coffee and enjoy the day. On the other side of the road, you will find some wine tasting rooms, souvenir shops, art and salt water taffy. From the tasting rooms I would recommend Armida Winery. It is nice to walk around in Capitola after a beach day and a dinner, before heading home. Or, if you prefer to stay the night, there is a historical Capitola Venetian Hotel right on the beach behind the pretty colourful apartments.
A tip: You should arrive to Capitola early in the morning. There is a fairly big parking lot, or you can park on the road, but by the Noon it might be difficult to find a spot.
3. NATURAL BRIDGES STATE BEACH
Natural Bridges State Beach is located to north from the city of Santa Cruz. It is part of a state park and therefore protected area. The beach is rather small but it has some nice tide pools where you can spot little crabs and other sea creatures. This beach is more natural, and not has not been built for tourists. You might see some sea weed on the beach with flies flying around them, and sea birds nesting on the rocks. The name for this beach comes from a sea arch that has been there for millions of years. In fact, there used to be three of them, but two got destroyed by erosion. The last arch is most likely going to collapse some day as well, and in order to protect it, climbing to the rocks is not allowed. There is usually a life guard on duty. Visitor center has some exhibitions, and there are restrooms and picnic areas in the park. You can use the payed parking or park for free by the road side and walk to the beach.
If these beaches feel too busy, just hop into your car and drive along the Pacific Coast Highway to find your own little cove. There is plenty of those. Some might be difficult to get to, or require a little but they are well worth it. This map shows you how many beaches California has. Many of them are not good for swimming because of high surfs or dangerous currents, but they are all beautiful.