Natural Bridges State Beach
This beach features some of Santa Cruz’s prettiest natural features that have eroded over time but are still stunning. This beach can be quite foggy, but when it’s not, it is beautiful, both for the arches and for the views. The park adjacent to the beach has some great trails to walk along and is a popular spot for monarch migration, so be sure that you keep your eyes out for any butterflies.
Lighthouse Field State Beach
One of the perks of the nicknamed ‘dog beach’ is that it is right next to the lighthouse, as well as Steamer Lane and toilet bowl, for those daring enough to go cliff jumping. It also allows dogs onto the beach, as the name might suggest. This beach is close to the boardwalk and Main Beach, but it is smaller and usually crowded with a more local (and quieter) population during the summer.
Seabright State Beach
Located next to one of Santa Cruz’s other lighthouses, Seabright Beach is large, giving you plenty of space to move away from other people. It does connect to Main Beach, but it is usually less busy. It is also next to the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History, which features Santa Cruz’s famous whale sculpture, and it also has fire pits that can be used for bonfires. It is, indeed, a popular place for bonfires, and often, the pits will be occupied long before nighttime in the summer. Needless to say, if you are planning a bonfire, be prepared for a day-long camp out.
Twin Lakes State Beach
Across the harbor from Seabright Beach, Twin Lakes is a popular location for its proximity to restaurants, as there is dining right on the beach. It also has beach volleyball courts near the harbor, fire pits closer to Twin Lakes, and a standup paddle board rental station. While parking in the area can be a pain and will likely lead to you having to pay for parking, this actually becomes a bonus as the beach will be less crowded.
A popular beach for tourists and locals alike, Capitola Beach can be less crowded than Main Beach often is, and it is right on the edge of the town of Capitola, so it is close to good shopping and great food. Capitola is by far the most popular beach on this list, and due to the Junior Guards program, it often has kids running around on it. This aside, Capitola is generally sunny and has fairly calm water, and the ambiance of the area puts it far ahead of Main Beach.
Seacliff State Beach
Known for its large set of stairs and cement ship, Seacliff Beach can be overcast during the summer, but it is still worth a visit. A popular destination for events, the beach has numerous locations that have lunch tables, grills, and fire pits. Take a leisurely stroll on the pier and out to the cement ship, and if you need to get a workout in, the stairs are a popular place to do it. The beach is long, so it is easy to spread out and avoid others. However, given that it tends to be overcast, you will most likely have a large portion of the beach to yourself anyways.
Rio Del Mar State Beach
If you are willing to drive slightly farther than everyone else, it will be worth your time. Rio Del Mar is usually not filled with tourists, and it is also close to restaurants and town. The beach also has some volleyball courts; however, given that teams practice and play there, it is likely that someone else will be using them. Like Seacliff, it is a long beach, so it is easy to escape the crowds. It is also connected to the Seascape resort, a great place to stay if you plan to remain in Santa Cruz for a couple days.