Rio Del Mar State Beach


by Garrett McAuliffe

Summer scenes at this popular beachside hamlet are spirited and raucous, as you’ll soon see driving over the slope of road that leads down to the ocean from Highway 1. Dogs and joggers cruise the long, paved promenade. The beach below is awash with driftwood and debris and, by lunchtime, a parade of sun-seekers is settling in for the day. A tiny strip of markets and cafes means provisions are never very far away. The wandering mouth of Aptos Creek cuts a swath through the sand, and often in the summer takes a more circuitous route, creating something of a lagoon that transforms the beach. There’s still plenty of space to stretch out or toss a football, but if you’re looking for a quiet slice of sand and sea, you’ll need to drive a little farther south.

Rio Del Mar remains festive late into the evening, so bring friends and stay toasty around one of the firepits set above the high tide line. If you have your own ring or pit, you can build a fire wherever you like. If not, there are no reservations, so come early to grab a spot. The beach closes at 10pm, and rangers make the rounds a little later to send stragglers on their way and douse the embers.

The surrounding area was once a remote ranching outpost. It had its boom in the late 1800s, when the railroad arrived, turning Rio Del Mar from a swampy watershed into a rough-and-tumble seaport. Redwood lumber was shipped to Hawaii and sugar cane returned on the backhaul. Now the ground has been somewhat stabilized and stacked with townhouses, many of them pricey summer rentals. Even with the seasonal flux, the beach retains some residential charm, especially in the offseason, when the ocean turns moodier and the wind picks up.

During the summer, the surf is shallow for easy wading. But winter erodes the coastal sands, exposing a few pilings from the bygone Aptos wharf. The shore break here is on the grungier side, though it tends to be taller than at Seacliff State Beach next door, and waves usually peak in late afternoon for good body surfing and boogie boarding.

There are a few shops a stone’s throw from the beach, including Pixie’s Deli, a local gem, for tasty sandwiches and beer on tap. Café Rio serves higher-end surf and turf and cocktails on an outdoor patio or indoors. Parking in the main lot is limited, but you can usually find a free spot in the neighborhood, or pay to park at Seacliff just up the road. (A jetty leading to a grounded concrete freighter divides Rio Del Mar from Seacliff to the north.) There are outdoor showers and the typical beach bathrooms (which means pretty gross and B.Y.O.T.P. by late afternoon).

THE IDEAL PLACE FOR bonfires, beach parties, bbq, boogie boarding, and building shanties out of driftwood. You can rent boogie boards for cheap at the small market across the street. It’s also a little less hectic than other dog-friendly beaches in and around Santa Cruz.

THE AUTHORITIES FROWN ON alcohol, and do check every so often, so bring a cup or follow the rules. Dogs off leash will also get you a quick fine.

AVOID THE PAIN AND bring some shade or sunblock—the beach is fully exposed. And don’t forget layered clothing for that drifting sea breeze.

IF THINGS LINE UP YOU’LL see a wandering sea lion, or one of the dolphin or porpoise pods that swim by a few times a day just offshore.

From Santa Cruz follow Highway 1 south to Aptos and take the Rio Del Mar exit. Follow signs for Rio Del Mar. (Rio Del Mar Blvd winds past the Deer Park Shopping Center, around some bends, and all the way down to the beach.)

Rio Del Mar Blvd, Aptos, CA, 95001. 831.685.6500. Learn more at the Rio Del Mar State Beach website.

Seacliff State Beach
Forest of Nisene Marks State Park
Manresa State Beach