Seacliff State Beach

Clean water and camping on the beach in Santa Cruz County.

By Garrett McAuliffe

This is an on-the-fly, pack-your-family-in-the-minivan type of beach in Aptos with festive crowds, a concession stand selling ice cream and a large picnic area with charcoal grills prime for a summer reunion. And there’s that curious concrete ship moored at the end of the fishing pier, half sunk and off-limits, commanded by a flock of loud gulls and brown pelicans.

Seacliff is sandwiched between New Brighton State Beach to the north and Rio Del Mar Beach to the south, and backed by an ancient sea wall. Beneath the high bluff, you’ll find picnic tables in the semi-shade of a slatted pergola and, further down, a string of RVs, awnings out in camp mode.

Seacliff is the only place on the Monterey Bay with RV camping on the beach. Follow this link and let our friends at Hipcamp hook you up.

But first, that boat has a story to tell. Toward the end of World War I, with steel supplies running low, the Palo Alto was one of three concrete ships commissioned by the US Navy. But the war ended before it was finished and, a few years later, the ship was towed from Oakland to where it lies now. In the fey and fading roar of the twenties, the Palo Alto was converted into a floating amusement center, replete with a ballroom, upscale dining hall, and heated swimming pool on deck.

Then in 1931, Seacliff became one of California’s first state beaches. The newly-protected waters didn’t lap at luxury for long. After only two years in operation, the ship’s hull was cracked and the company went bankrupt. The retrofit freighter was stripped and left as an extension of the fishing pier, slowly deteriorating over 50 years before it was deemed unsafe, and left to the birds. Resting firmly on the ocean floor, the ship now serves as an artificial reef and sunken ecological treasure chest teeming with sea life.

You can learn all about that life and experience some yourself at the tidy visitor center and mini-museum a few steps up from the beach. Operated by Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks, it showcases the history of the Palo Alto and explores the marine life and fossil beds of Monterey Bay with an aquarium and touch tank, plus artifacts from the ship’s brief heyday. The center is open Wednesday to Sunday from 10am to 4pm, and information on the tides is usually posted just outside the front door.

Beneath the pier, low tides reveal mussels, barnacles, sea stars, and an occasional anemone clasped to the exposed wooden pilings. Anglers line the dock hoping to snag striped bass, halibut, or king salmon on a good day. You can drop a line with a fishing permit, or walk the pier and read about the marine birds and fish that inhabit this pocket of Monterey Bay, known as Soquel Cove. In 2014 Seacliff State Beach was among the cleanest beaches in Santa Cruz County.

Camping is available for RVs only—$65 for full hook-up sites, and $55 for self-contained—and basically consists of a long strip of parking lot behind the beach, interspersed with bathrooms containing coin-operated showers.

Pay $10 to park your car at the bottom of the bluff, right next to the beach (though that often fills up before noon on weekends). There’s also a parking lot up top. Benches line the bluff’s rim, a good spot to salute the sun and sweep of sea, and the coastland stretching north to Pleasure Point. A long flight of stairs leads down to the beach. (Free parking can be found around Rio Del Mar Beach and at the junction of State Park Drive and Santa Cruz Avenue.)

On rare days the waves pick up enough for surfing. But the swell is almost always perfect for boogie boarding and children taking their first turns in the surf.

GOOD FOR a walk on the beach with a date, or your dog on a leash, pier fishing, skim boarding, family gatherings with mmmmm! barbecue, and good clean fun.

WATCH OUT FOR the odd jellyfish. Alcohol is not allowed anywhere including the picnic area.

YOUR MOM WOULD TELL YOU TO bring a jacket and your flip flops, as the weather is predictably fickle. The fog usually breaks by late morning, and a chilly wind can arrive quickly in late afternoon. In between the sand can get hot enough to burn your feet.

DIRECTIONS Take the State Park Drive exit in Aptos off of Highway 1 and head towards the ocean on State Park Dr. Stay straight onto Las Olas Dr. and wind down to the parking lot. (Follow signs to Seacliff State Beach.)

State Park Dr, Aptos, CA, 95001. 831.685.6442. Learn more at the official Seacliff State Beach website. Map to Seacliff State Beach

New Brighton State Beach
Rio del Mar State Beach
Manresa State Beach