by Garrett McAuliffe
From the sun-soaked sugar rush of the Santa Cruz boardwalk you can just make it out across Soquel Cove to the south—a wispy rumor of remoteness, clean sand and serenity. Sunset is among the most remote Santa Cruz beaches, curving along the southern tip of the county, past the big berry fields and homesteads of coastal Watsonville, a sliver of pine woodland, high dunes, and a seemingly infinite stretch of sand.
Summer days bring a steady stream of campers and day-trippers. But even on a crowded weekend there’s space enough in either direction to lay out and soak in nature’s scene, or race around, or whatever. Three miles of unobstructed shoreline run south to where the sand meets the mouth of the Pajaro River. To the north Sunset merges seamlessly with Manresa State Beach, which in turn leads to Rio Del Mar, Seacliff and New Brighton in an unbroken chain. Otherwise, there’s no real hiking to speak of, but small trails lead through the dunes from the campground to the sea.
In the light coastal scrub, California quail and brush rabbits shelter amid blackberry thickets and ceanothus, a fragrant wild lilac. California towhees ping through the brush. And you can see the bright yellow flowers of bush lupine in spring, and hear their seed packets burst open with a loud pop in late summer (!).
Like its neighbor Manresa Uplands, Sunset has a well-developed campground on the bluffs above the beach. Sunset’s campsites are somewhat sheltered under Monterey cypress and Monterey pines, with hot showers, potable water and fire pits. Picnic areas stud the oceanside and back of the dunes. Toy airplane enthusiasts gather at the glider port on weekends for remote- control takeoff. And up above, the wind off the dunes stays strong enough throughout the day to fly a kite.
As ever on the Central Coast, nighttime fogs often overstay their welcome. But the mist typically burns off by early afternoon, when it gets hot enough for a dip in the ocean. (Note: This beach is prone to rip tides so even wading offshore is recommended for experienced swimmers only.) In the evening, watch the sun drop, like a gleaming gold coin, into the tide’s orange blaze from high up on the bluff, or down at a bonfire on the beach.
You can park at the entrance near the main kiosk or drive a mile in past the three campground loops to the southern side. Parking is $10 for the day.
There are 90 campsites spread around three loops, open year round. Some lack shade and are a little tightly spaced, but the outside ring tends to offer more privacy. Dunes Camp is the more forested of the three, but South Camp is closest to the beach. With farm fields yards away, you may wake to a tractor in spring.
The campgrounds fill up in the summer, so book ahead. If you’re willing to brave the chilly off-season, you’re likely to have the beach and campground nearly to yourself. Each site has a lock box for food, metal fire pit and picnic table, and costs $35 per night for car camping. If you bike or hike in, it’s $5. You can buy $10 bundles of firewood from the campground host, located in the South Camp loop.
Sunset State Beach offers sheltered RV camping on the bluffs above the beach. Follow this link and let our friends at Hipcamp hook you up.
TAKE A SWEET SEEDED SIDE TRIP Go berry picking and visit the farm animals at Crystal Bay Farm, just off of San Andreas Road, five minutes away to the north. Strawberries are available throughout the summer, raspberries ripen in July and pumpkins appear in October. The small organic farm is open for picking on Wednesdays and weekends, and by appointment. Gizdich Ranch, a few miles inland, also has u-pick berries and apples.
GOOD FOR flying kites and toy airplanes, light surfing and fishing, beach camping, picnicking, bicycling, barbecuing, making sand castles, or sitting around a campfire and doing not much of anything at all.
LEGALITIES Sorry, furry friends, dogs are not allowed on the beach, only on leash at the campground. And no alcohol is permitted anywhere; park rangers may ask to check when you drive in. Bonfires in beach pits are fine until 10.
CREATURE COMFORTS INCLUDE bathrooms with laundry sinks, toilets (with toilet paper!) and coin-operated showers (2 minutes of hot water for 25 cents.) There are fire pits at the campground as well as at the beach, and covered picnic tables and charcoal grills just behind the dunes. Restrooms are a short hike from the seaside. And a pavilion sits behind the dunes, available to rent for special occasions.
DIRECTIONS From Santa Cruz, drive 16 miles south on Highway 1 past Aptos and take the San Andreas exit. Follow San Andreas Road several miles past Manresa State Beach and Monterey Bay Academy, watch for signs right onto Sunset Beach Rd. Map to Sunset State Beach
Sunset Beach Rd & Shell Rd, Watsonville, CA, 95077. 831.763.7063. Learn more at the official Sunset State Beach website.