A campground among the pines overlooking Monterey Bay
by Garrett McAuliffe
Even with Highway 1 and Capitola’s main drag a stone’s throw away, New Brighton feels blissfully broken loose. The beach here is smaller than many of its neighbors, which form an unbroken chain of wave-kissed sand all the way to Moss Landing. But a span of thick coastal scrub and Monterey pine forest on the bluff above offers an unexpected retreat from the local commotion.
New Brighton’s a fine spot to spend a day lazing in the ocean’s lap, or a night at one of the many campsites that honeycomb the upland forest, even with the summertime rush. Set deeply in Soquel Cove, the beach doesn’t offer much in the way of waves, a pittance even for a boogie boarder. But at low tide, you can explore shell fossils embedded in the sandstone cliff rising out of the surf to the west and poke around tidal pools below in search of sea stars and anemone. Million-dollar homes curve along the shore to the east, heading towards Seacliff State Beach a quarter-mile away. Dolphin pods swim by on occasion, coursing the cobalt in front of fishermen, families and assorted sun-seekers.
In summer and fall, you may see massive flocks of sooty shearwaters just off the coast, passing through on their 40,000-mile annual marathon around the Pacific Ocean in search of squid, smelt and krill. The migration can span miles, obscuring the sky, the sight of which partly inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds when, in 1961, a dark cloud of feathers mobbed downtown Capitola, crashing into buildings and cars and falling dead in the street. Decades later, scientists determined the shearwaters had become deranged from eating toxic plankton.
You can learn about the birds and read other stories at the Pacific Migrations Visitor Center, open spring and summer and operated by the Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks. It’s pleasantly musty and rich with reminiscence, and chronicles the migration of whales and other wildlife and the successive waves of people who called this seashore home—from the Ohlone natives who moved seasonally from the mountains to the ocean to harvest salmon and other sea bounty to the handful of Chinese fishermen who set up a tiny village here in the 1850s, netting pompano, flounder and anchovies to send to China and San Francisco. Tourism took off in 1869, when the first beach resort and campground on the West Coast opened nearby.
Bathrooms at the campground have 25-cent showers and are fairly clean. There are a few fire pits on the beach, and a port-a-potty a short walk away. A gorgeous Civilian Conservation Corps-built picnic pavilion sits on the bluffs overlooking the sea, just waiting to be rented for a party (831.464.6290 for reservations).
The visitor center is open in spring and summer. For information, call 831.464.5620. No groceries are available, but there’s a Safeway close by.
You’ll need to make reservations well in advance for the best campsites overlooking the ocean (and for summer weekends in general). But the campground is well-shaded throughout, and cute trails overgrown with blackberry brambles lead down to the beach. There’s poison oak rimming the edge of some sites, and raccoons, used to camper’s crumbs, will stare you down for a snack and come snooping at night. Quiet time is strictly enforced after 10pm. Camping is $35 per night ($50 for the “premium” sites closest to the bluff overlook) and $50 for RVs.
There’s also a generously sized bike camping area with four sites; it’s first come, first served, and the fee is $5.
GOOD FOR family camping, bike camping, surf fishing, evening bonfires in summer, bobbing about in the waves and lying in the sun. Dogs are allowed on leash at the beach and campground.
LOCAL’S WARNING The parking lot and campground have been a hotspot for shady creepers looking to swipe coolers and wallets – don’t leave anything valuable sitting out overnight, or even in your tent during the day.
OTHER LOCAL’S WARNING Like all South County beaches, New Brighton can be foggy and cool in the morning and evening. Bring layers.
CATCH THE MIGRATION Sooty shearwaters fly by in summer and fall in thick flocks that darken the skies and stretch for miles. Gray whales pass in winter and spring, and humpbacks occasionally swim through in summer and fall—you can spy them from the bluffs above the sea.
Head south from Santa Cruz to the town of Capitola, and take the Park Avenue exit off Highway 1. Follow signs for New Brighton onto Park Drive, then take a left at the first stop sign onto McGregor Drive. Around the bend you’ll see the entrance on your right.