A Beachgoer’s Guide to Tide Pooling in Santa Cruz (+4 Hotspots!)

The rocky natural bridges in Santa Cruze State Park during a sunny afternoon

The Mavericks are not the only thrilling spot in town! 

The beaches of Santa Cruz have a unique thrill up their sleeves. They are fantastic locations to explore pristine tide pools. Tide pooling is a fun activity in the fresh air that allows for a hands-on lesson in ecology. They can be found all along the Pacific Coast, but the following 4 tide pools in Santa Cruz are exceptionally diverse!

The best tide pooling in Santa Cruz

As you can see from the following map, the best tide pool locations are conveniently located close to Santa Cruz and can all be reached within a few minutes. 

Besides tide pooling, these locations also feature plenty of other family-friendly outdoor activities.

Make sure to check the tide chart before visiting!

1. Natural Bridges State Beach

Natural Bridges State Beach is one of the prime locations in Santa Cruz if you want to reconnect with nature. This 65-acre park boasts several hiking trails through the Butterfly Preserve, a sandy cove, and tide pools. It also features a natural rock arch that resembles a bridge across a section of the beach, hence the name. 

There are cliffs overlooking the bay with small streams and majestic houses with incredible architecture in the background. The beach has good swimming conditions. However, watch out for high tides and occasional rip currents. 

The west side of the beach is a hotspot for tide pooling. Head down to the shore and check out the small cliffs on the right cliffs. Numerous tide pools are waiting to be explored. These tide pools offer a glimpse of life underwater. During low tide, you can also walk through the rock arch and explore the small pools in between. It requires a little bit of climbing through some slippery rocks. Wear proper swimming shoes! 

Animals and plants you can spot here

  • Anemones
  • Periwinkle snails
  • Mussels
  • Hermit crabs
  • Starfish

Other than the underwater animals, the beach is an excellent vantage point for viewing monarch butterflies and shore birds. In addition, seals and otters are often seen playing on the beach, as well as whales breaching on the horizon.

Amenities

  • Free parking for the first 20 mins
  • Public restrooms
  • Changing area
  • Picnic benches with grill
  • Convenient store
  • Gift shop
  • Wheelchair and stroller-accessible boardwalk
  • EV plugs available
  • Lifeguards on duty

Additional info

  • No pets allowed but rarely enforced
  • Dress in layers, as it can get cold and windy
  • Bring insect repellant

Other recommended activities

  • Hiking on the trails near the rocks
  • Visit the gift shop nearby
  • Check out local restaurants in town

Getting there

Located in the heart of Santa Cruz, the beach is easy to access. Head to Swift Street west from Highway 1, or just drive north along the bluff on West Cliff Drive until you reach the beach.

The parking is free for the first 20 minutes. Afterward, you must pay $10 for a daily pass. The official parking is convenient, with direct access to the beach and restroom. Additionally, you may park along West Cliff Drive street. 

The tide pools can be found scattered along the shorelines on the right side of the beach during low tide. 

2. Pleasure Point County Park

Pleasure Point County Park is a popular surfing destination for surfers of all levels! However, if you’re not into surfing, this small beach is also a lovely place to watch the waves, the surfers, the occasional whales, or the view itself. The cliffs overlooking the adjacent Monterey Bay offer a stunning view, especially during sunset.

Numerous tide pools will reveal themselves to you during low tide. It is a beautiful place to bring kids because the tide pools are protected from significant drop-offs, and the terrain is mostly flat. There are many luminous, colorful animals calling this tide pool home.

Animals and plants you can spot here

  • Nudibranchs
  • Sea anemones
  • Starfish
  • Kelp crabs

If lucky, you may see some whales and dolphins breaching on the horizon. Various migratory birds often fly close just above the waves and dive for a catch.

Amenities

  • No official parking
  • Restrooms available
  • Showers available
  • Picnic benches
  • Kayak rental

Additional info

  • Dogs are allowed
  • The beach was the setting for the movie Chasing Mavericks

Other recommended activities

  • Visit local restaurants and ice cream parlors in town
  • Stay in beach cottages nearby
  • Bike along the coast
  • Grab the famous burrito from Point Market

Getting there

The beach has easy access. Take Soquel Drive off Highway 1, turn right, then turn left on 7th Avenue. From there, head to East Cliff drive until you reach Pleasure Point. Unfortunately, parking can be tricky as there is no official parking. Most visitors park in the parking lot between East Cliff drive and 41st Avenue. However, it gets filled up quickly, especially during the weekend. You’ll most likely end up parking in the neighborhood near the Point.

To reach the beach, use the stairs available. Be careful, as it can be slippery. The tidepools scattered between rocks along the coast during low tide are easily accessible.

3. Sunny Coves

Sunny Cove is a small, secluded beach beneath a pair of bluffs. It is the perfect spot for a family getaway. The water is generally calm, making it excellent for swimming. The gentle waves are great for body surfing and boogie boarding. However, the sand is full of rocks, so walking without proper shoes can be painful. Watch out for the giant waves when chilling on top of the cliff! It could sweep you down to the water.

Tide pooling is one of the most popular activities on this beach. The pools are protected from the waves and wind. There is ample marine life residing in the tide pools. If luck is on your side, you may spot some seals basking in the sun.

Amenities

  • Porta potty available
  • Limited parking
  • No running water

Additional info

  • Dogs are allowed, if they’re on a leash
  • Many shops and restaurants nearby

Other recommended activities

  • Visit local beaches nearby
  • Check out the shops and restaurants nearby

Getting there

Sunny Cove is located just 10 minutes away from downtown Santa Cruz. It is accessible from Johans Beach Drive, Sunny Cove Drive, or 16th Avenue via East Cliff Drive. Parking can be challenging as there is no official parking. There are many free parking spots all over East Cliff. However, make sure to avoid areas that have “No Parking” signs. 

To get to the beach and the tide pool area, you must walk down the carved-out stairs. It can be pretty steep but still manageable. 

4. Lighthouse Field State Beach

Lighthouse Field State Beach is a scenic beach park with spectacular rock formations and incredible crashing waves. The name is derived from the lighthouse located on the beach, which also serves as a small surfer museum. The beach is an excellent surfing destination. You can do many activities on this beach, from strolling around, checking out the museum, picnicking, spotting various animals, people watching, and of course tide pooling.

This beach is heaven for dog owners! You can let your dog off leash and let them run around and play with other dogs. The beach is clean, seaweed-free, and has interesting rock formations that create some tidepools during low tide. You may see some pelicans and seals on the beach.

Amenities

  • Free parking
  • Public restrooms
  • Outdoor showers
  • Picnic tables
  • E-bike rental
  • Gift shop
  • Coffee shop
  • Museum

Additional info

  • Dogs are allowed

Other recommended activities

  • Hiking the trails nearby
  • Visit the surfing museum
  • Check out migrating monarch butterflies

Getting there

Lighthouse Field State Beach is easy to navigate as it is located in downtown Santa Cruz. It can be accessed via West Cliff Drive. There are many free parking lots available along the street. 

To get to the beach, you must descend a set of stairs. However, the stairs can be treacherous, and there is no handrail, so watch your step.

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