Growing up on the Jersey Shore, I have a very specific idea in my mind when I think of a beach day. I have visions of sun, warm weather, sandy beach, beach chairs and umbrellas, food and drinks you bring in your cooler, and swimming in the warm Atlantic Ocean.
I knew I had to make some compromises (for one thing I’m going to the Pacific Ocean). However, I have to say my first impression was not the best.
The night before I used Yelp to find the best beaches for families in Santa Cruz and came across West Cliff Beach. Four excited people are loaded into the car and my son talked with enthusiasm about the beach the whole drive. As we pulled up around 10am, my husband yells out “Here’s the beach”. My son disappointingly looks around and responds “That’s not the beach”. I couldn’t have agreed more.
I look out and see…stairs…that lead down a steep cliff to… a thin beach a scant amount of sand, lots of driftwood and people walking in sweatshirts. Sweatshirts! No beach chairs. No sun. No coolers. I thought to myself “What the h-e-double hockey sticks kind of beach is this”?
To be fair, at 10 am the temperature was 60 degrees and the fog had not yet lifted. I checked my weather app and saw the weather would reach a nice warm 80 by 1pm and stay that way for a few hours. Change of plans, boardwalk and lunch first, then beach.
After lunch, we found the perfect beach. Cowell Beach was walking distance from the boardwalk, driftwood free, on level ground so we could drag out the stroller, not too crowded and calmer keeping away the surfers and making it perfect for wading with my small children.
After the disappointing first impression, my two munchkins quickly turned around and loved the beach. It was my daughter’s first time and she was fascinated with the sand. she was so fascinated we later found her eating it by the fist-fulls! (That made for some interesting diapers). My son got the concept of wet vs dry sand for the first time and figured out how to make sand shapes and castles with the toys.
The calm waters made this perfect for the small children. My son ran in and out of the waves, jumping into them and showing his sister how to splash. My daughter enjoying the ocean giggling at the water and her brother’s pranks. Some people did have their kids in water shoes, but we went without and were fine.
And the wonderful thing was we came at the perfect time and temperature for sun. It was 80-85 degrees with a breeze. Warm enough to sit out with your swimsuit but the breeze made it pleasant, and a good thing too since our cheap beach umbrella was abandoned after the breeze picked it up and blew it away half a dozen times and we went running to rescue it and apologizing to fellow beach-goers.
The one down side to this beach was the facilities. There were only two showers to rinse off and two bathroom stalls. It’s likely due to it being a holiday but the wait was bad for both. And since the sand seems to be a little stickier out here than back east (or is my memory not that good), everyone took a long time trying to get the sand off. The handle on the shower was tricky so my husband had to hold it down while I rinsed off the kids. I thought I’d simplify it by stripping my daughter naked but that just ended up with a naked squirmy baby and a funny show for the rest in line.
Once the kids were dressed in dry clothing, we finished our trip with a corn dog snack on the boardwalk. Then we headed out to find our hotel and ended our perfect California beach day.
- Cost: All the beaches in Santa Cruz are free of charge.
- Parking: Street parking is available but is metered and can be scarce on a busy day. There is an all day lot near the boardwalk for $20 that’s walking distance to Main and Cowell beach, the boardwalk attractions and the Municipal pier. (updated 2023)
* Photos taken by Atma Photography