Those of us lucky enough to have had a childhood summer spent by the sea count ourselves even more blessed if we had rock or tide pools to explore. There’s nothing like sitting and watching the sea stars, gently waving anemones and scuttling crabs quietly going about their lives after the tide has retreated, and no better place to do so than in Santa Cruz, California.
Back in our younger days, we petted, caught and posed with the beautiful, multicolor sea critters. Now we know better, because we know that taking them out of the water can hurt or even kill them. The excitement you and your kids can get watching them can be just as special and educational without the unnecessary manhandling – for extra fun, grab a sea life book at a local store to help you identify what you’re looking at.
The beaches of Santa Cruz, on the Pacific Coast, are the perfect place to head to for a morning or afternoon tide-pooling. From Lighthouse Point to Davenport, you’ll find rugged slabs of ancient mudstone rock that at low tide are left with hundreds of tide pools – home to a multitude of sea life. We’ve picked out a selection of tide pool beaches – some pet friendly, others not – for you to discover in Santa Cruz.
When Is The Best Time To Explore Tide Pools In Santa Cruz?
Wait for the tide to go out and you’ll have plenty of pools full of sea critters to wander around! The gravitational pull of the moon and sun on the earth causes two high tides and two low tides in California every day. The best low tides are “negative” low tides. In spring, negative low tides happen in the early morning, while in late fall and winter, you’ll get them in the afternoon. Check low tide times with local surfing, boating and other sea-related businesses. People often head to Santa Cruz during King Tides for the most pools to explore. Check online to see when the next one is before planning your trip to Santa Cruz.
TIP: Try to get to the beach around an hour before low tide so that you have plenty of time to explore while the tide is still going out.
What Can I See In the Santa Cruz Tide Pools?
Expect green sea anemones, purple sea urchins, colorful sea stars, and more than anything clusters of mussels, barnacles, limpets and periwinkle snails (watch where you tread so as not to crush them!). Our favorites are the shy hermit crabs and fast-moving rock crabs. You might also see some fish in the pools – keep your eyes open for sculpin, opaleye and baby monkeyface pricklebacks!
Each species has to survive the ever-changing, rough conditions of their pool homes – sometimes warm under the sun, sometimes chilly, sometimes rough when the tide is coming in, and sometimes extremely salty as the water begins to evaporate. Each tide pool critter plays a role in the tide pool ecology – like in a rainforest, some are at the bottom of the food chain, and others are the top carnivores!
When the tide is at its absolute lowest (every two weeks on the full or new moon in Santa Cruz), you can travel further out on the rocks and get the chance to see more elusive creatures stranded in pools, such as dragon-like nudibranchs (a type of sea slug that comes in a variety of colors) and octopuses!
Tide Pooling Safety Tips
Before we share Santa Cruz’s best tide pool beaches, please check out our safety tips so you can make the most of your time and also do your bit not to damage what you’re there to see!
- Before we share Santa Cruz’s best tide pool beaches, please check out our safety tips so you can make the most of your time and also do your bit not to damage what you’re there to see!
- Look, don’t touch. Some of the creatures are fragile; others can pinch or stab. It’s best just to give them space to do their thing and enjoy the show. They do not need your help – nature has them right where they are supposed to be!
- Never turn your back on the waves – that tide could sneak in on you, and when it does, it can come in fast and cut off your way back to land!
- Wear tennis shoes, surfer booties or sports shoes to prevent you slipping or getting cut on sharp rocks or shells as you roam.
- Dress for the weather. Santa Cruz beaches can get windy and chilly!
Where Are The Best Tide Pools In Santa Cruz?
1. Pleasure Point
The flat beach at Pleasure Point is a popular destination for surfers, and it makes a great place to sit with the cliffs at your back and watch the waves. But we’re sending you here for the tide pools, and while the best of the pools are not exposed except at the lowest tide, they are worth waiting for, as you’ll get a chance to see sea stars, nudibranchs and octopuses in the deeper ones, and sea anemones and hermit crabs closer to the beach.
And if you are especially lucky during your trip to Pleasure Point, you may well spot whales and dolphins on the horizon!
- Lunch or dinner in a local restaurant
- A burrito from Point Market
- An ice cream at sunset
- A stay in a beach cottage overnight
- Cycling along the coast
Good To Know
There is no official parking, so plan ahead (try the parking lot between East Cliff drive and 41st Avenue).
There are restrooms near the beach.
There are picnic benches.
Dogs are allowed.
2. Natural Bridges State Beach
Natural Bridges State Beach is part of a 65-acre park with hiking trails through the Butterfly Preserve, where people can enjoy migrating monarch butterflies from October to January. People also head there to swim in the sandy cove and enjoy the tide pools.
The beach gets its name from a natural rock arch that looks like a bridge – and you can walk through this at low tide as part of your tide-pooling adventure.
You’ll find numerous tide pools on the western part of the beach, scattered across the slabs of rock, packed with sea critters to spot.
- Seeing the monarch butterflies in winter
- Seal-spotting on the beach
- Dinner at a local restaurant
Good To Know
There is free parking for the first 20 mins, after which there is a charge of $10 for a Day Pass.
There are restrooms near the beach.
There are picnic benches with grills.
You can grab some souvenirs at the gift shops nearby.
The boardwalk is wheelchair and stroller-accessible.
Dogs are not allowed on the trails or beach.
3. Sunny Cove
Sunny Cove is a small, secluded beach with calm water that attracts body surfers and boogie boarders. You’ll have to walk down carved-out steps in the rock to get there. It’s a mixed sand-and-rock beach, so tennis shoes are strongly advised!
The pools here are protected from the wind and offer a plethora of sea critters to enjoy.
- The seals which occasionally come to sunbathe
- Lunch in a local restaurant
- Exploring the local shops
Good To Know
The occasional giant wave hits the cliffs, so be careful if you’re sitting up there – people have been pulled down into the water in the past!
The beach is surrounded by private homes, so parking is limited. Access the beach from Geoffrey Drive and the end of Johans Beach Drive (via East Cliff Drive).
There is a restroom near the beach (a porta potty), but no running water.
Dogs are allowed if on a leash.
4. Lighthouse Field State Beach
Lighthouse Field State Beach is a scenic beach much loved by surfers for its crashing waves. So loved, in fact, that the lighthouse on the beach has been converted into a dedicated Surfing Museum!
Tide-poolers also love this clean beach for its interesting rock formations offering plenty to explore during low tide.
- Renting an e-bike
- Butterfly-watching in winter
- A coffee in a local shop
- The small, local surfing museum
Good To Know
Parking is free and plentiful.
To get to the beach, you need to go down a set of steep stairs. At the time of writing, there was no handrail, so take it slowly and carefully!
There are restrooms available.
You can use a picnic table near the beach to eat lunch at.
Dogs are welcome.
5. Davenport Landing Beach
Whereas we’ve had you scrambling down cliffs and rock-hewn steps to get to the tide pool beaches so far, Davenport Landing (not to be confused with Davenport Beach a mile to the south) offers the most accessible location – park your car and walk straight out onto the rocks. Head left to discover the large mussel-covered reef bustling with hermit crabs, periwinkles and starfish.
- Getting there for a sunset photo op
- Wine tasting in Davenport
- A visit to Swanton Berry Farm
- Whale watching from the cliff
- Sea glass collecting
Good To Know
Not an official pet beach, but dogs are welcome.
6. The Hook
This is a popular spot with local surfers, but a wander along the cliffs at low tide also makes it a treasure trove for tide pool fans!
On the left of the staircase are some fascinating rocky areas covered in bright green algae, housing little, nature-carved pools to shelter crabs and periwinkle.
- A sunrise walk for the incredible colors the sun casts on the ocean and wet rocks
Good To Know
You can access the beach via the Hook County Park parking lot at the end of 41st Avenue (the staircase is across the street).
7. Scott Creek Beach
North of Santa Cruz, off Highway 1, the huge Scott Creek Beach offers an unforgettable tide pool experience at low tide. One part gorgeous sandy beach, one part tall, craggy cliffs, there is lots of fun to be had here on the elevated tide pool areas. Expect to see sea urchins, sea stars and maybe even a few small octopuses.
Good To Know
There are no bathrooms.
Not a pet-friendly beach.
Tide Pool Rules
- Don’t touch! Picking up sea life or putting them in buckets even for a short time can cause irreparable damage or stress. This can kill them. You can also spread bacteria or chemicals (from sunscreen, for example) to them from your skin.
- Never pull on animals that are attached to the rocks or try to open closed shells.
- Never turn rocks over as this may disturb wildlife.
- Walk gently, taking care not to step on plants or animals.
- Take a bag with you to pick up any trash you find.
World Animal Protection and PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) say: “It is never OK to take selfies with wildlife if it means holding, restraining or baiting them,” Simone Clarke, executive director of World Animal Protection says.
“We remind everyone that if they’re lucky enough to see an animal in the wild, they should revel in the watching, not the touching,” PETA spokesperson Aleesha Naxakis said.
With that in mind, maybe we need to reframe our photo opportunities and instead of it being a “look at me, I’m holding a (starfish)” moment, it could be more a “look how amazing this (starfish) looks in its natural environment”.
Where Can I See Tide Pools If I Miss Low Tide at Santa Cruz?
Tide pooling is done at low tide – a natural event that happens twice a day, usually in the early morning and again in the evening. If you missed those windows, there are two marine centers that can help.
Part of an active marine research lab operated by UCSC, this seaside center offers informative displays, glass tanks filled with creatures from the nearby Monterey Bay swimming in local water, and the star of the show- a touch pool where you can meet and touch sea stars, anemones, and spiky sea urchins…and across from that tank, the sharks (and yes, you can safely touch these too!)
Santa Cruz Natural History Museum
You won’t miss this museum near the Seabright State Beach thanks to the life-size model of a gray whale on the lawn out front! The museum offers a lovely touch pool to introduce you to tide pool life and greenery. You can also check out their display of local shells to help you identify your own beach-found treasures.
The coastal stretch of Santa Cruz, California, has some exciting sea life to discover in its numerous tide-pool beaches at low tide. Remember when you go to dress right, tread carefully, and respect what nature gifted us. Let’s enjoy it and protect it as we explore and learn!
While we at Traxplorio do our very best to give you the most up-to-date information, we always recommend you do your own research before you travel to a particular area, and check conditions with official sites. Thanks for understanding, and enjoy your adventure!