Seacliff Beach

Forget about the fogged-in summer. Some of the best Northern California weather arrives in the fall. So, pack up the kids, towels, sunscreen and sand toys and head to Santa Cruz County’s pristine beaches. While Santa Cruz is well-known for its Boardwalk, you’ll find quieter kid-friendly beaches just a few miles south, just off of Highway 1 in Rio Del Mar, Seacliff and Capitola. Just an hour and a half drive from most Bay Area locations, mid-Santa Cruz County beaches make great day-trip destinations.

Two beaches in Rio Del Mar are worth checking out. Hidden Beach offers a grassy picnic area, complete with several picnic tables and fun play structures. From there, a gently sloping path leads to the beach. Nearby Rio Del Mar Beach is an easily-accessible family favorite for sand castle building, wading, swimming and beachcombing.  Free parking is available in small parking lots at Hidden and Rio Del Mar Beaches, with additional parking in the adjacent residential neighborhoods.

Nearby Seacliff State Beach, one of the first state beaches in California, has extensive picnic areas, a snack bar and a pier where you can cast your fishing line or drop a crab net into the bay. Kids will be fascinated by the Palo Alto, a cement ship at the end of the pier, which is now closed to the public. Built during WW1, the ship was docked in Seacliff and briefly housed amusements, dance floors, dining rooms and more. Seacliff also offers a small nature center, open Wednesdays to Sundays from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

Wildlife is abundant here – and observant kids will enjoy chasing seagulls, watching pelicans dive for fish, digging for sand crabs or scouting for dolphins offshore. Fall also brings a black mass of feeding Sooty Shearwaters to the area. The Monterey Bay is just one stop in the birds’ astounding global migration that takes them from New Zealand to the North Pacific.

If you want to skip paying the $10 parking fee at Seacliff, there is plentiful free parking in the neighborhood. From there, it’s a short stroll down a paved State Park path to the beach.  Or, if you’re unencumbered by strollers and ready for a more scenic walk, try the Beach Gateway approach to Seacliff, a vine-covered path with brick and wooden steps bordered by flowering nasturtiums.

While smaller than Rio Del Mar and Seacliff beaches, charming Capitola Beach is another fun family option.  Here your beach day can also include a stroll through the boutique- and café-lined Village. Metered parking is available in Capitola, so bring plenty of quarters.

Whichever beach you choose, make sure to watch your kids carefully near the water and bring your layers, just in case the wind picks up or the fog rolls in. You can also check out which beaches have the best water quality by visiting a regularly updated  web site.

While you may see children playing in the Aptos Creek at Rio Del Mar or the Soquel Creek at Capitola Beach, these areas are considered unsafe for swimming due to high bacteria levels. You’re much better off steering clear of the creeks and splashing in the waves instead.

Where to Eat:

In Rio Del Mar, “No Shoes, No Shirt,” is no problem at Pixie Deli. Located directly across the street from the beach, the Deli has sandwiches, soups, snacks and drinks, with an option to eat there or pack it up for a beach picnic.

In Capitola, pull in at Gayle’s Bakery before hitting the beach. Gayle’s offers eat-in or to-go gourmet fare such as sandwiches, salads and to-die-for baked goods. Once at the beach, Capitola’s Pizza My Heart is an option for slices to go.

Before heading back over the hill to the Bay Area, stop for dinner at Carpo’s Restaurant, just off Highway 1 between Capitola and Soquel. Carpo’s is a fast, affordable order-at-the-counter spot with decent fish, an amazing salad bar, and plenty of kid-friendly options. Or, if you’re in the mood for Mexican food, take a detour on 41st Avenue and stop by Taqueria Vallarta. Vallarta has some of the best Mexican food you’ll find anywhere, including an abundant fresh salsa bar. Vallarta is as casual and kid-friendly as they come and more affordable than most.

—Tricia Kerr