Lighthouse Field State Beach
Spend the Day at a Special Beach in Santa Cruz
Lighthouse Field State Beach is a beautiful little stretch of shoreline on West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz, California. Sandwiched between the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and the larger Natural Bridges State Beach, Lighthouse Field is often overlooked by visitors. What a shame!
Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse
Home of the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum
With its beautiful wildlife, its lovely stretch of cliff-sheltered sand, and its lighthouse, home to Santa Cruz's surfing museum, Lighthouse Field State Beach is worth exploring. Whether you make a day of it or just stop for a quick tour on your way to the boardwalk or Natural Bridges, you'll be glad you made the detour to check out this cool beach area.
Bringing your dog? Lighthouse Field State Beach is a dog-friendly destination. Well-behaved dogs are welcome on-leash at the beach, the field and trails, and even in the museum.
If you're vacationing in Santa Cruz, you probably have a full itinerary of wonderful things to see. Come with me, and we'll spend a day together at the beach. Between the wildlife, the lighthouse, and the plentiful opportunities to soak up a little local color, I think you'll find a stop at Lighthouse Field State Beach worth including in your plans.
All photographs taken by the author.
Steamer Lane - Sailboats, Surfboards and Sea Lions Greet the Sunrise
Morning light finds people already on the water.
We're up early for our tour, cruising up West Cliff Drive just before eight in the morning. Parking is still plentiful, and we're able to snag a spot in the little parking lot in front of the lighthouse itself.
This puts us in the perfect spot to pause and admire morning breaking over Steamer Lane, one of Santa Cruz's choice spots for surfing, and a frequent destination for sailboats and kayaks. If you're standing at the lighthouse, facing the ocean, just turn to your left and you're almost certain to see surfers, boaters, and swimmers enjoying the waves at Steamer Lane.
How odd human antics must look to these sea lions!
The jutting point between the lighthouse and ocean is another spot to pause for a quick look. The rock directly in front of this point is outrageously popular with our local California Sea Lions, who can usually be spotted here basking in the morning sun. Bring your camera or binoculars to get a great look at these beautiful marine mammals.
The rock just in front of the lighthouse is popular with local sea lions.
We'll come back to the lighthouse later in the day, to take a peak at the surfing museum housed inside. For now, though, we make our way up West Cliff Drive to the stairs, and follow them down to the sand at the water's edge.
The Beach - The Sunny, Sandy Main Attraction
Looking across Lighthouse Field State Beach.
Known to locals as Its Beach, this sparkling little expanse of sand and surf is a refreshing change from the crowded Main Beach at the Boardwalk. Though it is a fairly small beach, it is never as crowded as the larger beaches on either side. Tucked into a sunny little cove, Its Beach is the perfect spot to kick off your shoes and walk along the water's edge. Though the water stays chilly till July or August, a few bold souls will opt for a quick dip no matter the season.
Come on in, the water's... cold!
For local dog lovers, this beach carries yet another name: Dog Beach. Your friendly, well-behaved dog is welcome here! Bring a bowl for clean water and bags to clean up after your pooch. Dogs on the beach must be on leash, so bring a nice, long leash to allow some room to frolic.
Two small dogs enjoy a walk along the beach.
Visiting dogs are encouraged to bring their people to Dog Beach for a visit, but please observe great dog etiquette and clean up after yourselves and your pets. Dogs are allowed here because local dog owners work hard to keep their pets welcome!
There's something truly magical about dogs at the beach!
Leash laws are prone to change here, and are not always observed, as there is an ongoing debate about off-leash hours in this area. For everybody's safety and comfort, bear in mind that you may encounter dogs off leash here. If your dog doesn't always play well with others, this may not be the beach for him.
A morning walk along the water.
As the tide comes in, Its Beach goes from small to tiny, on some days almost disappearing. The midday sun can also be pretty brutal in the middle of the summer on the beach. We'll retreat up the stairs for a picnic lunch and a visit to the surfing museum. In a few hours, low tide will arrive, and we'll be back on the beach to check out some very special wildlife.
The Field - A Perfect Spot to Rest, Eat, and Explore
Wildflowers in Lighthouse Field attract birds, butterflies, and picnickers.
For lunch, we'll visit the open fields and sheltering trees across the street from the beach. Monarch butterflies make their home here in the winter months. During spring and summer, and well into fall, lush foliage and beautiful wildflowers attract birds and butterflies.
This tree is dead, but new life takes hold in its exposed roots.
Picnic tables and benches are located throughout the park, and trails leading through the flowers and into the trees offer many sheltered spots for a picnic or a nap. A handy note: there are public restrooms and an outdoor shower in the parking lot at the edge of Lighthouse Field, across from the lighthouse.
Planning a Longer California Trip? - Travel Guides for California-Bound Nature Lovers
Lighthouse Field State Beach is one of my personal favorite beaches, but the California coast line offers beautiful and unique things to see at every turn. I've lived in Santa Cruz since I was two, and still encounter cool spots near the sea and out in the redwoods I've never seen before! A good guide can help you fit as much as possible of California's natural beauty into the time you spend here.
The beaches and parks of the San Francisco Bay Area, including Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties.
A guide for travelers who like to step off the beaten trail. Check out the "Hidden Highlights" map for great destinations that won't be packed with tourists.
Learn more about Santa Cruz and our history. This guide to Santa Cruz's past and present provides some great context for your visit to our shores.
Inside the Lighthouse - The Santa Cruz Surfing Museum
An exhibit on shark attacks includes a surfboard that took a nasty bite.
After our relaxing break in Lighthouse Field, it's time for a trip to the surfing museum. Located inside the lighthouse, this little shrine to surfing memorabilia was the world's first surfing museum when it opened in 1986. Though it's small, every inch is covered with treasures! Be sure to look up.... the exhibits don't stop at the ceiling!
Look up! Surfboards and memorabilia line the ceiling, too!
The museum houses relics of Santa Cruz's history as a surfing mecca, along with a rotating variety of exhibits highlighting local surfing champions and lore. The lighthouse was built using money donated by Chuck and Esther Abbott in memory of their son, Mark Abbott, who died while bodysurfing in Santa Cruz.
A plaque outside the museum describes the arrival of surfing in Santa Cruz
Outside the museum, and scattered along the walkway by the cliffs, you'll see plaques affixed to some of the rocks and walls. Stop for a look, if you have a yen for local history. They offer intriguing glimpses into the history of Santa Cruz.
It's now time for this afternoon's low tide, a very special time to explore Lighthouse Field State Beach. Lets make our way back down to the water, and we'll take a look at some residents who only appear when the tide is at its lowest.
Intertidal Life - Exploring the Lighthouse Field State Beach Tide Pools
The tide pools teem with exotic and beautiful life.
On the day of our visit, low tide occurs just past three in the afternoon, and the tide pools clear and bathed in golden light. Sea anemones are one of the most striking inhabitants of this intertidal zone, and they are easily found in the nooks and crannies among the rocks at the edge of the beach.
Under water, sea anemones look like little flowers.
Anemones are easiest to spot when they are below water, in the shallow, turbulent pools remaining between the rocks at low tide. They're named after the anemone flower, and when they're below water they do resemble colorful blossoms. They're actually little predators, luring in smaller prey and paralyzing it with the sting of their pretty, venom-filled tentacles.
With tentacles retracted, anemones are harder to spot.
When exposed to air by the low tide, sea anemones retract their tentacles and close up to conserve moisture. This also makes them much harder to see, so watch your step as you investigate the tide pools! The anemones here can't do any real harm to humans, but when foot meets anemone it's icky for the foot and disastrous for the anemone.
Every nook and cranny of these rocks is someone's home. Watch your feet!
The rocks here at the boundary between sea and land are a unique ecosystem, and their surfaces are covered in plant and animal life hidden from view for most of the day. The surfaces of these rocks are covered in small mussels and beautiful purple-shelled snails.
Starfish can be found hiding in the water around the rocks.
Starfish are plentiful here, too, but not seen as frequently. Starfish are shy! Check the sandy, moist, sheltered cavities between the rocks. We're lucky today, and spot one as we're on our way out. The tide pools are very tricky to navigate when the tide comes back in, so we conclude our visit as soon as we see the water start to rise.
Goodnight, Beaches - Night on West Cliff Drive
At night, a softer, quieter beauty falls over West Cliff Drive.
When you're done exploring Lighthouse Field State Beach, West Cliff Drive has a myriad of other options for entertainment. At the very bottom, we find the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk with its rides and games, as well as the Santa Cruz Wharf, which offers great dining options.
ln between, West Cliff Drive itself is a beautiful walk or drive, and small beaches are dotted all along its length. As night closes in, the beaches and cliffs become more mysterious, but no less beautiful. From a short distance up the hill, the lighthouse at Lighthouse Field State Beach shines like a star.
The lighthouse as seen from the beach.
Will you be visiting Lighthouse Field State Beach? Have you already been? Were you there just the other day, wondering about the crazy lady wandering about with her camera, hair flying every which way? If you have questions or comments about Lighthouse Field State Beach, here's the spot to add them!