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Beaching It in The Buff

It's fun, it's free and it beats the hell out of swimsuit shopping. Here's our 2002 guide to nude beaches.

By Gary Hanauer

SUMMER has no uniform. That's half the season's fun: you can wear whatever you want, from flip-flops and tank tops to absolutely nothing at all. Of course, if you're going to dive into California's time-honored tradition of public nudity, you'd better know what you're doing.

If you're a veteran, you don't need help from us. But beginners beware, 'cause skinny dipping, nude sunbathing and naked Frisbee aren't as easy as they look. First tip: use plenty of sunscreen. Second tip: use a little more sunscreen. Third tip: exercise your traditional git-nekkid rights carefully and with respect for others by stripping down only at one of the starter-list nude beaches below.

This 2002 guide lists 20 nude beaches--in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties--that are a quick hop from Silicon Valley.

Please send your suggestions, new beach finds, better directions (especially road milepost numbers) and trip reports to garhan@aol.com or via snail mail c/o Metro, 550 South First St., San Jose 95113. Please include your phone number, so we can check facts.

We give ratings of A to places that are large or long-established and where the crowd is mostly nude, B to ones where fewer than half of the users are nude, C to small or emerging nude areas and D to spots we recommend you avoid.

With the prime beach season of late summer/early fall approaching, it's a perfect time to take advantage of thinning crowds, long days and warmer water temperatures. Happy beaching!

Santa Cruz County

SCOTT CREEK BEACH
Suited sunbathers, suited swimmers and, from October to May, wet-suited surfers all share sunny Scott Creek Beach, located just south of another interesting place: Año Nuevo State Reserve's protected colony of elephant seals. Bring a book or a picnic and enjoy the scenery and the half-mile-long beach, which, except for hot summer days, is usually tranquil and devoid of crowds.

The surfing spot is on the north end of the site. Due to sudden undertows, use caution when swimming. Look for Scott Creek three miles north of Davenport, off Highway 1, and 15.5 miles north of the junction of highways 1 and 17 in Santa Cruz. It's also 35.8 miles south of the junction of Highways 1 and 92 in Half Moon Bay. Check for Swanton Road, shown on some maps. There are two turnouts for parking. You can descend to the beach from either north or south of the bridge. Scott Creek flows across the middle of the beach most of the year, creating a lagoon and a large stream.

Rating: B

DAVENPORT COVE
To enjoy an interesting stop along Highway 1 near the little town of Davenport's public beach, check your map for the tiny towns that dot the coast north of Santa Cruz. Known locally as Shark's Tooth Cove, this little beach is a nice place for a little au naturel sunbathing. A steep trail takes you to a cave you can explore and some interesting rock formations. The water, though, is usually too cold for swimming.

Look for Davenport Cove off Highway 1 north of Santa Cruz. The turnoff to it is 39.1 miles south of the junction of highways 1 and 92 in Half Moon Bay and 12.2 miles north of the meeting of highways 1 and 17 in Santa Cruz. You can park at the main public Davenport Beach; find the railroad tracks and take the trail that starts there a half-mile south to the cove--or check for a turnoff half a mile south of Davenport, pull off the highway, park in the rutted, 10-car lot and go around a long metal gate to a path that leads to the sand. It has a poor, steep trail that winds up and over the tracks, but it will take you directly to the cove.

Rating: C

BONNY DOON BEACH
(HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!)

Rocked by the discovery in March of three bodies on the cliffs above the beach, naturists are starting to stream back to the sand of one of the Santa Cruz area's finest skinny-dipping coves, which is slated to become a state park as early as next year. The gruesome crime, termed a possible double homicide-suicide of a 26-year-old man and two 19-year-old women in initial press reports, showcased the "split personality" of the nude beach, which is much beloved by skinny-dippers for its wind-protected cove, sense of community (volunteers from the Bay Area Naturists stage a trash pickup each September and hold a New Year's celebration on the sand) and mixed crowd of men, women, families, singles, straights and gays. But at night, the area is often used for raves and drinking parties, according to Santa Cruz sheriff's spokesperson Kim Allyn. Numerous after-hours assaults have taken place there. One rape was reported in the '80s. In May 1986, transient Eric Pineda was shot to death in the parking lot when he confronted two men who were firing shotguns in the air.

When you visit the beautiful cove during the day, it's hard to imagine anything but peaceful vibes here. "The beach is still looking great," says BAN leader Rich Pasco of San Jose. "The trouble people talk about does not happen on the beach itself. It's on the cliffs."

Bonny bonuses: you can bring dogs, and if you come before July, you may see whales offshore. Late last year, Coast Dairies and Land Company sold Bonny Doon for $43 million. It will be placed under public control as early as summer 2003 but may not become a state park for a year or two.

Directions: From San Francisco, drive south on Highway 1 to the Bonny Doon parking lot at milepost 27.6 on the west side of the road, exactly 2.4 miles north of Red, White and Blue Beach and some 11 miles north of Santa Cruz. From Santa Cruz, go north on Highway 1 until you see Bonny Doon Road, which veers off sharply to the right just south of Davenport. The beach is just off the intersection. Park in the lot to the west of Highway 1; don't park on Bonny Doon Road or the shoulder of Highway 1. If the lot is full, drive north on Highway 1 and park at the next beach lot. To get to the beach, climb the steep berm next to the railroad tracks adjacent to the Bonny Doon parking lot, cross the tracks, descend the berm and take one of several trails to the sand. Walk north past most of the beach to the cove on the north end.

Rating: A

PANTHER BEACH
Want to take advantage of some of the area's best sand? Picturesque Panther Beach, about 10 miles north of Santa Cruz, is where whale-watchers, suit-wearing sunbathers, surfers, a few people brave enough to swim in the cold water and nudists all seem to get along fine. Bring good walking shoes for the sloping, crumbly trail to the shore, which features high rock towers, natural bridges and a wall of rocks, complete with caves, on the southern end.

Panther is located between mileposts 95 and 96 on Highway 1, some 10.6 miles north of the junction of highways 1 and 17 in Santa Cruz and 40.7 miles south of the intersection of highways 1 and 92 in Half Moon Bay. Park on the small dirt road on the west side of the highway, where you'll see other cars. The rutted parking area lies on a ridge between the highway and the railroad tracks. From the north end of the lot, cross the tracks and follow the steep, somewhat eroded path down to the main part of the beach.

Rating: B

HOLE IN THE WALL BEACH
Separated from the south end of Panther Beach by an opening in a wall of rocks, access to this B-rated beach is via Panther during low tide only. The 200-yard-long beach, which attracts up to 50 persons on the hottest days, has tall cliffs that end in a rocky shelf. The tide sometimes rushes in swiftly. Follow directions to Panther, then walk south from there along the sand through the hole in the wall, and you're there.

Rating: B

LAGUNA CREEK BEACH
Bring a towel, water, suntan lotion and, for some excellent bird-watching, a pair of binoculars, and you will be all set to work on your "total body tan" at a half-mile-long swath of sand that attracts both naturists and naturalists. The beach, which has a nice lagoon where you might find grebes, gulls and song sparrows, widens at the south end. "But the north end is the warmest part," says Bill, a visitor who likes its "little, protected coves." Even on warm days, fewer than 50 people, and sometimes just one or two, use the sand. The beach is now somewhat of a gay hangout, especially in the middle part of the shore.

Directions: Some 9.8 miles north of the junction of highways 1 and 17 in Santa Cruz and 41.5 miles south of the meeting of highways 1 and 92 in Half Moon Bay, park in the dirt lot on the inland side of Highway 1 or the unmarked side road (actually Laguna Road) next to the lot. A road cut on the west side of the highway faces the lot at the intersection of Laguna Road and Highway 1. Just north of the road cut, follow a narrow path through the bushes. It will become a jeep path. Take it to the north end of the beach, where most of the skinny-dippers hang out. Or walk along the shore to the south end, which attracts suited and nude users.

Rating: A

RED, WHITE AND BLUE BEACH
(HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!)

Except for some rearranged sand--"This winter, some of the beach was completely washed away, and then it all came back, making it look different but kind of neat," according to a staffer--RWB looks the same as last year, which should please visitors. The reason: it's a clothing-optional version of a state park. At Red, White and Blue, which is named for its colorful mailbox, you can camp overnight nude, use the barbecue pits with just your oven mitts on, play volleyball in the buff or even get out of your car in the parking lot au naturel.

In spring, suitless whale-watching is popular. In fact, the only beach bummer is that owner Ralph Edwards, who's operated the property for 36 years, is considering selling the property to the state, which, through the Packard Foundation, has purchased several other parcels in the area. At last report, Edwards was still resisting the pressure to sell. "The state still wants it, but we are taking things day by day," says the staffer. Crowds of up to 400 visit on the hottest days. Use costs $7 a day or $14 a night per person. The beach is at milepost 24.9 on Highway 1, 4.1 miles north of the Santa Cruz city limits and 43.2 miles south of the junction of highways 1 and 92 in Half Moon Bay. Look for a large red, white and blue mailbox numbered 5021 on the west side of the highway.

Rating: A

FOUR-MILE BEACH
Known more for its surfers and family visitors, Wilder Ranch Estates Park still gets visits from a small cadre of buff bathers on weekdays. To find them, walk to the south end of the sand. And to avoid citations along this mile of glistening white sand, suit up fast if you see a ranger approaching. On a typical afternoon, only five to 10 visitors use the nude portion. Four-Mile Beach is off Highway 1, exactly four miles north of the junction with Mission Street in Santa Cruz. San Franciscans may prefer to think of it as 44-Mile Beach, because its distance from the junction of highways 1 and 92 in Half Moon Bay is exactly 44 miles. Park where you see a clump of cars pulled over on the unpaved turnout next to where Highway 1 crosses Baldwin Creek. Take the dirt road that begins here. Stay on the road as you cross the railroad tracks and wind left of the marsh. In less than 10 minutes, the walk will take you to the beach.

Rating: B

ITS BEACH
One of three nude spots within the city limits of Santa Cruz, Its Beach has its own landmark. Just find the lighthouse at Lighthouse Point, on West Cliff Drive, and you're practically there. The site faces one of America's best surfing sites, Steamer Lane. A few nudists started showing up seven years ago.

Directions: Take Highway 1 to Swift Street in Santa Cruz. Follow Swift to the sea, then turn right (north) on West Cliff Drive. Follow West Cliff until you see the lighthouse. Park here and walk down to the little, pebble-lined shore of Its Beach. For more fun, check the butterfly refuge at Natural Bridges State Park, just north on West Cliff, the Santa Cruz Wharf to the south, any of the bed and breakfast inns along the way (also on West Cliff) and the surfing museum in the lighthouse.

Rating: C

2222
A nude beach that's only as big as the average backyard? One of the world's smallest nude beaches, called 2222 because it is across from 2222 West Cliff Dr., Santa Cruz, not only draws visitors down its dangerous, steep paths nearly every sunny day, but it also gets rave reviews from the handful of college students and other local residents who have become regular users. "It's a small, delicate, baby beach," says Richard Pasco of San Jose. We counted only five visitors on a warm Sunday. Users are visible to people walking along West Cliff Drive above the beach, but most tourists and residents never look down.

The beach is a few blocks south of Natural Bridges State Park beach and about 2.5 miles north of the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. From either north or south of Santa Cruz, take Highway 1 to Swift Street. Follow Swift to the sea, then turn right (north) on West Cliff Drive. Keep your eyes open; 2222 is only about five blocks away. Past Auburn Avenue, look for 2222 West Cliff Dr. on your right; the beach is directly across the street. If you come to Chico Avenue, you've gone too far. Park in the nine-car lot across the street, on the ocean side of West Cliff. If the lot is full, continue straight and park along Chico Avenue. Follow the path below the lot to the sand.

Rating: A

COWELL STATE BEACH
Though it's not a beach in the usual sense, on the hottest summer days we've seen some visitors drop their clothes on the deck next to the ocean at Cowell State Beach, and instead of putting on wetsuits to go surfing, either sunbathe in the raw there or plunge into the water while wearing nary a stitch. But nude use of the site is infrequent. You'll usually find surfers at Cowell Steps, which lead down to the deck and are often used as a launching point. Follow directions in the previous entry, but park when you first turn on West Cliff Drive. Space is usually easy to find. Walk to the stairway at West Cliff and Monterey. Leave your clothes on the deck, where access to the water begins (there is no beach per se). Watch out for frequent rough waves. Skinny-dippers usually prefer to stay near the shore.

Rating: C

SAN LORENZO RIVER
Are you tired of waiting for the coastal fog to clear? While many people know about Santa Cruz's nude beaches, few realize that the area also has three "sun spots" just inland from the sea. Discovered by our readers a few years ago, this trio of easy to miss skinny-dipping holes can be found by looking for cars pulled over on Highway 9 between Santa Cruz and Felton. All of them are part of Henry Cowell State Park, which bans nudity. However, rangers seldom patrol the creek where the nude activity takes place. One of the holes is called the Garden of Eden.

Directions: From Santa Cruz, drive north on Highway 9. Look for turnouts on the right side of the road. Visitor Robert Carlsen says the first, a wide turnout with a tree in the middle, is just north of Santa Cruz. The trail starts about where the tree is. The many forks in the trail all lead to the river; Carlsen says the best area off this turnout can be reached by bearing left until the end of the trail. Farther up the highway is the second and biggest turnout. Park and follow the fire road across the railroad tracks. The road winds down steeply to the creek. "The path continues to the left, where there are several spots for wading and sunbathing," Carlsen says.

His favorite hole is accessible from a trail that starts at the third turnout, a small one on the right side of the road, about 4.5 miles from Highway 1 and just before Felton. A gate marks the start of the path. The trail bends left. When you come to the road again, go right. At the railroad tracks, go right. From here, look for the river down the hill on your left; many paths lead to it. "When we got to the river, we saw suited families, so we walked upriver until we saw skinny-dippers," John of Monterey says. Trails may be slippery. Other problems include poison oak and occasional young rowdies.

Rating FOR EACH SITE: C

RIO DEL MAR BEACH
Rio del Mar is the first in a string of four dune-laden beaches used by a sparse crowd of nude sunbathers on sunny weekdays in south Santa Cruz and north Monterey counties. Stay between sands hills, and you probably won't be bothered here. But suit up if you see law enforcers at this mixture of sand, dunes and grassy knolls. "The state police who patrol Manresa do drive beyond their assigned borders and down to this beach," one reader says. "But they have never bothered me. And I like the safety factor of having them there."

Look for the beach 0.8 of a mile north of Manresa State Beach and 2.1 miles south of Aptos Beach State Park, just south of the town of Aptos. Take Highway 1 to the Rio del Mar exit. Go all the way to the coast (about a mile or two), then turn left (south) on Sumner Avenue. Follow Sumner to San Andreas Road. Take the first right off San Andreas. The nude beach is just south of the Seascape condos and inn. Walk toward the condos. Look for a security fence over a gully and follow either of the well-worn paths that are on either side of the fence to the dunes near the gully.

Rating: C

LA SELVA BEACH
You can wear your birthday suit at La Selva Beach, just south of Rio del Mar, but only if you're careful. Although the area is mostly a clothed, family property, a few serious naturists avoid tan lines by doffing their togs in the dunes on weekdays or when there aren't many visitors around. "It's duney but also so wide open in places that rangers can drive up and down and harass people," a longtime visitor says. Follow directions to Manresa (see next entry), then walk north along the sand to La Selva. Head for the dunes that are before and after homes overlooking the ocean.

Rating: C

MANRESA STATE BEACH
"In some of the more remote areas, there were people who would sunbathe without clothing," remembers ex-Manresa ranger Ron Schafer, now San Francisco Bay Area district superintendent for the state Department of Parks and Recreation. "It was a plain old nonissue [to rangers]." Today, the tradition continues. In return for hiking to the sand dunes on the north end of the beach, naturists get lots of sun and few hassles. The rest of the beach is mostly flat, sandy and beautiful. In those areas and in spots frequently used by families and other visitors, rangers will probably ask you to put a suit on. Elsewhere, enforcement of the park's nudity policy seems to be left up to the individual ranger.

Directions: From Santa Cruz, follow Highway 1 south past Watsonville to the Larkin Valley Road exit and look for the town of La Selva Beach. Turn right on San Andreas Road. Follow San Andreas to its terminus near the beach. Walk north to the dunes near the beach border, just south of La Selva Beach.

Rating: C

San Mateo County

DEVIL'S SLIDE
Last year, the state took over operation of a former privately run, clothing-optional beach near Pacifica and declared it to be Gray Whale Cove State Beach. At the time, Ron Schafer, Bay Area district superintendent of the California State Department of Parks and Recreation, said that nude use of the area would continue to be allowed. "My vision," he said, "is tell anyone who complains that for the same experience there's a wonderful [non-nude] beach, Montara, a quarter-mile away. They can go there, where they won't be offended." But he also said the state would not put up signs designating the beach to be clothing-optional. Nudists feared that without the warning signs, the beach might become overrun with suited sunbathers, who would eventually force the state to ban nudity. But so far everything appears mellow at the large, rambling beach, which is now open 365 days a year.

A few months ago, Bay Area Naturists founder Rich Pasco of San Jose watched a state ranger go up to dozens of nudists on the sand. But the law enforcer wasn't trying to cite anyone. "He went around to each of them, one by one, asking if anyone knew a particular person who had left their car's lights on in the parking lot," Pasco says. "The fact that all these people were nude didn't matter." The biggest change at the Slide is that "twice as many clothed visitors are showing up," according to Pasco.

To reach this beautiful beach from San Francisco, take Highway 1 south through Pacifica. Three miles south of the Denny's in Linda Mar, turn left on an unmarked road, which leads to the beach's parking lot. From the south, look for the road one mile north of the Chart House restaurant in Montara. Swimming isn't recommended, landslides sometimes close the nearby area of Highway 1 and three great white sharks were seen here in the '80s, but the only real drag is the long, 146-step staircase to the beach.

Rating: A

PEOPLE'S BEACH
Also known as Middle Beach, People's draws mixed reviews from users. "It's heaven," Bay Area resident Timothy Moscow says. "Doug and I go there quite a bit," says one reader, who calls it Doug's Beach. "We really like it." The beach is very small, though. "On a good day, it's maybe 80 to 100 yards long," estimates Carl Ernst, former operator of Devil's Slide. "All I can say is that it's not a very good beach." Worse still, the trail to it is so dangerous that it's officially closed. Not only is the crumbling, breakaway path unsafe, but it also gives way to a 20-foot drop at the end.

From San Francisco, take Highway 1 south past Pacifica to Montara Beach. Park at the Montara State Beach lot, then walk north along the highway to the trail head. The trail begins next to a highway turnout. (Look for the Hiking, Climbing Prohibited sign.) Wear hiking shoes and be prepared to turn back.

Rating: D

MONTARA STATE BEACH
Only a few visitors still tan topless or nude at the extreme north end of Montara State Beach. Usage dates back to when a landslide blocked access to Devil's Slide during a particularly hot summer. Undaunted, some naturists streamed onto Montara, much to the chagrin of park rangers. If you see any headed your way, suit up quickly, or you may be cited. Long and narrow, northern Montara features dunes for private sunbathing, but shore erosion has pushed nudists to spots more exposed to the view of suited bathers. Look for Montara State Beach on Highway 1, about 1.1 miles south of Devil's Slide. Best nearby place to get a bite to eat is the Chart House restaurant, also on Highway 1.

Rating: C

SAN GREGORIO
America's oldest nude beach has two miles of soft sand, caves, tide pools, a lagoon and a lava tube you can walk through at low tide. "Another plus is the friendly staff," visitor Bob Wood of San Francisco says. Minuses include past complaints of sex on the beach, especially in the driftwood structures you may notice on the path down to the sand, and the $5 a carload or $2 a person entrance fee. Up to 500 visitors are usually spread so thinly along the sprawling beach that it gives you "the feeling of being very alone," reader Paul Benson says. Many visitors are gay men, but on the south end there are sometimes dozens of straight couples and families, both naked and clothed.

From Tunitas Creek Way, which is south of Half Moon Bay, the beach is about a mile up the road on Highway 1. About 100 yards north of Highway 84 on Highway 1, take a dirt road past the big white gate with the Toll Road sign to the parking lot. Go a few hundred feet and, just after the 55 mph sign on your right, turn left on the dirt road (look for the address 19429 above the fence). The road will take you past a grassy field to the parking lot. Follow the long path from the lot to the sand.

Rating: A

POMPONIO STATE BEACH
A long, eroded path makes the journey to the small but scenic skinny-dipping cove at Pomponio somewhat hazardous. But on warm days, a few naturists usually show up at the wind-protected, mile-and-a-half-long beach. Look for Pomponio two miles north of Pescadero State Beach on Highway 1. To find the nude area at the south end of Pomponio, in low tide walk south along the water from the Pomponio entrance. Or from the old Pomponio turnout (marked with polelike barriers) on Highway 1, follow the path down until it comes to a ravine with a stream. Visitors used to cross the canyon on a board, but it's gone. Regulars now hop on a pallet to cross part of the chasm, then crawl the rest of the way.

Rating: C


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From the August 8-14, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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