At Seacliff State Beach, a mile-long expanse of soft sand connects this popular recreation spot with New Brighton State Beach, where wooded bluffs provide unparalleled views of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

The Ohlone Indians thrived for thousands of years on the area’s natural resources. The riches of the ocean, rivers, and forests provided plentiful sources of food—from fish, shellfish, and game to edible plants and seeds. Their numbers were severely reduced by illness and cultural changes brought to California by European settlers, yet some Ohlone descendants continue their ancient traditions and crafts today. Spanish colonization led to the establishment of Mission Santa Cruz. After Mexico broke away from Spain in 1821, the land was subdivided into Mexican land grants (ranchos).

Known by 1833 as Rancho Aptos, Seacliff developed into a bustling shipping port with the building of the Castro-Spreckels wharf. During the mid-1920s, landowners built summer homes on the bluffs above Seacliff and the area to its south, Rio del Mar. On the north side of Seacliff, 1920s tourists enjoyed upscale camping facilities. Seacliff became one of California’s first state beaches in 1931. For more than 80 years, beachfront camping, picnicking, fishing, and interpretive walks have been among the park’s most popular activities.

Seacliff’s famous fishing pier extends out to a unique concrete tanker, the SS Palo Alto. It was built during World War I, when wartime steel shortages created a demand for alternate shipbuilding materials. However, when the war ended, so did the need for new ships. The SS Palo Alto never saw wartime service. In 1930 the Seacliff Amusement Corporation bought the ship and turned it into an elaborate amusement center. The SS Palo Alto was brought to rest in shallow water near the beach, and a pier was built leading to the ship’s main deck. A neon sign at the top of the bluff at Seacliff simply read The Ship. Thousands dined at the Fish Palace onboard, with its spectacular ocean view on three sides. In the elegant Rainbow Ballroom, diners then danced on a new
white ash floor. Unfortunately, the Seacliff Amusement Corporation went bankrupt after only two seasons of dining and dancing, thwarting future plans for expansion. Today, the stripped, abandoned SS Palo Alto is unsafe and closed to the public, as is part of the pier near the ship.

In the 1850s, Thomas Fallon acquired part of Rancho Soquel and turned it into a resort he named New Brighton, in honor of his favorite English seaside retreat. New Brighton, also known as China Beach, was the site of a driftwood Chinese fishing village during the 1870s and 1880s. The village inhabitants proved invaluable in building the California railroads, and the village of China Beach provided fish, produce, laundries, chefs, and laborers. New settlers took the village away from the Chinese, and laws were passed to make it illegal for the Chinese to fish, so the Chinese moved south to Watsonville and beyond. New Brighton became a state beach in 1933. Fishing, camping, hiking, and swimming are now favorite family activities at New Brighton State Beach.