California’s iconic Highway One, aka Pacific Coast Highway, has many road signs that alert you to access points of popular beaches.
But some stunning California beaches have no signs that you can see from the road, with only the tiniest hint of beach access, known mostly by locals. Panther Beach, north of Santa Cruz at the south end of Davenport, is one of those.
Although Panther Beach is listed on some maps, if you aren’t looking for it you’ll drive right by and never know it is there.
If you like sandy pocket beaches with ocean-carved caves and tunnels, stop here on your next HWY1 road trip. (See where to find Panther Beach and a map below.)
On our recent day trip from Half Moon Bay to Santa Cruz, the secluded Panther Beach, with its ochre colored cliffs and sandstone archway, was one of our savvier stops. Not the only secluded beach along this stretch of highway, but one we thoroughly enjoyed.
I’m sure some people who live in the area would like to keep Panther Beach a locals-only secret. But I’m telling you about it anyway.
Panther beach is kid-friendly, but is also considered clothing optional, so keep that possibility in mind. The official sign says no dogs, among other no-nos, but we’ve found it unofficially dog friendly.
That’s the thing about secluded beaches. Not so friendly, though, for anyone with mobility issues, because of the trail down to the beach.
Savvy Tip: Bring water with you and be aware there are no bathrooms nearby. Also, I recommend packing light for the climb down (and back up).
When you climb down the slightly treacherous rocky trail to Panther Beach, you’ll first notice the long flat swath of sand out to the ocean.
Immediately, you’ll look to your left and see an archway carved out of the bluffs of mostly sandstone with some mudstone mixed in.
During low tide, you can walk through to the other side and find an even more beautiful pocket beach. Just make sure you come back through to the larger part of the beach before the tide comes back in again because there is no other way out.
During a slightly higher tide, you can enjoy watching the waves wash in through the arch onto the main part of the beach.
Savvy Tip: Check the tide chart for the area before you head out.
Panther Beach is not a California state beach (yet), but it’s part of the Coast Dairies State Park land acquisition.
The original/official name of this beach is Yellow Bank Beach, after the nearby Yellow Bank Creek, which feeds into the ocean during the rainy season.
A tunnel was built through the bluffs at the back of the beach so the creek could drain through the cove. Yellow Bank Creek got it’s name from the color of the sandstone.
I’ve also heard Panther Beach called Hole-In-The-Wall beach, although some only call the part beyond the arch by that name. But around here most people just call it Panther Beach.
That name, they say, came about when a rock formation on the weather-beaten bluffs above the beach took the shape of a large cat. Over time, the shape became a little vague, but the name remains.
Whatever you call it, this beach isn’t a place for swimming. However peaceful it looks at times, the beach is too steep and prone to riptides and surges. It’s more suitable for beachcombing, picnicking, reading books, building sandcastles, hanging out with friends.
Savvy Tip: If you go in summer, Fambrini’s, just north of Panther Beach, is a fun spot to pick up a fresh snack for a picnic.
Although we saw only a few people on the beach during our recent visit, summer weekends and holidays tend to draw crowds. You’re likely to see groups of college students from UC Santa Cruz partying here.
You’ll know what to expect by how crowded the little parking area gets. On most days you’ll find just a few locals and the occasional savvy tourist.
Savvy Tip: The moderately steep path down to the beach can get slick after a rain. Even if you slip and slither your way down, you could have trouble getting back up during the rainy season. Not the best time to visit.
On our visit we found the beach clean and pristine, although that’s not always the case. Despite a bit of graffiti and occasional bits of party trash left behind (from those who don’t understand the concept of “pack it out”), the beach is always beautiful.
When the yelpish say the beach is full of trash, I assume they went there during or just after a holiday weekend, before the cleanup fairies arrived. This happens on all of our beaches, unfortunately, which is why we now have volunteer Beach Cleanup days.
Also, if you’re the type who carries half their house with them to the beach, or wants public restrooms and life guard duty, this is not your beach.
How to get to Panther Beach in Santa Cruz County
Savvy Tip: Look for the dirt pull-out between mile markers 26.86 and 26.40.
From the north: Look for Panther Beach off HWY1, 1.5 miles south of Davenport, and a mile south of Bonny Doon Road. Watch for Fambrini’s Farm Fresh Produce on the east side of the road, then go another half mile.
Pull into the unassuming dirt shoulder on the west side of the road. (You can’t see the beach from here). You’ll see a small dirt area used for parking.
Walk to the north end of the dirt lot, cross the old railroad tracks, and you’ll finally see the Panther Beach sign. Climb down the rocky dirt trail to the beach.
From the south: You’ll find Panther Beach off Highway One about 10 miles north of Santa Cruz. If you see Fambrini’s you’ve gone too far. From there, see directions above.