Located north of Aptos Creek and bordering Capitola to the north, Seacliff is Rio Del Mar’s close cousin, a similar census-designated community with an Aptos mailing address but a personality all its own. It’s known for its cool, foggy mornings and its wide beach, its few but iconic businesses and a variety of homes that make Seacliff attainable for buyers across a wide range of price points.
Seacliff is mostly residential but includes a quaint, small business district on Center Avenue that features 51-year-old local legend Manuel’s Mexican Restaurant, a one-time hangout for 1960s icon Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Prankster’s and later as headquarters for a farm workers cooperative. The ensuing decades may have washed much of the counterculture vibe from Seacliff but its sense of close-knit togetherness remains. Despite having a large number of seasonal rental properties, Seacliff has maintained its small-town vibe through countless economic cycles, a fact which — maybe in addition to its famous summer fog — over the years has kept it from becoming “just another crowded beach town.”
In Seacliff, you will also find the SS Palo Alto, a cement ship that was towed to the Seacliff Pier in 1930, used for a time as a nightclub and then converted to an artificial reef for local wildlife. The ship is Seacliff Beach’s calling card, but not its only attraction. The beach also features a waterfront RV park and a Visitor Center with a small aquarium and a tide pool, plus a long, uncrowded stretch of sand that offers a welcome alternative to the elbow-to-elbow jostling of beaches in Santa Cruz and Capitola.
Living in Seacliff is itself an alternative to its more high-profile (and high-cost) neighbors. The community’s real estate inventory is made up mostly of modest single-family homes built after World War II, along with a mix of impressive high-end homes, condos and even the Blue Pacific Mobile Home Park. The coastal neighborhood doles out its ocean views carefully, so as a result has fewer ultra-high-end properties than many of its neighbors. For those wishing to enter the high-end ocean view market, Seacliff Avenue beckons. For everyone else, the good news is that you can find a home located within walking distance of the beach for well under $1 million.
As with most coastal communities, Seacliff offers its residents a bounty of outdoor recreation opportunities. There is, of course, the ocean, with surfing, paddle boarding, swimming and snorkeling; and there is the beach itself, beckoning those looking to jog, stroll of simply lie on a towel and read a book. Golf is nearby in Rio Del Mar. Inland Aptos, with its cycling, equestrian and hiking opportunities, is a short drive away, as are the mysterious redwoods of the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Seacliff is one of California’s most “under the radar” beach communities, which locals well tell you is to its great advantage. Here you can enjoy the perks of living at the beach without enduring the crowds and high real estate prices that usually accompany them. You can walk down the sand, watch the birds alit on the SS Palo Alto, relax over an ice cream cone at Maryanne’s Ice Cream (local since 1947) and remember — when necessary — that Santa Cruz is only 10 minutes away, Silicon Valley and hour beyond that. Life can slow down without disengaging.
History of Seacliff
Seacliff is a low-key beach town whose most recognizable landmark lies in the water at the end of the wooden Seacliff Pier. That’s where you’ll find what’s left of the SS Palo Alto, a concrete ship built in 1919 by the San Francisco Shipbuilding Company.
Concrete ships were a 19th-century experiment that came to America during World War I as part of President Woodrow Wilson’s Emergency Fleet program. With steel scarce during wartime, Wilson commissioned 24 concrete ships. None were completed in time for war use. Like the rest, the Palo Alto found other work, working out of San Francisco Bay. In 1929, it was mothballed, its future destiny unknown.
Enter the Seacliff Amusement Corporation of Nevada, which purchased the Palo Alto and towed it to Seacliff Beach; the former oil tanker was grounded and connected to the beach by a wooden pier.
The Amusement Corp. had big plans for the decommissioned ship. They did not include transporting oil or even sailing, however; instead, the Palo Alto was pressed into service — as a resort. Workers added a 54 by 154-foot ballroom and dance floor, a restaurant and a swimming pool to the Palo Alto, which was then opened for business as an “amusement ship,” hosting musical luminaries like Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey. Unfortunately, the effort was doomed by the Great Depression. The Seacliff Amusement Corporation went bankrupt in 1931, leaving the derelict Palo Alto to become, essentially, an extension of the Seacliff Pier.
By then, the Palo Alto was already deteriorating and in face had broken in two. Left in place, it became a popular fishing pier. Locals cast their lines from the aft deck until the 1970s, when the crumbling ship became unsafe for even that. From there it became an artificial reef.
In 2006, traces of oil from the ship were found on local birds, spurring a giant clean up project, which cost roughly the same — $1.7 million — as the ship cost upon completion in 1919. Today, battered by storms and in broken into four pieces, the SS Palo Alto is fenced in, closed to the public. It remains Seacliff’s calling card, though, a silent and somewhat eerie landmark with a colorful history.