Paul Schraub/Santa Cruz County Conference and Visitors Council

It’s impossible to distinguish where one named beach begins and ends, as New Brighton­ seamlessly transitions into Seacliff State Beach and Rio del Mar State Beach. The only landmark that tips me off that we’ve arrived at Seacliff is a wooden pier with a cement ship at its ocean end. The USS Palo Alto, a World War I–era supply ship, was used as an offshore casino and dance hall in the early 1930s. Now the Palo Alto is home to nothing more than hundreds of birds.

In Aptos, we climb onto the bluffs to the Seascape Beach Resort, with suites and villas spread across the cliffs. Our bags are already in an ocean-view room. We leave our sandy shoes on the doorstep, clean up and head across the street to Palapas Restaurant y­ Cantina, where crisp margaritas and spicy shrimp tacos put the final touch on a relaxing day. We retire to our suite’s balcony and listen to the crashing waves in the darkness.

The next morning, the same sound lures us back to the beach. As it was the afternoon before, it’s nearly empty again today, except for the occasional fisherman or lone walker. Scanning the horizon beyond the breakers, I spy the water-vapor spout of a California gray whale and watch long enough to forget how much time I’ve taken.

Few old structures remain to give clues to the history of each community along the way. The Van Laanan farm buildings at Sunset State Beach are a reminder of the once-typical landscape of the area, when farmland outnumbered subdivisions. The 1880s hotel and dancing pavilion of Camp Goodall at Palm State Beach are long gone.

Farther down the coast, the Pajaro River flows into the ocean across our path. We remove footwear, tuck everything into daypacks and wade from Santa Cruz to Monterey County. The water reaches only to our knees.

Through the small town of Moss Landing passes the Elkhorn Slough National ­Estuarine Research Reserve, an area of rich marsh and tidal flats that’s home to fish, sharks, sea lions, sea otters and more than 340 species of birds. If we’d arrived earlier, we may have been able to paddle kayaks along the main channel, which winds several miles inland. Instead, we’re content to gawk at the fuzzy flotillas of sea otters alongside fishing boats in the harbor.

Our home for the evening is the Captain’s Inn at Moss Landing, built by the Pacific Coast Steamship Company following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Until ­sunset, I watch for marine life out the bedroom window with binoculars the innkeepers loaned to me. We wander through town to Phil’s Fish Market & Eatery and listen to a live bluegrass band while enjoying dinner: frosty beer, garlic bread and huge bowls of steamed mussels. Even though we’re among nearly 40 other diners, we feel the peace of the day’s trek.