Quantification of cliff retreat rates for the southern half of Santa Cruz County, CA, USA, located within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, using the softcopy/geographic information system (GIS) methodology results in average cliff retreat rates of 7–15 cm/yr between 1953 and 1994. The coastal dunes at the southern end of Santa Cruz County migrate seaward and landward through time and display net accretion between 1953 and 1994, which is partially due to development. In addition, three critically eroding segments of coastline with high average erosion rates ranging from 20 to 63 cm/yr are identified as erosion ‘hotspots’. These locations include: Opal Cliffs, Depot Hill and Manresa. Although cliff retreat is episodic, spatially variable at the scale of meters, and the factors affecting cliff retreat vary along the Santa Cruz County coastline, there is a compensation between factors affecting retreat such that over the long-term the coastline maintains a relatively smooth configuration. The softcopy/GIS methodology significantly reduces errors inherent in the calculation of retreat rates in high-relief areas (e.g. erosion rates generated in this study are generally correct to within 10 cm) by removing errors due to relief displacement. Although the resulting root mean squared error for erosion rates is relatively small, simple projections of past erosion rates are inadequate to provide predictions of future cliff position. Improved predictions can be made for individual coastal segments by using a mean erosion rate and the standard deviation as guides to future cliff behavior in combination with an understanding of processes acting along the coastal segments in question. This methodology can be applied on any high-relief coast where retreat rates can be measured.