This sleepy beach town is within a one-hour drive from San Francisco or San Jose.
You can certainly make Santa Cruz a stop on your Bay Area itinerary, but I think it deserves to be its destination. There is so much to do and see – you can easily spend a week without getting bored.
During one of my visits, I made Santa Cruz my base camp and made side trips to San Francisco. I got to enjoy the slow-paced life of a resort town while satisfying my craving for a bustling city every once in a while.
Santa Cruz can also be a stop on the epic California Highway 1 road trip. During that trip, you can experience Ventura, Santa Barbara, and Pismo beach with its adjoining 4wheeling state park at Oceano, Hearst Castle, Big Sur, Monterey, and Santa Cruz.
Fun facts: Santa Cruz is known as the real surf city, even though Huntington Beach tried to patent the name. Many songs mention Santa Cruz like the Beach Boys’ "Surfin' U.S.A”. The first surfers ever recorded in the USA were three Hawaiian princes exhibiting their skills in July of 1885 to a crowd of swimmers and onlookers – at the mouth of the San Lorenzo River.
Getting there and getting around
If you are driving, then highway 1 or highway 17 are your only connections to Santa Cruz. Both highways are scenic and entertaining.
Once in SC, you can walk to many destinations. Pick lodging close to the beach or downtown.
Fun facts: The inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock’s movie “The Birds” happened right here in Santa Cruz. Hitchcock was living in the town when it was attacked by hordes of birds smashing into windows and biting residents.
The beach trolley frequently runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day and shuttles you between downtown and the Wharf.
You can also take other buses to further destinations like UCSC, Capitola Mall, and even San Francisco. So leave the car behind and enjoy a car-free vacation.
Where to stay
Being a resort town, Santa Cruz's lodging is expensive – especially if you want to stay close to the beach. You can find some bargains if you go further inland or stay in surrounding towns.
During one of my visits, I stayed at Dream Inn right above Cowell Beach – north of the Wharf – a very convenient location.
The hotel itself was great, with each room overlooking the ocean, a heated pool and Jacuzzi, and an excellent restaurant called Aquarius. The room was very comfortable with a TV, Cable, Wi-Fi, Coffee maker, and bathrobes.
Fun facts: Another Hitchcock movie inspiration also happened in Santa Cruz. “Psycho” was inspired by the McCray Hotel which many residents thought was haunted.
But for the amenities and the location, we paid a hefty price. The minimum price is around $450 a night (during high season).
During another visit, I decided to try a Best Western motel property close to the Boardwalk. I paid $200 a night for an average room.
If you plan ahead and go during the off-season, you might be able to find great deals. For example, the same motel next to the Boardwalk is $129 in May.
The Darling House
For a change, I decided to try a Bed and Breakfast for one of my visits. The Darling House was right on West Cliff drive, overlooking the ocean. My room had a great view of the Wharf and the Boardwalk.
The room was spacious, with a walk-in closet and a sink – but no private bathroom. I had to share the common bathroom on the second floor.
The breakfast was excellent, with many homemade items. I enjoyed my stay at the Darling House, but next time I will ask for a room with a private bath.
Holiday Inn Express
Located within walking distance from downtown and the Boardwalk is an average hotel with comfortable beds, free breakfast, and Wi-Fi. The Wi-Fi connection was very spotty, and cell service was almost non-existent. Breakfast was good and served from 7 to 10 am.
If you have a car and are willing to stay outside of town, neighboring cities have many choices. My favorite is the Hilton at Scott's Valley. You can also find inexpensive options at Felton and Capitola.
Finally, check out Airbnb for great deals on full homes in neighboring towns. This is very convenient for a family or a large group. We recently stayed at a nice, quiet home in Davenport, north of Santa Cruz. The home was a few feet away from the beach with amazing views.
What to do
The best way to experience the charm of this town is to take a walk.
Start at the Municipal Wharf. Go to the wharf and enjoy the scenery, shops, and restaurants. You can get a superb view of the Sea Lions down a stairwell across the pier from Stagnaro's restaurant. From the wharf, you will have an excellent view of the Boardwalk.
From the Wharf, walk to West Cliff Drive for the most stunning views of the Pacific. This 3-mile (one-way) walk takes you through important points of interest like the world-famous surfing area “Steamer Lane”; Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, Lighthouse Point; and Natural Bridges State Beach, where you can enjoy the beautiful rock formations and bird and sea lion populations.
Fun facts: Much of the movie "The Lost Boys" was filmed on location in Santa Cruz. Many scenes were shot at the Boardwalk and the Wharf.
Tip: Make sure to wear layers and bring a jacket or sweater when you visit Natural Bridget State Beach. It gets very windy and chilly in the afternoon.
Another nice walk is along the San Lorenzo River. This is a well-maintained path on both sides of the river, with pedestrian bridges connecting the two banks. The trail goes all the way from the beach (close to the Boardwalk) to highway 1.
Fun facts: Many local residents claim to see a Lady in White dress floating around Ocean Street Extension and the nearby cemetery.
You can stop at Lorenzo Park for a relaxing picnic, or you can take a side trip to downtown shopping on Pacific Ave.
Also, nearby are the Town Clock, Del Mar Theatre, and Mission State Historic Park.
Santa Cruz is a bike-friendly city. Many streets have bike lanes, and walking trails usually allow bikers. The only problem is the hilly nature of the town.
Tip: If you didn’t bring your bike with you, you can rent one from many rental shops. “Pacific Ave Cycles” is the closest to the beach. You can also try “Epicenter Cycling” closer to downtown.
Some must-do bike rides:
- The 3-mile West Cliff Drive with breathtaking views as described above
- Wilder Ranch State Park offers 34 miles (54.72 km) of trails – some easy and some strenuous. The trails go from sea cliffs to the inland forest. This is a great place for mountain bikes.
- University of California Santa Cruz offers rugged unpaved trails in the upper campus and winding paved trails through the main campus.
East Cliff drive goes through the best of Santa Cruz’s beaches and communities and connects to the city of Capitola.
Twin Lakes State Beach
If you follow Cliff drive to the east of the Lorenzo River, you will find this mile-long beach with a harbor, a Yacht Club, and a nice lake full of birds.
Schwan Lake used to be a lagoon connected to the ocean. Now it is a separate lake with a hiking trail and great views.
Not feeling like walking or biking? You can take the luxurious way and Segway through Santa Cruz. Segway Santa Cruz (website) Tours offers several tours through town that are highly recommended.
Your tour always starts with instructions on how to use the Segway. Those machines are very sensitive and responsive to your slightest impulse, so you must learn and practice before you head off. There is a fenced-in track for practice at the office.
You must wear a helmet, so bring your own or rent one from an outfitter. They have every size available, including for the young ones. Segway SC is one of the few tour operators that allow children ten and up to ride. They have smaller Segways for the smaller sizes.
Fun facts: University of California Santa Cruz official mascot is the Banana Slug. The slugs are found everywhere around SC, especially in the Redwood Forest.
Segway Santa Cruz offers several tours from 1.5 hours to 2.5 hours. The short tour strolls through West Cliff Drive to the lighthouse, while the longer one goes through West Cliff Drive first and then continues to the Wharf.
On Cliff Drive or the wharf, you will enjoy several stops to admire the scenery and take pictures.
Segway Santa Cruz is also very active in the community. They created a fundraising organization, Mobile4Kidz.org gifting children with their mini Segway.
Dining in Santa Cruz
You can find great dining experiences in downtown, at the Wharf, and on the Boardwalk. Read the full dining guide here.
The Beach Boardwalk
The boardwalk is a long stretch of beach in Santa Cruz – connecting the Wharf to the Lorenzo River. Right at the beach, you can find an open amusement park that you can enter without purchasing a ticket. You will need individual tickets or all-day passes if you intend to enjoy the rides. Otherwise, you can just stroll through and watch the hordes of revelers.
Fun facts: The Boardwalk is the oldest amusement park in California and the only one still standing on a beach today on the West Coast.
At the west end, you can find two separate game areas: At Neptune’s Kingdom, you can play miniature golf or Pinball; Further west, you can find more thrilling video games, ski ball, shooting games, and laser tag at the Casino.
Tip: You can buy individual tickets for rides. If you just want to try a few rides, that is the way to go. But if you and your kids are going to try everything, then buy wristbands and forget about counting tickets.
On the east end, you can get a thrill on the Giant Dipper roller coaster – which is a well-known wooden roller coaster.
Tip: Dogs, bikes, skateboards and roller skates are not allowed on the Boardwalk.
Many restaurants and snack shops are spread throughout the boardwalk. You can also find independent restaurants across the street from the Boardwalk.
For great views of Santa Cruz, the Boardwalk, and the Pier, try riding the Sky Glider or the Ferris Wheel.
Tip: Try to visit the park at night. The lights are sounds are much more exciting in the dark.
For a most amazing view of the boardwalk, go to the Wharf (Pier) at night and look back to the boardwalk.
Natural Bridges State Beach
This beautiful beach sits at the end of West Cliff drive and spans 65 acres of beach and woods. You can enjoy a great view of the rock formations and the birds that nest on them from Cliff drive. But to really enjoy this park, venture down onto the sand or climb the rocks at the other end.
From the sand, you have a better view of the arch rock, and you can swim to and through the arch. If you go further north-west and climb the rocks, you will be rewarded with splashing waves and tide pools.
Further inland, you will be in the camping area within the woods. A guided tour will take you to the Monarch Butterflies' habitat. Read more here.
Outside of town
Santa Cruz is the hub of activity in the County, but nearby cities have a lot to offer. You can go shopping at Capitola Mall, hike in Felton, watch the Elephant Seals at Ano Nuevo State Park, or zip-lining at Mount Hermon.
Roaring Camp Railroad
During your visit to Santa Cruz, you must go into the Redwood Forest. You should try hiking or biking through one of the State Parks if you can, but another way to experience it is via the Roaring Camp Railroad (Website).
This train ride takes you from a nice park-like station into the woods – climbing through narrow, winding tracks over trestle bridges all the way to the summit of Bear Mountain.
Tip: the train depot has a wheelchair ramp if needed.
The climb is very steep at times. The train has to switch back between tracks because one of the bridges was destroyed in a fire.
Tip: You can bring your dog with you on the train ride, but he must be on a leash. If space is limited the conductor might not allow the dog on board.
When you reach the summit, you can stroll through the forest for 10 minutes. A trail goes from camp to the summit (and back), so if you choose to, you can hike back down the trail.
Fun facts: Roaring Camp Railroad is also home to another of Santa Cruz’s mysteries. Hikers found human remains and then, trains on night excursions keep stalling at the location of the find. Conductors reported seeing a woman crossing the tracks and bringing the train to a stop. No one was ever found.
Back at the station (camp) there is a lot to do:
- You can bring a picnic and enjoy the park or eat in the woods.
- Buy food at the store or from Georgie's Cook House if you didn’t bring anything.
- Buy souvenirs at the general store.
- You can watch the blacksmith making horseshoes and tools.
- You can have an easy hike through the woods – or take Bear Mountain trail to the top. Another hiking trail called Mount Hermon is close by.
- At the “Antique Photo Shop”, you can don old-fashioned clothes and take your pictures (open weekends during high season).
Fun facts: The trains on the Redwoods track use Narrow-Gauge steam engines. Those types of engines were used in the 1880’s to haul redwood logs out of the forest. They are strong enough to climb high-grade slopes.
Another train route takes you from the Beach Boardwalk to the Roaring Railroad Camp, passing by the San Lorenzo River and going through the Henry Cowell Redwoods state park. You can start your trip from the beach or from the camp.
The Beach Train rides cost $29 for adults and $23 for children.5401 Graham Hill Road Felton, California 95018
Zip line in the Redwood Forest
"Mount Hermon Adventures" created a place for thrill seekers of all ages to enjoy the forest while zipping above the trees or walking between the redwoods on suspended bridges.
I recently went on the Redwood Canopy Tour, which is basically a 2-hour zip-line tour with some suspended bridge crossings.
The guides were great. They explained the equipment and some safety rules, and then we took off on a short hike to the first zip line. This is just a short training line where we received more instructions and tried it for the first time.
When we finally arrived at the real zip lines, we were ready. The guides inspected our equipment and made sure it was tight and secure.
Zipping through the redwoods canopy was great fun. We enjoyed some short and fast lines and some long and slow ones. At times, we were as high as 100 feet (30.48 m) above the valley floor while hanging from a string. What a rush.
Mount Hermon Adventures also offers other experiences in the redwoods. You can go on a Sequoia Aerial Adventure in which you can select your level of challenge on three aerial trails and over 30 elements, including swinging logs, cargo nets, and cables set 30 to 80 feet (24.38 m) in the air.
There is also Discovery Cove for younger children. This is an easier challenge lower to the ground where parents can feel safe while their kids get a workout.
Ano Nuevo State Park
Tip: You have to get a permit to visit the Elephant Seals. Permits are available at the entrance 8:30 to 3:30 only.
The best attraction is the Elephant Seals gathering at a secluded beach. Every year, up to 10,000 elephant seals make this area their home. They spend their time sunbathing – and occasionally hunt for food.
To get to the seal habitat, you must take a long hike. Some of it is on packed dirt, other parts are difficult to traverse dunes. It takes about one hour to reach your destination, and it is worth the effort.
Tip: It is a one-hour hike, but plan on 3-hour round trip. You will have a lot of stops along the way and you diffinetly spend time observing the seal antics.
Along the way, you can enjoy expansive views of the ocean and the coastal scrub. In the distance, you can see Ano Nuevo island, which is a haven for birds.
Capitola is another beach town boarding Santa Cruz with several popular beaches, the village shopping and dining center, and the Venetian Hotel that resembles a pirate island in the Caribbean.
The village is busy, with many unique shops and great restaurants on the sand. One of my favorite restaurants is Zelda's, especially the outdoor porch on the beach. The food and drinks are also great, but expect to pay for the beautiful location, service, and delicious seafood.
Tip: Parking is difficult and becomes impossible during holidays. You are better off leaving your car behind and using public transportation or ridesharing.
A walk on the pier is a great way to enjoy the village views and the pastel-colored bungalows. You can see far into the mountains surrounding Monterey Bay from the pier.
Soquel River runs through Capitola Village into the bay, and a secret path runs along the river starting from Cliff Drive. Take the path for some tranquility and views of well-tended gardens and boaters.
For avid hikers, Santa Cruz and the surrounding area is a haven full of all kinds of trails. You can take an easy stroll along Cliff drive or along the San Lorenzo River, or you can venture into one of the many Redwood parks further inland.
Here are some of the best hikes in the area:
West Cliff Drive
Pass by the Surfer memorial – with a nice flower garden. At several points along the path, you can take the steep stairs down to the beach – or, with high tide, down to the waves.
Fun facts: On February 15, 2007, the Associated Press ran a story about a missing yellow submarine in Santa Cruz County. Many people made a joke of the story and tied to the famous line from the Beatles song, but it turned out to be a real submarine. It was found later and the incident was declared as a misunderstanding.
Continue until you reach the lighthouse, then continue until you reach Natural Bridges State Beach.
The state beach viewing area is a good vantage point to gaze at the rock bridges, Sea Lions, and Otters or glimpse the migrating whales in the distance.
Down at the beach level, you can enjoy the sea life in the tide pools. You can find crabs, Sea Anemones and Starfish.
Length: Total round trip about 6 miles (9.66 km)
Time: It depends on how much exploring or gazing you want to do.
Fun facts: The Santa Cruz Trash Orchestra is a local band that uses recycled cans, hubcaps, pans to make music – or some call it noise.
Berry Creek Falls Loop
This hike is located in the Big Basin Redwood State Park, which is an hour’s drive from Santa Cruz. The hike takes you through the Redwood forest to a nice waterfall. This hike is not for the faint of heart. It may take a full day to complete due to the difficulty and elevation gain.
Tip: It is easy to get lost in this huge park. Get a map from the park HQ and plan ahead.
There are several waterfalls along the way: Golden Cascade, Silver Falls, and Berry Creek Falls.
Length: Total round trip about 6 miles (9.66 km)
Time: Full day.
Fun facts: On October 8, 1991, the City of Santa Cruz declared itself a Nuclear Free Zone. The city installed signs at intersections leading into town, but most of them were stolen and never replaced. People just liked the signs too much.
Old Cove Landing Trail
Along this trail, you can find Seagulls, Geese, Pelicans, and Sea Lions.
This used to be an old-functioning farm, so you will find some remnants of the farming life along the trail, like tractors and antique cars.
Length: Total round trip about 2.6 miles (4.18 km)
Time: 1 to 3 hours.
Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
You can find many easy hikes from the main entrance with stunning views of Redwood trees. The main trail is a paved road with signs pointing the way. It is around 5 miles (8.05 km) for a round trip.
Further north, the oddly named "Fall Creek Unit" is an easy hike with a flowing creek and plenty of shade.
Next door, you can experience the Redwoods on the Roaring Camp Railroad.
You can drive north for about 1.5 hours to get to San Francisco with its famous attractions like the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf, China Town, Pier 39, Cable Cars, and Coit Tower. Read more about San Francisco here
You can also get to San Francisco from Santa Cruz on Highway 1, passing by some very interesting towns, state beaches, and parks.
One such beach is called Bean Hollow Beach, and towards the north end of this beach, you will find some strange rocks and colorful vegetation.
Or you can head south for about 1 hour to spend some time in the city of Monterey, home of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Cannery Row, and another great Fisherman’s Wharf.