One of my favorite spots on the California Coast is Santa Cruz. This is a city that has been attracting tourists for more than 100 years. It is known for its famous amusement park, its hippy-infused culture, its beaches, its surfing, and its nearby redwood forests. More recently it is building a brewery scene.
Here are some of my recommendations for what to do and see in Santa Cruz.
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- Santa Cruz Beach and Boardwalk
- Lighthouse Point
- West Cliff Drive
- Mission Santa Cruz
- Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park – Felton
- Roaring Camp & Big Trees Narrow Gauge Railroad – Felton
- Wilder Ranch State Park
- Swift Street Courtyard
- Best Restaurants in Santa Cruz
- Where to Stay
Santa Cruz Beach and Boardwalk
In 1907, Santa Cruz Beach and Boardwalk opened to the public as the “Coney Island of the West”. It was a very different scene when it opened. We are still talking about a time when a bathing costume covered much more of you than the bikinis and board shorts you will see these days.
When Beach and Boardwalk opened the large building at the western end of the Boardwalk was a bath house with large salt-water swimming pool and a casino. These days it is an arcade, bowling alley, laser tag and arcade.
The Boardwalk is best known for the Giant Dipper old style wooden roller coaster. It creaks and rattles as you zoom up and down the giant hills. There are 10 other thrill rides at the park including Undertow which is the only spinning coaster in Northern California. There are 19 family rides like the Sky Glider that traverses the park from above, bumper cars, and my favorite the Logger’s Revenge log flume ride. There is also a kiddy area with 8 rides for the younger vertically-challenged crowd.
When you get hungry you can get a funnel cake, a corn dog, crÃªpes, nachos, teriyaki chicken rice bowls, tacos or something else from the 37 restaurants or bars.
Admission to the Boardwalk is free, but the rides have a cost. You can get an all day long pass for $29.95 â€“ $59.95 plus tax depending on the season. A pass must be purchased ahead of time. The park is everyday in the summer but only open weekends in the off season. You can alternative get a MyBoardwalk Card in denominations of $50 to pay for rides one at a time.
Lighthouse Point is located on a point looking down on Santa Cruz, Monterey Bay, and the Santa Cruz Wharf. It is a great spot to watch the surfers tackling the local waves. Surfing came to Santa Cruz in 1913 when Hawaii’s Duke Kahanamoku came to the bay. There is a small surfing museum in the lighthouse.
- Friday – Sunday 12:00-4:00pm
West Cliff Drive
Lighthouse Point anchors one end of a lovely walk or drive along the coast that ends at Natural Bridges State Beach. Find parking at one end or the other and walk the 1.9 mile path along the cliff for great views of the ocean and a couple of small cove beaches. This is a spot for people watching and checking out the value of the beautiful homes on Zillow. As for the houses, if you have to ask how much they cost… you can’t afford them… or maybe that’s just me.
Mission Santa Cruz
When the Spanish colonized California in the 1700s, their strategy involved founding a number of missions. The California Missions stretch from Baja California in the south to Sonoma in the north.
The Spanish established the local mission in 1794 and named the town Santa Cruz or “Holy Cross”. The Spanish mission was largely destroyed in an earthquake in 1857, but there is still one original building on the site and a scaled-down replica of the original church.
The original building is only 7 rooms long and used to house some of the local Native Americans who worked at the mission. It contains a small museum that will only take you 10 minutes or so to explore. Admission is free.
Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park – Felton
Only 7 miles north of Santa Cruz on Highway 9 is one of my favorite Redwood Groves in California. The unassuming Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park has an .8 mile Redwood Grove Loop Trail that is so easy that my elderly grandmother was able to walk it with us. You will see redwood trees up to 277 feet in height.
Pick up a brochure that will explain the various plants along the way. It will also point to sites like the John C Fremont tree where the “Pathfinder” was supposed to have camp inside when he explored the area in the 1840s. When asked much later about this story he is reported to have responded, “It makes a great story, let it stand.”
If you are looking for a longer hike, just keep going straight at the Fremont Tree and join the Pipeline trail up the hill to a spot where you get a good overlook of the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Henry Cowell also has camping.
Roaring Camp & Big Trees Narrow Gauge Railroad – Felton
If you have kids with you or big kids, a path from the visitor center parking lot of Henry Cowell leads to Roaring Camp & Big Trees Narrow Gauge Railroad. Take a one hour train ride to the top of Bear Mountain through the redwoods on the Redwood Forest Steam Train.
Adult (Ages 13 and up) – $39.95
Child (Ages 2-12) – $24.95
Or, if you want to make a day of it you can take the Beach Train from the Boardwalk to Roaring Camp (or from Felton to Santa Cruz). You get a one hour train ride through the redwoods each way with an hour to enjoy either Roaring Camp or take a quick trip over to Henry Cowell Redwoods
Adult (Ages 13 and up) – $35
Child (Ages 2-12) – $27
Wilder Ranch State Park
The coastline in the Central Coast has a great number of California State Parks and State Beaches. Just west of town (or nominally “north” on Route 1) is Wilder Ranch State Park. This used to be a very prosperous dairy farm dating back to the 1800s. When the family that owned it wanted to sell out to a developer in the 1970s in a move that might have doubled the size of Santa Cruz, locals stepped in and purchased the farm and made it into a park instead.
The original Wilder Ranch farmhouses and barns are still on the property and you can see a collection of animals and old machinery via a guided-tour or exploring on your own. You can tell how prosperous the family was for a time. Even the barn has lovely Victorian architectural details. It was one of the first farms in the area to have electricity.
Even if local history is not your thing, this park is popular with hikers and bikers because of its many miles of trails. Most of the trails are in the hills above Highway 1, but my favorite trail is the Old Cove Landing Trail which is a 2.4 mile heavily trafficked loop trail that heads down to the cliffs along the coast.
There are some wonderful beaches that you can see from the trail, but the largest, Wilder Beach, is off-limits as it is the nesting ground of snowy plovers. There is a small cove where you can get access to the water at Fern Grotto Beach. At other coves you can peer down and see a colony of Harbor Seals with the younger seals frolicking in the surf.
Like so much of the local coast the trail can be much cooler as you are on the bluffs which strong winds, so bring a jacket even if you didn’t need one in the parking area. Entrance to the park costs $10.
Santa Cruz is a beach town for sure, and there are a number of beaches to choose from. There are at least 34 different beaches in the area. Here are some of my favorites. If you come to a beach in Central California you can bring your bathing suit, but I also recommend bringing a sweatshirt as it is often chilly and almost always chilly at night.
Natural Bridges State Beach
Natural Bridges State Beach features a rock formation with an arch in it and a sheltered cove. It is not a large beach but with its location at the west end of town it is a great beach for families. There used to be more arches that collapsed so technically the park should be renamed to “Natural Bridge State Beach”.
The park also has a grove of trees that host monarch butterflies in the winter months.
Seacliff State Beach – Aptos
I learned to body surf at Sea Cliff Beach down the coast in Aptos and I still think it is one of the best beaches in the area for bodysurfing. The water is cold in Central California. It reaches its warmest in September which is also when the area gets some of its warmest weather.
The beach has the remains of an old cement ship at the end of its pier (a ship made from cement, not one used to carry cement). The SS Palo Alto was grounded here after her service in WWII as an oil tanker. The ship has been breaking up more in recent years. Since the picture above, winter storms tore off the stern of the ship.
Capitola Beach – Capitola
Capitola is not a large beach nor a large town but it is cute. It’s downtown is only a few blocks long but it has some fun shops and a large public parking lot above city hall. Unlike Santa Cruz, the downtown and the beach are right next to each other so you can spend some time on the beach and then grab a slice of Pizza from the local Pizza My Heart chain or enjoy a sit down dinner at one of the other 7 restaurants right on the beach like Margaritaville.
Capitola is probably best known for the colorful Instagramable rooms of the beachside Capitola Venetian Hotel which sites just off Soquel Creek which bisects the beach.
On the left side of the Capitola beach you can often catch a group of surfers getting a surf lesson. Capitola also has a pier which is popular with fishermen.
Santa Cruz Beach and Boardwalk
I talked about the Boardwalk above but the Beach and Boardwalk does have a great stretch of beach between it and the ocean. This beach is popular with families with kids and with teens. There is beach volleyball often on the beach and there is also a stage where the Boardwalk will host summer concerts. The free Friday Night concerts were cancelled in 2021 but are expected to return in 2022.
Sunset State Beach
Sunset State Beach is further down the coast towards Watsonville but offers my favorite place to camp near the beach in the area.
Swift Street Courtyard
Take a break from your sightseeing to visit a brewery, wine tasting room or some of the great stores and restaurants in the Swift Street Courtyard which is a converted industrial neighborhood that has become one of the best food and dining areas of the city. On the west end of town Swift Street is just off the Monterey Bay Scenic Bike Trail so many of the visitors will come on their bikes. That’s not a bad idea since parking in the area may take some patience.
Santa Cruz has developed a pretty good scene for breweries in recent years. the Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing Taproom is one of the businesses at the Swift Street Courtyard and Humble Sea Brewing Co. is just north of it on Swift Street.
Best Restaurants in Santa Cruz
If you are looking for a high-end restaurant that starts with a ride down a funicular, then the Shadowbrook has been wowing people since 1947. It is located in Capitola on the banks of the Soquel Creek.
I went there with my groomsmen before my wedding 40 years ago and have been back a few times since. It is not the kind of place you drop in after a day at the beach… because the dining room has a dress code in the evening of business casual to formal. So this is a special event sort of place. They do have a free shuttle that will pick you up at your hotel if you are staying within a 3 mile radius.
Monday â€“ Friday: 4:00 pm â€“ 8:30 pm
Saturday: 2:00 pm â€“ 9:30 pm
Sunday: 2:00 pm â€“ 8:30 pm
- 1750 Wharf Road Capitola
Hula’s Island Grill
A great place for a sweet rum drink and some good food and good services is Hula’s Island Grill which is just a block off Pacific Street in the Downtown area. We ordered a Hula’s Hurricane which is a tasty drink with a good amount of rum. My wife likes the pork sandwich and sweet potato fries. I like the jerk chicken, but when they say that the sauce is spicy, take their word for it.
221 Cathcart St. Santa Cruz
A popular spot for breakfast or brunch is Harbor Cafe. The wait on a Sunday morning can easily be an hour although they have an also have a take-out window where you can order from the same menu and eat at half a dozen picnic tables in the parking lot. We opted for saving the hour and not having table service. I love the breakfast burrito and my wife is a fan of the Nutella french toast.
535 7th Ave, Santa Cruz
Pizza My Heart
If you are craving pizza then my favorite local pizza chain is Pizza My Heart… and not just because I went to high school with the owner. They sell pizza by the slice, whole pie or with a California themed t-shirt.
Pizza My Heart started with the smallest of the chain on Capitola Beach and was popular with beachgoers and surfers. It has retained it surfing vibe as it expanded into Santa Cruz and up into the Silicon Valley. But if you go, ask if they still have the pastrami pizza. I figure if enough people ask I can get Chuck to put it back on the menu.
- 1116 Pacific Ave Santa Cruz
- 209 Esplanade Capitola
- 2180 41st Ave Capitola
Mission Street BBQ
Our favorite BBQ Joint in the Santa Cruz area is Mission St. Barbeque. It is easy to find as its name is its address on Mission Street which is Highway 1. It is not Mission Saint Barbeque as Siri was convinced at one time… although I think Saint Barbeque may have been one of the early Christian martyrs.
This is a place all about the meat and the craft beer although my wife enjoys their Berry Bleu Salad topped with BBQ chicken. The music they will be playing is the blues with live music usually at 6pm on Friday nights.
Everyday 7 am â€“ 9 pm or SOLD OUT!
1618 Mission St. Santa Cruz
You can also visit Aptos St. Aptos in Aptos for the same good BBQ, beer and blues.
Where to Stay
There are some hotels on the west end of town that are conveniently located to Wilder Ranch and Swift Street Courtyard. We will often stay at the Fairfield Inn & Suites which is a Marriott hotel. We stayed there for free using points from our Marriott Bonvoy credit card on our most recent trip.
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