The city of Santa Cruz is the gateway to Monterey Bay and has everything you want on a west coast trip; sun surf and sand. It also has dramatic mountains, ancient forests and a host of amazing wildlife and marine life. Nature aside you’ll find iconic film locations and an innovative and vibrant cultural scene. Here are my top 15 things to do in Santa Cruz, the wonderfully laid-back Californian coastal gem…
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk – one of the must-see places in Santa Cruz
This iconic amusement park has been used in more movies than there’s space to mention and film buffs like me will find it immediately recognizable. Possibly its most instantly familiar landmark is the red and white framed Giant Dipper, one of the oldest remaining wooden roller coasters in the US! Since its inception in 1924 more than 66 million eager visitors have taken a ride in its cars… including me!
It’s a completely thrilling experience with stunning views over Santa Cruz and out towards Monterey Bay if you can keep your eyes open for long enough! I wouldn’t recommend it if you have back or joint issues as it’s quite a bumpy ride! As well as the Big Dipper the Beach Boardwalk includes the historical Looff Carousel, built 1911 and a multitude of other kitsch and colorful vintage thrill rides, kiosks, and amusement arcades. Go at dusk when neon lights are lit, excitement fills the air and you can still take in the views from the high rides!
Natural Bridges State Beach
This beautiful beach was named for three natural bridges formed in the rocks that stretched across a section of the beach and into the sea. Two of the bridges collapsed but one remains and provides a picturesque frame for viewing seals, sea otters, and migrating whales as well as numerous seabirds. Further along the beach, there are tide pools crawling with fascinating and colorful ocean life.
Perhaps the most famous and fantastic sight that the reserve has to offer is between November and January when up to 150,000 orange and black Monarch butterflies stop here during their annual migration. The butterflies coat the eucalyptus groves around Lighthouse Field in bright and wonderful hues, creating a breathtaking and once-in-a-lifetime experience, not to be missed!
Santa Cruz Wharf
The historic Santa Cruz Wharf was built in 1914 and zig-zags out from the boardwalk in a paradigmatic shape above its wooden scaffolds. The Wharf has appeared in many movies, perhaps most noticeably its fish market was used in Sudden Impact with Clint Eastwood.
Lined with shops, restaurants, and bars the wharf is 2745 ft long, making it the longest pier on the West Coast, it is home to a large population of California Sea Lions who hang out on the left side dock and as the water rises jump up onto one of the cross beams for a snooze! The Dolphin Cafe at the top of the pier has a viewing platform that offers a great aspect but you can pretty much see them from everywhere…just follow the barking!
West Cliff Drive, Steamer Lane and the Surfing Museum
West Cliff Drive is a scenic walking and cycling route that hugs the coastline for 6 miles from Santa Cruz out along Monterey Bay. The route offers truly breathtaking panoramas of the Pacific Ocean and takes infamous surfing spots along the way. Steamer Lane is perhaps the most famous as it is here that the very first wetsuits were developed in the 1930’s by Jack O’Neill who had his surf shop nearby.
You’ll find a bronze surfer sculpture along the path as well as the world’s first surfing museum, which is housed in the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse overlooking crashing waves below. You’ll also find the Seymour Marine Discovery Center and the beautiful Seaside Gardens that adjoin it.
Go Whale Watching – one of the best things to do in Santa Cruz
One of Santa Cruz’s biggest treasures can be found just below the surface of the very surfable waves! Monterey Bay forms part of the biggest marine sanctuary in the US and provides a safe haven for numerous migratory whales! Breathtaking Gray and Blue Whales can be spotted just off the Santa Cruz coast, as well as more common humpbacks and killer whales. To see these magnificent creatures up close you need to get out on the water.
There is a wide choice of cruises and chartered boats available, or if you want to get staggeringly close why not try a guided Kayak paddle? Peak migratory time for the Grey Whales is mid-January to mid-March, whilst the Blues usually visit in the summer months. The Humpback population is fairly fixed and you’ll have a good chance of seeing these all year round whilst the more nomadic Killer Whales prefer springtime. Do a bit of research before you travel to avoid disappointment!
The UC Santa Cruz Arboretum & Botanic Gardens
This stunning Botanical Gardens is part of The University of California and has been supporting connections between people and plants since the early 60’s. It’s like a beautiful surprise in the middle of the bustling city, providing peace and resplendent nature for the travel-weary visitor. There are more than 300 species of rare and unique plants spread across 135 acres of ‘living museums’. You can take a world tour in the Californian, South American, Australian, South African, and New Zealand Gardens or commune with butterflies in the Butterfly Garden.
You’ll also find temperate forests, succulents and a Natives Come First Garden, showcasing the most splendid American blooms. The Harrison’s Future Garden is a fascinating collaboration of Botanists, Artists, and Scientists to create trial gardens that will thrive in the region’s changing climate as it is predicted in the near future. All across the Gardens, you can spot wonderful birdlife, especially look out for the beautiful iridescent flashes of Anna’s Hummingbird, a permanent resident of the area.
The Lost Boys Santa Cruz Tour
This is a very cool thing to do in Santa Cruz. The first time I ever watched The Lost Boys it scared the living daylights outta me, whilst simultaneously making me fall in love with Kiefer Sutherland! Now, almost 35 years after its release many of the iconic locations still exist. If you’re a movie buff like me, or just a fan of this particular movie, I highly recommend downloading the map and taking the self-led tour! https://www.santacruz.org/the-lost-boys-mobile-map/
You’ll see the prominent Looff Carousel, where we first see David, Star and the rest of the gang, The Comic Shop where Haim and Feldman spent all their time, the now unoccupied Pogonip Clubhouse that was used as Grampas house and the wharf that was home to the sinister Max’s video shop. It’s also just a great way to get to grips with the city regardless of vampiric connections!
Santa Cruz Museum of Art History
The Santa Cruz Museum of Art History offers an exemplary forward-thinking attitude and a unique interactive experience that allows visitors to engage with creative arts and installations in a completely immersive way. The museum is driven by community engagement and hosts a plethora of events and festivals throughout the year, check the website https://www.santacruzmah.org/events to see what’s going on when you visit.
After a few hours exploring the exhibits, you can head up to the Rooftop Garden and Relax amongst beautiful sculptures in the Mary and Harry Blanchard Sculpture Garden. Comfortable seating is arranged amongst colorful succulents and a serene fountain offering respite as the city bustles on below. The Rooftop Garden is a real hidden gem, a little Oasis of calm where you can sit and contemplate the rest of your itinerary in peace!
Visit Ancient Redwoods
There are two prominent state parks close to Santa Cruz where visitors can marvel at the ancient and massive Giant Redwood Trees, honestly a very humbling experience! Big Basin Redwoods State Park is the oldest in the state and home of some of the largest and oldest trees in existence. Hikers can embark on the 29 mile Skyline to Sea Trail that takes you through the heart of it. Descending from the Santa Cruz Mountains the trail traverses the steep and dramatic canyons of Castle Rock State Park before winding past beautiful waterfalls, through groves of coastal Redwoods to the tumbling edges of the Pacific Ocean. Sadly in August 2020 the visitor center and headquarters at Big Basin were destroyed by fire and many of the oldest trees were damaged.
The park is due to reopen this year but please check before making firm plans. If Big Basin remains inaccessible then travel just 10 miles out of downtown to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park and take the easy Flat Loop Trail. The 0.8 mile trail leads you through the 40 acre protected grove past decaying trees, fairy rings and the tallest tree which measures around 280 ft and is thought to be 1500 years old. The grove is also home to the famous Fremont Tree, take a torch and climb inside its hollowed trunk to marvel at the cavernous size of it! You can fit your whole family in there with you. The tree takes its name from Lt John C Fremont who allegedly camped out with his party in the burnt-out base of the tree during his exploration of the area in 1846. Be absolutely sure to factor some Redwoods into your visit here. Not just ordinary trees, in my opinion standing amongst their ancient trunks, feels as spiritual as a visit to an ancient monument or archaic stone circle., truly breathtaking.
The Santa Cruz Beach Steam Train
If you are not much of a hiker but still want to take in some seriously breathtaking scenery then this is a really wonderful option for you! The 3-hour train journey follows one of the oldest and most historic lines in California State. Originally the train would carry lumber as well as day-trippers to the Big Trees and Santa Cruz, today the steam train trundles tourists and picnickers along the original track which first opened in 1875.
Starting at Roaring Camp in the Santa Cruz Mountains it travels through Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park along the spectacular San Lorenzo River Gorge across historic steel trussed bridge and tunnel before arriving at The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and returning to the mountains. It is also possible to do the round trip in reverse and tickets can be procured on board from the train conductor. Yes, it’s an extremely touristy thing to do but I think when there are actual historic steam trains involved that can be excused!
Garden of Eden
This is an amazing natural swimming spot in the heart of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park that wholeheartedly deserves its biblical name. The Garden of Eden refers to a collection of crystal clear pools that form along the San Lorenzo River and it winds through the redwood forests.
Park at Ox Trail and follow the signs prohibiting pretty much everything except swimming and they will lead you down a short steep path to an unbelievably picturesque grotto where you can take a dip amidst wild and wonderful nature fringed by ancient redwood giants.
Seaside Gardens, Seymour Marine Discovery Center
For some seriously knockout views of the wild and wonderful Pacific Ocean head to the Seaside Gardens at The Seymour Discovery Centre. These incredibly scenic gardens perched on the bluffs are free to explore.
Take a quiet stroll out along a seaside path that leads through vibrant and colorful beds of native flowering plants and iconic palm trees swaying in the breeze and gaze out over the Pacific in all its glory. This is a lovely and tranquil thing to do in Santa Cruz!
Pino Alto, Sesnon House
Hidden away between classroom buildings at Cabrillo College is a historic mission-style mansion that was built in 1911 as an elaborate summer home for the Sesnon family. The mansion and its pleasant terrace are now home to the upscale Pino Alto restaurant. Delicious food is prepared and served up by students of the college’s Culinary Arts Programme and overseen by expert instructors.
This innovative restaurant offers an excellent opportunity for talented students to polish their skills on the job whilst giving lucky diners the chance to enjoy delectable food at a fraction of the usual price in a relaxed and refined environment. A hidden jewel and foodie dream, the restaurant serves lunch and dinner Monday to Saturday through the spring semester. Be sure to book ahead!
Land of Medicine Buddha
If you have reached that stage in life where you’re wondering what it’s all about then I highly recommend a trip to the Land of Medicine Buddha in the verdant hills above Soquel. Even if you choose not to participate in any of the center’s meditation programs a walk through the retreat’s beautiful grounds will surely soothe your soul.
Set amongst lush redwoods the center offers an extensive network of forested trails punctuated by striking Buddhist statues and prayer wheels that appear in surprising places and give you pause for thought. Don’t miss the beautiful seasonal Maple Falls, you may have to wade a bit but it’s worth it!
Sunny Cove Beach
There are numerous pristine beaches and around Santa Cruz but this one is a favorite of the locals. Presenting exactly as the name suggests the beach occupies a sunny cove nestled beneath sheltering coastal cliffs that keep it obscured from the nearby road and relatively secret.
It’s the perfect place for a beach day away from the crowds. The large expanse of sand is tickled by the peaceful waves lapping against it and the beach remains quiet in comparison to the more central Main Beach and Capitola but is equally good for swimming. It still gets crowded on holidays though, so if you are not bothered about swimming but rather want somewhere really remote try Mitchell’s Cove or Panther Beach instead.
Hopefully this is enough to inspire you to pack your hiking boots, bathing suit and a few cloves of garlic and go and explore for yourself! Send me a postcard when you get there!
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Beth was born under a wandering star, with drama in her veins and ink in her pen. After stints studying theatre in Dublin and Utrecht she used her creative streak to see as much of the world as she could on as little money. She toured Italian Schools with a children’s theatre troop, lived as an au-pair in both Rome and Washington DC, explored the British countryside, worked her way through much of Europe, Salsa danced in Cuba and road tripped down America’s west coast where she discovered her spiritual home; Portland, Oregon. In between adventures she resides peacefully with her family, cats and ukulele.