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It’s not just sunseekers and surfers who flock to Santa Cruz County each year. Given its unique place on California’s central coast, iconic attractions such as the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, coastal redwood forests, miles of sunny beaches, and the legendary Highway 1, Santa Cruz has a vast array of things to offer long-haul travelers in a relatively small amount of space. As California’s second-smallest county, Santa Cruz represents just about everything the Golden State can offer – with the exception of snow – making it a natural choice for visitors who want to enjoy a variety of authentic experiences during their stay.
Why Visit Santa Cruz County?
The Santa Cruz region prides itself on the classic west coast vibe that permeates the region. Likely brought on by the local surfing culture and Hawaiian roots, Santa Cruz is a respite for the frenetic energy of larger destinations. Everything slows down here – except for the thrilling adventures visitors can choose – or not choose – to have. Chill out on the beach, at a local brewpub, or while taking a self-guided walking tour of historic neighborhoods or public murals. Adrenalin seekers can experience the thrill of a 24 km downhill ride on a mountain bike or on a rope course through a coastal forest while catching a wave in the Monterey Bay with an experienced surfing instructor or atop a wooden roller coaster with a view of the ocean. Families, couples, and groups of friends can “live like a local” while here.
Plan for your visit to Santa Cruz County with this recommended playlist, and follow these local Instagrammers before your arrival to get a flavor of the area.
Getting Here
Located along the Central Coast, Santa Cruz County, California, is approximately 60 miles/96 km south of San Francisco and 349 miles/562 km north of Los Angeles. Many visitors choose to take scenic Highway 1 along the California coastline to Santa Cruz or Highway 17 through the Santa Cruz Mountains. Visitors can also choose to fly into San Francisco International Airport or Mineta/San Jose International Airport, an easy 30 miles/48 km northeast of Santa Cruz.
Here are the top five reasons international travelers choose to visit:
1. Highway 1
Highway 1 is Santa Cruz’s main – and only – highway, which runs through the center of the county, is the area’s main thoroughfare, and is arguably one of the more scenic drives around.
Featured in major motion pictures, gracing countless postcards, the subject of hundreds of songs, and serving as the backdrop of millions of visitor photographs each year, California’s Highway 1 is as iconic as its beaches. Stretching through Santa Cruz County from tip to stern, a leisurely drive down (or up!) Highway 1 will provide visitors with a thorough tour of all this classic California beach town has to offer.
Named a National Scenic Byway by the United States Department of Transportation for its archeological, cultural, historical, natural, recreational, and scenic qualities, visitors traveling Highway 1 south from San Francisco will arrive in Santa Cruz County in approximately two hours, giving time to stop along the way and enjoy views of the coastline.
Whichever name you choose to call it: “PCH” in southern California, Cabrillo Highway on some parts of the Central Coast, Shoreline Highway north of San Francisco or the iconic Highway 1, this stretch of road is one of America’s epic road trips, which wouldn’t be complete without a stop in California’s favorite seaside town of Santa Cruz.
2. A Legacy of Surfing
Visitors seeking a true California beach vacation can count on Santa Cruz for an iconic surfing experience tinged with nostalgia. Known as the sport of kings, Santa Cruz enjoys a storied legacy as the nucleus of California’s official sport. In 1885, three Hawaiian princes who were attending a military academy in what is now Silicon Valley came to Santa Cruz on a break from school. Seeing the swell of the waves, they went to a local lumber mill and had surfboards crafted from redwood trees. Taking their new boards to the beach, they surfed the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Santa Cruz, and the sport of surfing was born in the United States. Today, surfers from all over the world come to Santa Cruz to ride the most consistent waves and widest variety of surf breaks in the Northern Hemisphere.
Late wetsuit pioneer Jack O’Neill perfected his designs in Santa Cruz, and visitors can stroll past his modest house on East Cliff Drive in the surf neighborhood of Pleasure Point while enjoying the view of talented wave riders from the cliffs. Want to share the stoke? Sign up for a surfing lesson with Club Ed Surf School or Richard Schmidt Surf School and earn your cred with these local and experienced instructors.
Looking to soak in the surf scene without getting wet? Stop by the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum located on scenic West Cliff Drive and housed inside the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse, which overlooks the internationally renowned surfing spot, Steamer Lane. The museum includes historic photographs, early wetsuits designed by local Jack O’Neill, unsinkable vintage redwood surfboards, and other items tracing over 100 years of surfing history in Santa Cruz. Many retired surfers from the 1950s and ’60s now volunteer at the museum, sharing their past experiences with visitors. Or swing by O’Neill Surf Shop and pick up a tee shirt or sweatshirt, and you’ll look like a local in no time.
3. California State Parks
Santa Cruz County, California, is one of the few places where an unbroken trail begins in redwood-covered mountains and ends on the rugged, windswept beaches of the Pacific Coast. Santa Cruz County has an extraordinary number of state parks – 14 in all – and each offers a unique experience for visitors. Santa Cruz County’s vast preserves of open space are a tribute to the early conservation efforts that began here over a century ago and resulted in the first campaign to save the redwoods. Hiking here is epic, whether you want a challenging experience or are looking for an easy stroll on a breezy trail. There are even hikes dedicated to waterfall-seekers!
Big Basin Redwoods State Park – California’s oldest – was devastated by a California wildfire in summer 2020. Although it is slowly recovering, the park is currently closed to visitors. While the forest regenerates, however, there are plenty of other parks to visit to view legacy redwood trees and old-growth forests.
In Felton, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park’s wheelchair and stroller-accessible Redwood Grove Trail circles around the park’s oldest and largest trees. More trails crisscross the San Lorenzo River and its steep, redwood-covered canyons. The park also features a visitor center, a campground, wi-fi internet access, picnic areas, and interpretative programs.
The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park in Aptos is another tribute to nature’s resilience. This dense, redwood paradise was clear-cut as recently as 1923, but today, towering second-growth redwoods populate the hillsides. The 10,000-acre park offers miles of trails for walking, running, hiking, horseback riding, and mountain biking. Interesting sites include an unusual, twisted grove of redwoods, remnants of an old sawmill, and the epicenter of the devastating 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
On a bluff overlooking Downtown Santa Cruz stands the last remaining original building of the Santa Cruz Mission. Built in 1791, it was the 12th Franciscan mission in California. All but one of the original adobes were lost to earthquakes, but the remaining structure – which houses fascinating exhibits depicting the mission’s history – has been restored at Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park.
The newly restored historic Meder farmhouse at Wilder Ranch State Park, a mile north of Santa Cruz, is a hands-on living history museum where visitors can experience the details of daily life on a turn-of-the-century dairy farm. Along with its Victorian homes, barns, living history demonstrations, and tours, the park offers 34 miles of hiking, biking, and equestrian trails that skirt the cliffs and more challenging trails that climb the steep hills and meadows overlooking Monterey Bay. Beautiful windswept beaches and a breathtaking fern grotto line the coast
One of the most picturesque spots on the coast is Natural Bridges State Beach. A sandstone arch shaped by wind and waves rises from the sea. Natural Bridges was once a series of connected arches, but today only one remains. During low tide, tide pools brim with sea stars, tiny crabs, and sea anemones. In wintertime, the park’s eucalyptus grove is thick with clusters of hibernating monarch butterflies.
Seacliff State Beach in Aptos is home to the “Cement Ship”, an experimental vessel constructed of concrete. The S.S. Palo Alto made just one voyage in 1919 before permanently docking at the pier, now a favorite local fishing spot.
For epic sunsets, the beaches of Seabright, Twin Lakes, Rio Del Mar, Manresa, and Sunset have seasonal fire rings for building campfires and toasting s’mores, creating an idyllic setting for watching the afternoon sky turn pink and orange.
4. Attractions
Visit the “World’s Best Seaside Amusement Park!” The legendary Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk was built as the Coney Island of the West Coast and is always admission-free. Ride two National Historic Landmarks: The Giant Dipper Roller Coaster and the Looff Carousel. Enjoy a free self-guided walking tour of this historic seaside gem, or hit the adjacent Neptune’s Kingdom, where the latest arcade games and classics from the past join a two-story miniature golf course with robotics, fiber optics, and special effects, plus a restaurant and game areas. The Boardwalk also hosts Free Friday night summertime concerts and other free and fun events year round. Sitting on Main Beach in Santa Cruz, the Boardwalk is ultimately the most scenic amusement park around.
Offering steam train rides on a vintage narrow-gauge railroad, Roaring Camp Railroads offers visitors another way to see the redwoods. Perfect for multi-generational travel or for those who just want to see the redwoods from a different viewpoint, this hour and fifteen-minute ride up Bear Mountain in Felton is the perfect choice for train-lovers and tree-lovers alike! Explore Roaring Camp’s Western-style town before your excursion and pan for “gold”, snap a photo with a train engineer, and visit an old-time general store. In the summertime, catch the Beach Train and ride from the depot in the Santa Cruz Mountains to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Roaring Camp also hosts seasonal events like the Civil War Reenactment at Memorial Day Weekend, Thomas the Tank Engine, Moonlight Train Rides, and a holiday lights train!
In south county, you can “drink your apple a day” at Martinelli’s Company Store tasting room. Once a supplier of hard cider, this family-run company switched gears when Prohibition hit the United States in 1920, which made the sale and distribution of alcohol illegal. It then began producing sparkling apple juice to replace champagne, and the business found its successful niche, focusing on a healthier alternative to alcoholic beverages. Today, Martinelli’s is still family-owned and operated and celebrated its 150th birthday in 2018. A family-friendly tasting room allows visitors to sample a variety of combinations of sparkling juice like apple-pear, apple-mango, apple-pomegranate, apple-marionberry, and more. A tasting bar will make you feel like you’re at a winery, and the Martinelli’s artifacts in the tasting room serve as a tribute to the heritage machinery used to make the delicious juices. Visitors also have the opportunity to purchase more unique Martinelli’s products that may not be available in American grocery stores.
5. Boutique Wineries
The wine scene in Santa Cruz County is as inspired as its cuisine. And so, it’s no surprise that area wineries and restaurants are celebrating local varietals with an eclectic mix of tasting opportunities. So raise a glass to the Santa Cruz Mountains Appellation region, one of the oldest wine growing regions in the United States.
Experience the wines of the Santa Cruz Mountains in a variety of idyllic settings: at a stylish urban tasting room, at a pastoral winery surrounded by vineyards, or at a family-friendly winery where you can bring your kids! Opt for lush, landscaped grounds, vineyards, historic tasting rooms, and stylish patios outdoors with a view of the Monterey Bay. Choose a California-rustic tasting room in the countryside with a relaxing but upscale west-coast vibe, or picnic under a heritage oak tree and wander through the vineyards at some locations.
Creekside Bargetto Winery is the oldest producer in the county, with a rich history that pre-dates Prohibition in the United States. Storrs Winery, Alfaro Family Vineyards and Winery, Lester Estate Wines, and Nicholson Vineyards in the mid-county town of Corralitos are located in a peaceful, bucolic setting that rivals larger, wine-forward destination. The wine tasting experience in Santa Cruz County is a personal one: you will meet the winemaker who pours wine on weekends to visitors and have the opportunity to chat about their process. To ensure the best experience, please check with wineries before visiting and make a reservation if requested.
Honorable Mention: The Golden Ticket
An abundance of scenic points of interest, natural beauty, and coastal and redwoods locations also add to Santa Cruz’s appeal as a filming location. In recent years, Bird Box, Bumblebee, and Us were filmed in Santa Cruz County. In addition to the surfers at Steamer Lane featured in “The Endless Summer,” Santa Cruz has played host to vampires, Dirty Harry, and even maniacal clowns from outer space. You can visit the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, West Cliff Drive, the Santa Cruz Wharf, and other locations that made it to the big screen. Click here to download a locations map where key scenes from The Lost Boys were filmed and reconnect with your inner vampire!
Bits and Bobs
No visit to Santa Cruz County would be complete without the mention of some “hidden gems” within the county, the locals who make our region unique, including the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, where a rooftop garden is one of the area’s best-kept secrets, the Seymour Marine Discovery Center where you can pet a friendly shark and learn about marine life in the Monterey Bay, Capitola Village’s quaint Mediterranean flavor, the always-vibrant Downtown Santa Cruz where the locals’ shop, and the cool, laid back surf community of Pleasure Point. Love to walk? Take a self-guided tour of county murals – including Instagrammable options and historic neighborhoods in Santa Cruz and Watsonville.