Hit the Best Santa Cruz Beaches
Santa Cruz boasts an embarrassment of riches when it comes to its beaches, not just in terms of the aggregate length of coastline to be found in this relatively small county of 275,000 people, but in how different all those beaches are from one another.
- Natural Bridges
Named for mudstone bridges that formed over a million years ago, when the Pacific Ocean eroded away cliffs that jutted out into the sea, Natural Bridges is now a 65-acre State Park where a series of tide pools provide comfortable homes to urchins, hermit crabs, and other tiny marine life.
From October through early February, a eucalyptus grove in the park (accessible via a hiking path) sees an influx of up to 150,000 migrating monarch butterflies. You’re definitely going to want to be at least a little high if you’re lucky enough to experience that.
- It’s Beach
This is the best beach to visit with your dog, because it’s the only off-leash beach in the area (at least officially). But be warned: the locals call it “shit’s beach” for a reason.
- The Boardwalk
The Santa Cruz Boardwalk dates back to 1907, and retains a fair bit of old-timey charm.
In addition to all the rides, games, schlocky souvenirs and deep fried foods you’d expect from an ocean-front amusement park, there’s also a long, flat stretch of beach that’s well-suited to swimming (a rarity in these parts), plus a lively volleyball scene, and, within easy walking distance, a 2,745-foot long pier full of shops and restaurants where you can book a whale watching trip or a sunset sailboat cruise.
Best place to eat nearby is The Picnic Basket, which is open from 7am to 9pm daily and features the kind of food you’d bring on a picnic if you were a bit more ambitious about getting the best local ingredients and transforming them into something simple but delicious.
For a chance to hang with some colorful locals, try the karaoke scene at Boardwalk Bowl, just a short walk from the boardwalk itself, where you can also roll a few games as long as it’s not league night, Smokey.
- Twin Lakes
With convenient parking, sparse crowds and no giant cliff to climb down, Twin Lakes Beach stretches for over a mile and is one of the more accessible coastlines in the area. It’s also a great place to head out on a kayak or a stand up paddle board. And you can make a fire right on the beach.
When you’re done with all that surf and sand, walk over to The Crow’s Nest, a classic bar and grill with a gorgeous view of the ocean. Go for happy hour (Monday thru Friday 3:30—6:00pm) and satiate your munchies with half-off appetizers like Dungeness crab cakes, smoked salmon, clam chowder and calamari.
Learning to Surf in Santa Cruz
If you’re coming to Santa Cruz to surf, start by checking out this comprehensive guide compiled by local experts, which lists ideal breaks for beginners (Capitola Jetty), huge waves (Mavericks), ariels (30th and East Cliff), and long boards (Opal Cliff Drive). For absolute beginners, surf lessons are definitely recommended.
If you just want to hang out and take in the scene, head for Steamer Lane, where on the right day you can stand on a cliff next to the old lighthouse (which doubles as a Surf Museum) and watch top surfers crush some of the West Coast’s tastiest waves. At sunset, the sea air takes on a familiar herbal fragrance as people gather to play drums and/or dance to an old Grateful Dead show blaring out of someone’s VW Bus.
Pete Feurtado (proprietor of Big Pete’s cannabis-infused cookies) was born in Santa Cruz and has been surfing here since 1975. He’s particularly fond of a place called Waddell Creek but says the best thing about the local surf scene is “how many surf spots there are, offering lots of different types of waves.”
And oh yeah, if you just want to eat like a surfer, don’t miss Paula’s, a breakfast spot that’s famous among local wave riders for serving up hearty, delicious breakfast fare at some of the best prices in town.
If Forest Bathing Suits You
The natural beauty of Santa Cruz doesn’t end when you head inland. Within a short drive you can go forest bathing in a variety of different micro-climates.
- Henry Cowell State Park
To walk among old growth redwood trees, you’ll have to head about 15 minutes outside of Santa Cruz, to Henry Cowell State Park in the lovely little town of Felton. The park offers hiking and horseback riding on more than 4,650 acres of forested and open land, including a well-trafficked 40-acre old growth grove. Right next to the park, Roaring Camp Railroads is a re-creation of an 1880s logging camp complete with a steam-engine train you can ride on a steep climb up to the top of Bear Mountain and back, or straight through town to get dropped off at the Boardwalk.
On the way out of Felton, stop for a cold beer at Monty’s Log Cabin, an unpretentious (to say the least) old roadside bar that draws bikers, horseback riders, tourists and grizzled longtime locals alike. Or find a discreet place to puff a jay and then head over to the mind-blowing Bigfoot Discovery Museum.
Special Mention: De Laveaga Disc Golf
If golf is “a good walk ruined,” disc golf at DeLaveaga (especially on weed) is a great hike enhanced. The world-renown course takes you through the wilderness, and ends on hole #27—“The Top of The World”—perhaps the most famous disc golf hole in the world due to it’s incredible ocean view.
Stroll Pacific Avenue
The main drag in Santa Cruz remains pretty “weird” even as the forces of normalcy encroach from all sides.
- Bookshop Santa Cruz
A mainstay of downtown since 1966, this beautiful, independent bookshop will help you stock up on beach reads while mingling with literate locals.
- Cafe Campesino
There’s lots of good (and not-so-good) restaurants on Pacific Avenue, but Cafe Campesino is actually “on” Pacific. Just place your order at a little street kiosk that’s putting out big, bold Mexican flavors, then find a table right on the sidewalk to enjoy your meal and watch Santa Cruz’s moveable feast stroll past.
- Go Ask Alice
Calling itself your “one stop hippie shop,” Go Ask Alice sells a truly impressive collection of herbs, blends and tinctures—everything from mugwort to kratom.
- Abbot Square
Over the last few years, the dynamic forces behind the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History have transformed a once forgotten public square (directly outside the museum) into “the creative and cultural hub of Santa Cruz County.” Abbot Square Market also boasts some of the best artisan bites in town, from wood fired pizza to poke, plus beer, wine and a fully stocked fancy cocktail bar.
The museum itself is also worth a visit, especially the permanent exhibit focused on local history.
- Saturn Cafe
Santa Cruz shuts down pretty early, but you can always get some righteous munchies at this 24-hour vegetarian diner, with plenty of vegan options and a fun retro vibe.
- Verve Coffee Roasters
The best coffee in town comes from a small local shop with a national reputation for quality. So why give your money to a big chain when you can support local brewing while choosing from a wide variety of sustainably grown fair trade coffees from around the world?
- Penny Ice Creamery
Okay, it’s technically not on Pacific Avenue, but Penny Ice Creamery is worth walking a couple of extra blocks. They work with dozens of local farmers, foragers and food artisans to create unique flavors 100% in-house, from the tried-and-true (strawberry) to the more esoteric (Candy Cap mushroom). Rest assured, you won’t be the only one there with red eyes and a huge grin.
Crossfading at Breweries + Wineries
First, a note of caution: Mixing cannabis and alcohol should be done in moderation, and only by those with a strong affinity for both intoxicants—an approach that fits in with Santa Cruz culture anyway, since it’s a place dedicated to chilling, not “raging.”
That said, the West Side of town offers the best opportunities for conscious crossfading, as there’s a cluster of breweries and wineries with tasting rooms. Starting with Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing, an award winning, certified organic brew-pub with plenty of outdoor seating and a friendly vibe. Within easy walking distance, you can also check out Humble Sea, a new addition to the suds scene, or sample local vintages from a variety of wineries (Silver Mountain Winery, Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, Quinta Cruz, Sones Cellars, Vino Tabi, and MJA Vineyards). The best food options nearby are Kelly’s French Bakery, or—if you’re looking for something a bit upscale—try the wood fired pizzas and seasonal dishes at Bantam.
On the East side of town, check out Discretion Brewing, which also has great food in an elegant tasting room setting. Or head to the Harvey West neighborhood (home to several dispensaries) to indulge your inner wook at Shanty Shack, a hangout for the local cannabis industry that pairs home-brew style beers with the best local food trucks in a seriously informal setting.
Love the Nightlife
For a sleepy (okay, “lidded”) small town, Santa Cruz has some hoppin’ nightlife. The best way to get plugged in is by picking up a copy of Good Times, the local weekly alt-rag, and checking out the concert and event listings in back. In the meantime, here’s a few good spots for stepping out on the town.
- The Catalyst
Located right in the middle of Pacific Avenue, The Catalyst has been drawing national touring acts to Santa Cruz since the 1970s. The main hall fits 800 and you can sometime catch up-and-coming acts in the smaller room for a very reasonable cover.
- Moe’s Alley
Moe’s Alley consistently books great bands with an emphasis on jazz, blues, reggae, and musical traditions from around the world. The venue is intimate, the crowd is lit, and there’s a little courtyard in back where you can take in some “fresh air” during set breaks.
Thump, thump, thump, thump…. Motiv is where Santa Cruz drops the beat.
Santa Cruz Travel Logistics
Getting To Santa Cuz
Santa Cruz is a convenient day trip (or overnight) from the San Francisco Bay Area, and a perfect little pit-stop for anyone driving the legendary Route 1 that runs along the California coast.
—From San Francisco
If you’re heading to Santa Cruz from San Francisco, Route 1 is not the fastest route, but it’s among the most scenic stretches of road in the country and well worth the added time. Points of interest on your way south include a plethora of beaches, an entry point for Big Basin State Park, and Swanton Berry Farm, an organic, proudly union-powered charming rustic farmstead and u-pick.
—From the South
If you’re heading north from Los Angeles, Santa Cruz can be reached in less than six hours, making it a perfect place to stop for the night. Again, Route 1 is not the fastest route, but it will take you through the stunning beauty of Big Sur and right into the charming seaside city of Monterey, home of one of the world’s best aquariums.
From there, drive another 25-minutes up the coast to Moss Landing, where you simply must stop for a bowl of the award-winning Cioppino at Phil’s Fish Market, which has live bluegrass music most nights.
Times to Visit
August is the peak summer travel season, but the fall offers both good weather and less crowds. Winters are mild enough for monarch butterflies to overwinter.
Santa Cruz Travel Costs
Budget about $100 per day in Santa Cruz. That includes $33 for food and an average room rental of $94 per night.
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