All Photos by Garrick Ramirez
Santa Cruz County covers a lot of scenic ground. And while nothing beats a good hike, bike or swim, sometimes a lazy drive is the best way to see it all. When we’re out exploring, we love referencing Mobile Ranger, a free locally-designed app and informative website that links forgotten stories and curious facts with the places that surround us. Below, we’ve shared some of our favorite scenic drives — as well as ways to enhance your outings with Mobile Ranger — because you know Santa Cruz will never steer you wrong.
North Coast & Highway 1: Coastal Farms & Hidden Beaches
Wow, wow, and wow are the three words that best describe this seaside route which radiates with coastal splendor. Heading south from San Francisco or Half Moon Bay, your welcome to Santa Cruz County is Waddell Beach, whose ever-present waves are filled with brave wind and kite surfers, and Rancho del Oso, a wonderful nature center ringed by hiking trails. Around the bend, you’ll be lured by fresh strawberries — and the pies and shortcakes they inspire — of Swanton Berry Farm’s quaint farm stand. When you’ve had your fill, head further south until you reach the charming town of Davenport that’s perched on coastal bluffs that hide insanely beautiful beaches (check out this itinerary for some of our recs). Before reaching Santa Cruz proper, you can detour into Wilder Ranch State Park whose Old Cove Landing Trail lends a front row view of the area’s dramatic coastline.
Mobile Ranger has a great North Coast Tour that is loaded with stories such as how Wilder Ranch nearly became a huge housing development and tips for spotting the difference between vibrant Bermuda Buttercup and Wild Mustard flowers that blanket the area in spring.
West Cliff Drive: Quintessential Santa Cruz
Scenery abounds on this three-mile promenade that sports knockout views of the Monterey Bay and links Santa Cruz’s most prominent attractions. Start at the sculptural sea stacks of Natural Bridges State Beach, a popular destination for both beachgoers and migrating Monarch butterflies alike, and head east. You’ll wind your way along ice plant-covered cliffs and scenic beach coves with numerous places to stop and spark your Instagram feed. One good example is the the iconic Mark Abbott lighthouse which houses the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum. From this scenic point you can marvel at surfers shredding legendary surf spot Steamer Lane and watch playful pups frolic at adjacent Its Beach. Continue north, skirting the grand homes of what was once Millionaires’ Row, and you’ll be treated to one of the best views in town: the stunning Monterey Bay filled with paddle boarders inching their way alongside the Wharf, colorful umbrellas dotting the sand of Main & Cowell beaches, and the twirling rides of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.
You’ll enjoy two Mobile Ranger tours on this trek. The West Cliff Drive tour has visitors seeking out “toilet bowls”, pickling ice plant (yep, you read that right) and learning what historical and geological factors made Santa Cruz a world-famous surf destination. The Santa Cruz Ecotour explores our famous Wharf — the longest woodpile pier in the nation — and its rich marine life. You’ll also want to check out this Marine Life Guide to note which seasons bring what animals to the Monterey Bay.
Highway 9 through the San Lorenzo Valley: The Land of Redwoods
The twists and turns of beautiful Highway 9 transport motorists from downtown Santa Cruz to the historic mountain towns and majestic redwood forests of the San Lorenzo Valley. Start at the beginning, near The Tannery Arts Center, and follow Highway 9 north as it wends alongside the San Lorenzo River and logging-era railroad tracks. You’ll pass the entrance to Henry Cowell Redwoods before arriving in downtown Felton. From Felton, you can peel off at Felton Empire Road and follow it up and over a forested ridge, through Bonny Doon, and out to the coast just south of Davenport. Or continue up Highway 9 through the charming towns of Ben Lomond, Brookdale, and Boulder Creek to explore this hidden valley that’s rich with historic lore. You can extend your trip by following Highway 236 to the ancient redwoods of Big Basin, California’s first state park.
The San Lorenzo River originates in the Santa Cruz Mountains and flows out to the Monterey Bay right next to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Mobile Ranger put together a three-mile walking tour of the river that lends great insight into this unique urban waterway.
South County Sprint: Fields of Green
The southern parts of Santa Cruz County — what locals simply refer to as “South County” — is blanketed in vast agriculture fields and wetlands that teem with wildlife. To tour this oft-overlooked region, take Highway One and exit at Buena Vista Drive -- which should lend some hint to how good the views will be -- and follow it as it slowly winds through green hills before ending at San Andreas Road. Turn left and you’ll soon be engulfed by endless fields of leafy Brussels sprouts fields. Keep an eye out for a sign that points toward Sunset State Beach whose glorious stretch of sand would make a great side trip. As you continue on San Andreas, you’ll cross the Watsonville Slough, one of numerous waterways the cut through the area and host an astounding variety of bird life. When the road ends at Beach Drive, you can head right to explore the oceanfront dunes at Pajaro Dunes Resort or turn left into Watsonville where you can enjoy the activities that we’ve collected here.
Corralitos Wine Country: Vineyard Views
The rolling vineyards and apple orchards of Santa Cruz’s wine country await you on this peaceful countryside drive. Exit Highway One at Freedom and head northeast, waving at our friends at Sand Rock Farm as you zip past. Bear left at Hames Road and (after a quick dogleg at Pleasant Valley Road) follow it to the wonderful vineyards of Alfaro Family Winery. We love their sheltered back patio where you can taste through numerous varietals-- including exceptional Pinot Noirs -- in a picture perfect setting. If you continue on Hames, you’ll soon arrive at Corralitos Market & Sausage Company, a favorite among locals for house-smoked meats, sausages, and sandwiches. From here, follow Brown’s Valley Road and you’ll soon be immersed in fields of atmospheric apple orchards. If you have the time, there’s one more hidden treasure waiting around the bend: Byrne Forest, a land preserve with miles of oak and redwood covered trails. To reach Byrne Forest, continue on Brown’s Valley Road as it wends alongside Brown’s Valley Creek, turn left at a somewhat obscured sign Roses of Yesterday & Today and follow the narrow road straight for one mile.