Beat the Heat but Stay Outdoors: Summer Hikes in Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz County, California, is renowned for its stunning natural beauty and ample opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts. With temperatures rising and the sun’s power at its peak, many people might seek shelter indoors but Santa Cruz is full of great hikes that offer escapes from the heat either by the oceanside or in the forests! The region offers a plethora of trails that provide shade, coastal breezes, and even the chance to cool off in the water. Whether you’re seeking a peaceful retreat from the summer heat or just want to enjoy a leisurely walk surrounded by towering trees, here are some of the best hiking spots to beat the summer heat in Santa Cruz County.

01 | Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is a gem for those seeking shade, riverside relaxation, and serenity. The Redwood Grove Loop Trail is a short, easy hike that takes you through an ancient redwood forest. The towering trees provide ample shade, making it a perfect spot for a leisurely stroll. Don’t miss the Fremont Tree, a hollowed-out giant you can walk through. The River Trail is another great option in Henry Cowell that weaves alongside the San Lorenzo River and offers riverside rest spots where you can dip your feet or take a quick swim.

02 | Pogonip Open Space – Koi Pond

Pogonip Open Space is a lesser-known gem located just outside downtown Santa Cruz. This park can be accessed from Highway 9, UCSC, or Spring Street. The Spring Box Trail is an easy hike that winds through a dense forest, offering plenty of shade, and culminates at a boxed natural spring where koi fish swim under the redwood canopy. If you continue beyond the Spring Box, just around the corner, you can find historic lime kilns and a rock garden where visitors leave secret notes under rock cairns. This magical trail is a perfect spot for a refreshing and rewarding hike close to town.

03 | Fall Creek -River Loop

One of the best-kept secrets for summer hiking is the Fall Creek Unit of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. With its lush forest, shaded trails, and serene creek, Fall Creek offers a perfect escape from the sweltering temperatures. The Fall Creek Trail follows through a shaded canyon, providing a cool and tranquil environment. The trail features remnants of an old limekiln operation, adding a historical element to your hike. Hikers can either do an out-and-back hike to the limekilns or make a longer loop that crosses over the river at several junctions. The combination of the dense forest and the creek keeps the temperature down, making it a perfect summer hike.

04 | Maple Creek Falls Nisene Mark

Nisene Marks State Park is a peaceful retreat with over 40 miles of trails. The Old Growth Trail offers an easy hike that crosses the river with beautiful shaded views of some ancient redwood trees. For more experienced hikers, the Maple Falls trail is a moderate to advanced hike through second-growth redwoods and lush forest that ends at a small waterfall. The canopy of trees provides excellent shade, many trails run along Aptos Creek, and the serene environment is perfect for a quiet escape.

05 | Wilder Ranch State Park – Cliff Hikes

Wilder Ranch State Park offers a variety of trails with breathtaking coastal views. The Old Cove Landing Trail is a relatively easy hike that provides ocean breezes to keep you cool. The trail meanders along the cliffs, offering stunning views of the Pacific Ocean and access to secluded beaches. The coastal location ensures that the temperature remains comfortable, even in the middle of summer. Other great trails include farther up the coast at 4 Mile Beach which connects all the way back to Wilder Ranch via the coastal bluff trails.

Tips for Hiking in the Heat

  • Start Early or Late: Begin your hike early in the morning or later in the afternoon to avoid the peak heat of the day.
  • Stay Hydrated: Bring plenty of water and take regular breaks to stay hydrated.
  • Wear Appropriate Clothing: Lightweight, moisture-wicking clothing and a wide-brimmed hat can help keep you cool.
  • Use Sunscreen: Even in shaded areas, it’s essential to protect your skin from UV rays.
  • Leave No Trace: Be sure to pack out all trash and respect the natural environment. 

Santa Cruz County is a hiker’s paradise, especially for those seeking shady trails to escape the summer heat. Whether you’re looking for a short, easy walk or a more challenging trek, these trails offer a chance to immerse yourself in the beauty of the redwoods and enjoy the tranquility of nature. So lace up your hiking boots, grab a water bottle, and explore the shaded wonders of Santa Cruz County.