It’s not just sunseekers and surfers who flock to Santa Cruz County each year. Given its unique place on California’s central coast, 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. Iconic attractions such as coastal redwood forests, miles of sunny beaches, an iconic seaside amusement park and the legendary Highway 1 are just the start of places visitors can experience while in this classic California beach town.
Why Visit Santa Cruz County?
The Santa Cruz region prides itself on its classic west coast vibe. Likely brought on by the local surfing culture rooted in Hawaiian history, 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). 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 through the redwoods, on a canopy tour 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 through the everyday experiences Santa Cruzans get to enjoy.
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 drive 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, Oakland International Airport or Mineta/San Jose International Airport – which is the nearest airport to Santa Cruz County and an easy 30 mile/48 km drive.
With so much to take in while in Santa Cruz County, here are the top five things international travelers should experience when they visit:
#1 HIGHWAY 1
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.
Highway 1 is Santa Cruz’s main – and only – highway which runs through the center of the county. As the area’s main thoroughfare, it 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 comprehensive tour of everything this classic California town has to offer.
Named a National Scenic Byway by the United States Department of Transportation for its archeological, cultural, historic, 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.
#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 to have surfboards crafted for them from redwood trees. Taking their new boards to the beach, they surfed the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Santa Cruz near what is now the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, 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 an epic 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, experienced and respected 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 overlooking 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 that trace 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. Or swing by one of the O’Neill Surf Shops like the corner spot in downtown Santa Cruz and pick up a tee shirt, sweatshirt or hat and you’ll look like a local in no time.
#3 CALIFORNIA STATE PARKS
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, parts of the park are open for limited day-use access through a reservation parking system. Reservations are required, so check availability first. While the forest continues to regenerate, 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 Located in Watsonville’s bucolic Larkin Valley, the 1850 Castro Adobe State Historic Park has been brought alive through a restoration project and archeological work. The original home of Juan Jose Castro, a Mexican rancher who settled in the area, this former Castro home is one of only four adobe structures — and the only two-story property of its kind — in Santa Cruz County. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, visitors can experience a glimpse of what life was like in the 1800s during a free monthly tour. This designated California State Historical Landmark includes an original rancho cocina, a traditional Mexican kitchen and a rarity in California. Upstairs, an expansive fandango room hints at the many parties hosted at the house, which sits at the crest of a hill offering glimpses of Monterey Bay. The home is surrounded by clusters of cacti adorned with crimson-red prickly pears, a small orchard blossoming with apple, persimmon, and walnut trees and a peaceful garden dotted with magnificent old cork trees, and purple blooms of wisteria wrapping the adobe’s wooden posts. Visitors can learn to rope, make tortillas in the cocina, and enjoy speakers, music and family-friendly events.
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 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 are housed in what was a two-story former indoor swimming pool complete with a miniature golf course and a variety of classic arcade games. The Boardwalk also hosts free and fun events year-around and seasonal live music. Adjacent to 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 to 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 during Memorial Day Weekend, Thomas the Tank Engine, Moonlight Train Rides, a holiday lights train and more.
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-owned company switched gears when Prohibition began in 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 of all ages to sample a variety of combinations of sparkling juice like apple-pear, apple-mango, apple-pomegranate, apple-marionberry, and other blends. A tasting bar will make you feel like you’re at a winery, and Martinelli historical 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 over 70 wineries of 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 which pre-dates Prohibition in the United States. The Corralitos Wine Trail is home to Storrs Winery, Alfaro Family Vineyards and Winery, Lester Estate Wines, and Nicholson Vineyards in the mid-county town of Corralitos, a peaceful bucolic setting that is a calmer departure from larger, wine-forward destinations. The wine tasting experience in Santa Cruz County is a personal one: visitors can meet and chat with the winemaker who pours wine on weekends. 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 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 map of Santa Cruz-area locations 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 experiencing some of the “hidden gems” within the county: the local spots that 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 and its 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.