Top 5 Ways to Enjoy Winter in Santa Cruz County

Santa Cruz is great year-round, but the winter months offer some very special reasons to visit our beach town that you might not expect. During the winter months, Santa Cruz gets quieter, and life moves slower. If you’re interested in experiencing Santa Cruz like a local, winter time is your chance! While Santa Cruz is known for soaking up the sunshine in the summer months, winter provides a unique way to experience some of Santa Cruz’s best features, like huge waves, extremely low tides, and even monarch migrations! If you’re considering exploring Santa Cruz in the winter, here’s a short list of the top 5 best ways to enjoy the area during the holiday season.

Yearly Christmas decorations on the historic homes of Walnut Avenue

1. ) Go Christmas Lights Viewing

Watching Santa Cruz come to life with Christmas lights is the best way to get in the spirit of winter festivities! December kicks off with the Lighted Boat Parade at the Harbor where 50 beautifully-decorated power and sailboats parade through the Santa Cruz Harbor. This year, you can watch the boat parade at 5:30 pm on December 2nd, 2023. Another great spot for Christmas lights and decorations is Farley’s Christmas Wonderland in Midtown, a walk-in Christmas experience. This festive exhibit celebrates the traditional wonders of Christmas and visitors can wander through elf villages, sit on fairy benches, and enjoy the holiday spirit. Over at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds Holiday Lights, enjoy 1/2 mile of giant Christmas trees twinkling with lights, Santa, reindeer, snowmen, lighted tunnels, and many more magical moments. Across all of Santa Cruz, locals get in the holiday spirit and decorate their homes with fantastic displays of Christmas lights you have to see to believe. From iconic homes like 2580 Bean Creek Rd in Scotts Valley to neighborhoods like Depot Hill in Capitola, just driving around to find your favorite decorations is a wonderful way to enjoy winter here in Santa Cruz.

Wild Mushrooms in the Santa Cruz Mountains

2. ) Enjoy All Things Fungus

Mushroom hunting or foraging is a huge part of the Santa Cruz local culture in the winter months when higher rains lead to mushroom booms in the forests! After the first rain of the season, mushrooms begin to crop up everywhere in the natural spaces in Santa Cruz. Some of the best spots to go see mushrooms are the UCSC upper campus and Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. Whether you’re a full-blown mycophile or just interested in discovering the bountiful world of mushrooms here in Santa Cruz, there are events happening all winter long for all levels of interest. From guided mushroom walks with the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History to the Fungus Fair happening this January 12-14th, the winter season is truly mushroom time! The Fungus Fair is celebrating a very special anniversary this year by commemorating its 50th year of bringing together the community over a shared love of the fungal kingdom! If you’re less interested in mushroom hikes, or expert-guided mushroom hunting expeditions, you can always enjoy delicious fungus-forward foods at Far West Fungi, which has one of the best grilled cheeses in town! Always remember to be safe when mushroom foraging and consult experts before attempting to eat or pick them for yourself. Be sure to follow collection guidelines since California State Parks don’t allow for mushroom picking for personal use but enjoy looking at the beautiful bounty that nature creates right in our own backyards!

Sea Anemones and Abalone Shells in a tide pool at Scott Creek Beach

3. ) Experience the Natural Wonders of Winter

From the forests to the sea, the winter season in Santa Cruz brings an abundance of natural wonders you don’t want to miss, like witnessing the monarch migration or going tide pooling during King tides.The Monarch butterflies congregate in Santa Cruz and the wider Monterey area around mid-October through mid-February, with a peak season of November – December. In Natural Bridges State Beach, one of the best spots for butterfly viewing, visitors can see the butterflies cluster on the eucalyptus branches and form a “city in the trees,” according to State Park officials. Another great natural wonder of winter is the yearly predictable tidal event known as King Tides, which features the year’s highest and lowest tides. This year’s King Tides will take place on January 11 and 12, 2024, and February 9, 2024, however, there are even more dates with these extreme tides! Extreme low tides (and high tides) will be present on the days leading up to and after the dates listed. Winter is also the best time to enjoy our other small creatures, like the banana slug or the California newt, which emerge during the winter’s wetter months.

Waterfalls at the top of the Lime Kiln Trail in Fall Creek

4. ) Hike Waterfalls and River Trails

Winter is one of the best times for hiking on trails with rivers and waterfalls, like in Henry Cowell State Park and Fall Creek. The increased rainfall rejuvenates the landscapes, turning the lush trails into a canvas of vibrant greens and cascading rivers. One of the most enchanting winter activities is embarking on hikes along the many water features that come to life during this season. Santa Cruz boasts an array of spectacular trails, where rivers and waterfalls take center stage, like the Lime Kiln Trail, which follows along a rushing river and offers several different waterfalls to enjoy. The winter rains transform these normally tranquil waterways into dynamic, rushing currents, adding an extra layer of excitement to the adventure. Whether you’re an avid hiker or a casual nature lover, exploring Santa Cruz’s water-centric trails during the winter unveils a captivating beauty that is unique to this season. This is also the perfect time to see banana slugs and newts along the damp forest trails!

The Sunset from West Cliff Drive

5. ) Watch Spectacular Winter Sunsets

During the winter months here in Santa Cruz, the sunsets are truly phenomenal. The early setting sun sets the sky on fire with deep rich pink, orange, and red colors that will leave you awestruck. Santa Cruz winters bring cooler weather and rain, resulting in low humidity and crisp clean air. As a result, the winter air contains fewer particulates that can dull sunset colors or leave the air looking hazy. The daily light show of sunsets that look more like paintings than reality is best viewed in the Santa Cruz area between November and February. Find the best sunset viewing spots in the winter along West Cliff Drive or north at the beaches and bluffs along highway 1 near Davenport like Four Mile Beach or Davenport Landing.