The Santa Cruz area offers a rich array of natural beauty and an endless supply of gorgeous hiking trails. From coastal trails to forest treks, some of the best hikes in Santa Cruz County are waterfall hikes! Whether you’re visiting in the winter when the water is rushing or in summer when the rainfall lessens, these five waterfall hikes feature year-long running water for you to enjoy.
1. ) Fall Creek, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
- Distance: ~3-5 miles
- Difficulty: Beginner to Intermediate
The Fall Creek sector of Henry Cowell State Park has the perfect waterfall hike for adventurers of all ages since the park offers a wealth of trail options with waterfalls at different points along the trek. Whether you have little kids and only want to do the out-and-back flat portion of the trail, or if you’re an advanced hiker looking for a challenge by hiking the full loop or even the recently reopened trails up to Big Ben, this park is full of great options for hikers of all levels. To get to this waterfall, park at the main Fall Creek parking lot and follow the Bennet Creek Trail to the South Fork Trail. This route will take you to the top of the trail, where a natural spring-fed waterfall comes directly from the forest floor under the ruins of old lime kilns.
2. ) Maple Falls, The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park
- Distance: ~8 miles
- Difficulty: Intermediate
Among the endless trails in The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park, Maple Falls has to be one of the best! This intermediate-level hike varies in distance depending on which parking lot you begin your hike. From the entrance kiosk parking lot, it is approximately 10 miles, but from the farther Porter Family Picnic Area, it is about 8 miles round trip on this out-and-back trail to the waterfall. On this hike, you weave deep into the redwood forests along Aptos Creek, following the Loma Prieta Grade Trail to the Bridge Creek Trail. Please note that there are several small streams you must cross at the end of this trail, so come prepared with proper footwear!
3. ) Eagle Creek Falls, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
- Distance: ~3 miles
- Difficulty: Beginner to Intermediate
Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park has countless awesome trails for hikers of all levels, and you can combine this waterfall hike with so many other trails to create the perfect customizable hike for your level. To get to the Eagle Creek Waterfall, you can begin at the visitor center and either start on the first half of the Big Trees Loop or follow the River Trail directly to the base of Eagle Creek. The waterfall cascades down the hill from a babbling brook into the San Lorenzo River. Hiking the River Trail to the base of Eagle Creek and back is the perfect flat hike for people with young kids or beginning-level hikers. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can hike all the way up along Eagle Creek and loop back on any of the numerous trails that lead back to the visitor center.
4. ) Scott Creek Beach Waterfall
- Distance: ~2 miles
- Difficulty: Beginner
- NOTE: This waterfall can only be reached at low tide, so be sure to check tidal charts before attempting to reach this location.
Just north of Santa Cruz along Highway 1 is Scott Creek Beach. This rugged coastal beach has a main sandy beach area, but if you head north on the beach, you can walk under the cliffs when the tide is low to discover this cascading waterfall. Since there is no official trail to follow to find this awesome spot, you must walk along the beach until you reach the cliffs and keep going until you spot the waterfall about a mile out! Depending on the time of year, you may have to cross a river to reach this area. Please be sure to visit only during low tide when it is safe to walk out onto the rocks because this area is inaccessible during high tide.
5. ) Castle Rock State Park Waterfall
- Distance: 1.2 miles
- Difficulty: Beginner-Moderate
High up in the Santa Cruz Mountains is the expansive Castle Rock State Park, which has a 70ft waterfall. From the main parking lot, you will descend the 1.2-mile out-and-back trail down to the waterfall viewing platform, where you get a great view of the surrounding mountains as you look down on the falls. During the summer, the waterfall is often reduced to a trickle, but the view is still well worth the hike down to this beautiful spot. If you want the full effect of this natural waterfall, definitely hike here in the winter after a good rain!
Remember to come fully prepared for all hikes by carrying adequate water, wearing proper hiking attire, and for coastal hikes, always remember to check tides to ensure you don’t get stuck somewhere if the tide comes in quickly. When visiting these gorgeous natural wonders, be sure to pack your trash and leave no trace. Restrooms and trash cans may not be readily accessible at these locations, so be prepared to pack out any trash you bring in with you. Help us preserve the beauty of these places by respecting the environment and recreating responsibly.