I know the Mamas and the Papas were singing an ode to Los Angeles, but to me Santa Cruz is the epitome of “California Dreamin'”. The city is nestled between a rugged coastline renowned for surfing and forests thick with towering redwood trees. Colorful towns cling to the cliffs and dogs frolic on crescent-shaped beaches. It’s no wonder the tech workers of nearby Silicon Valley flock here on weekends to relax. Here are some of the exciting things you can expect to do in Santa Cruz.
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
The most famous attraction in town is the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. This iconic seaside amusement park has been in continuous operation since it opened in 1907. It is home to two historic landmarks: a wooden roller coaster called the Giant Dipper and a beautiful hand-carved carousel. You must purchase tickets outside the gates to go on the rides, but otherwise the boardwalk is free to enter.
West Cliff Drive
My favorite thing to do in Santa Cruz is to take in the scenery along West Cliff Drive. The road hugs three miles of the coast, stretching from the downtown Santa Cruz Wharf to Natural Bridges State Beach. Along the way you’ll find scenic overlooks aplenty. (Parking may be less easy to come by, so pack your patience.)
Lighthouse Point is a great spot to take in the action of Steamer Lane, a famous surf break. The historic brick lighthouse now holds a small museum dedicated to the history of surfing in Santa Cruz. (Hawaiian princes are said to have introduced the sport there in the 1880s.) A bronze statue of a surfer with his board gazes longingly out to the water. Don’t leave the area without getting a plate of fresh fish tacos from Steamer Lane Supply.
Capitola claims to be the first beach resort in California, having welcomed visitors as far back as the 1870s. But today’s charming village is a far cry from the original rustic camping site. A rainbow of holiday rentals rings the beach which has direct access to a slew of trendy shops and restaurants. If you want to splash out on a special meal, head up Soquel Creek to Shadowbrook Restaurant. This elegant eatery has been a Capitola mainstay since 1947. The creek-side dining room is reached via a vintage red cable car or a staircase that winds through a lush garden. The menu features classic American fare like clam chowder, lobster tails, and prime rib. Top-notch service and retro cocktails complete the experience. Note that Shadowbrook does enforce a dress code.
Drive four miles south of Capitola and you’ll reach the village of Aptos. Once home to a successful logging industry, the town is now popular for hiking and biking through the regrowth. Seacliff State Beach is the final resting place for the SS Palo Alto, a beloved local landmark. The Cement Ship was built for WWI but the war ended before it could be put into service. Instead, it was parked at the end of a fishing pier and turned into an entertainment complex that saw its heyday during the Roaring Twenties. Now the only ones having a raucous good time are the birds and sealions that have colonized the shipwreck. I recommend watching the sunset here with a scoop or two of Marianne’s Ice Cream. The Mexican chocolate with cinnamon is my flavor of choice.
Roaring Camp Railroad
Difficult as it is to leave the beach behind, no trip to Santa Cruz would be complete without a visit to a redwood forest. The Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park offers many hiking trails and boasts a grove of old-growth trees that are over 1,500 years old. For a more unique experience, head to the Roaring Camp Railroad. Here you can ride an authentic 1890 locomotive over narrow-gauge tracks that wind through the forest. The 75-minute journey is narrated by a knowledgeable guide who explains both the history of the area and the mechanics of the steam engine. The company also offers a longer train ride from the mountains down to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Trains depart from a recreated Old West town replete with a sheriff’s office and general store.
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Want to extend your California adventure? Continue down the coast to Carmel-by-the-Sea and Big Sur. This guide will help get you there.