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5 Experiences for Your Unforgettable Trip to Santa Cruz County, California

Where the mountains meet the coast.

By: Sara Sheehy + Save to a List

Sunny beaches, trails winding through old-growth forests, refreshing rivers, and picturesque coastline — Santa Cruz has it all. Whether you’re into adventures on land or on the sea, this hip city on California’s central coast delivers.

Travel Tips

  • Best Time to Visit: Year-round 
  • Weather: Average temperatures ranging from high of 76F to low of 41F
  • Distance from Bay Area hubs: 75 miles from San Francisco; 30 miles from San Jose
  • Don't get lost in the expanse of the East Side or the West Side of Santa Cruz. We think each side of the city has amazing beaches, active adventures and delicious places to eat. With so many great places to explore, we suggest a return trip! 

Here are 5 must-do experiences for your next trip to Santa Cruz. 

1. Get Your Feet Wet

Whether you're planning a beach day with the whole family or a want to get in a few turns on great waves, Santa Cruz has you covered.

Photo courtesy of Visit Santa Cruz County

Santa Cruz has 29 miles of coastline, and each section of it offers something unique to discover. Unlike the oceanfront just a bit further south, Santa Cruz’s coast is rugged and striking, with enough cliffs plunging down into the surf to be dramatic, and enough open beaches to satisfy every type of adventurer.

Capitola Beach is the perfect place for families. The playful surf and soft sand make it the ideal spot for young (or beginner) surfers, and it’s pet-friendly to boot. There are several fire pits, too, for enjoying a beach bonfire as the sun goes down. More experienced surfers will want to check out Natural Bridges State Beach, Pleasure Point, and Steamer Lane especially during sizable swells. Want to feel the rush of catching your first wave? Check out our friends at Surf School Santa Cruz to get you ready to hit the water at Cowells or Pleasure Point. 

Inside Tip: Treat yourself to a breakfast burrito at The Point Market or Taqueria los Pericos after your surf or bring one to eat at the beach! 

2. Hit the Trail

From majestic redwoods, to miles of ocean views to stunning waterfalls, Santa Cruz County has miles of incredible trails for hiking and walking.

Photo courtesy of Benjamin Canevari

Santa Cruz may be known for its Pacific Coast frontage, but there’s no denying that it offers spectacular adventures on land, too. To the east of the city lies the redwood-covered foothills and mountains of the Santa Cruz range, which stretch from San Francisco all the way to the Monterey Bay. 

Enjoy a day in the mountains with a hike in one of Santa Cruz’s 14 state parks and beaches. Check out the River Trail in Henry Cowell Redwood State Park for a relaxing jaunt through the forest and the chance to hop into a refreshing swimming hole in the San Lorenzo River. For something a bit more challenging, hike to the Limestone Kilns and Big Ben Redwood, also in Henry Cowell Redwood State Park.

Inside Tip: If it's rained recently, and you're ready for a bit longer hike (~11 miles) spend a little more time driving to Big Basin Redwoods State Park. This scenic hike is topped off with views of Berry Creek Falls.

3. Cruise Santa Cruz on Two Wheels

The adventurous can head out on the miles of mountain biking trails for all skill levels. Those looking for a scenic, friendly ride -- grab a beach cruiser and take in the sights along the coast.  

Photo courtesy of Garrick Ramirez and Visit Santa Cruz County

If exploring by bike is more your style, Santa Cruz has plenty of routes for you. Mountain bikers will want to make their way to the Soquel Demonstration Forest to ride the flow trail, which is ranked as one of the best in the United States. Other options include the grasslands loop through Wilder Ranch State Park and the gentle cruise through Pogonip park on the Emma McCrary Trail.

For some family-friendly, seaside rides, check out the promenade on West Cliff Drive and the big views from Pleasure Point to Capitola-by-the-Sea.

Inside Tip: If you're planning to ride along the coastmake a quick stop at Cafe Iveta to pick up some snack essentials and find your scenic picnic spot along your ride to enjoy your treats!

4. Offbeat Destinations

Grab some snacks and get the family ready to explore these great attractions! 

Photo courtesy of Garrick Ramirez and Visit Santa Cruz County

Throughout Santa Cruz, you’ll find offbeat spots that defy categorization and are absolutely worth a visit (especially if you're looking for family-friendly places to explore). One of these is the Monarch Grove at Natural Bridges State Park, where you can see thousands of Monarch butterflies from late fall through the winter. Another destination for nature lovers is the University of California Santa Cruz’s Arboretum, which is full of native and exotic plants and attracts a steady population of hummingbirds, butterflies, and other beautiful fliers.

Other cool things to do include a train ride through the redwoods on a 19th-century steam locomotive with Roaring Camp Railroads, and a visit to the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum.

Inside Tip: Keep the kiddos excited with a post exploration treat at The Penny Ice Creamery.

5. Win a Vacation Getaway!

This spring, Visit Santa Cruz County is giving away a two night, three day stay in Santa Cruz. The winner will receive a stay in a two bedroom condo at Pajaro Dunes Resort, a $150 gift certificate to Capitola Village, a craft bar experience for four at Annieglass Studios, and four tickets each to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and Roaring Camp Railroads.


Cover photos courtesy of Alex Souza

Additional Info

Looking to stay the night or weekend in Santa Cruz? Check out 4 Ways to Stay in Santa Cruz.

Want an off-the-beaten path place to grab a bite, give one of these 3 Ways to Fuel Your Days in Santa Cruz a try. 

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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