With brilliant sunshine and ideal temperatures, Santa Cruz was an excellent place to regain our balance.
The Mellow Central Coast
Sandwiched between the major population centers of northern and southern California, the central coast is mellow and easy to navigate. We do our best to avoid big cities, unless we have a compelling reason to visit. But with a population of about 60,000, Santa Cruz is still small enough to be considered a town. The community revolves around the university (UC Santa Cruz), and exudes a lively, creative energy—the official motto of the college is “The Original Authority On Questioning Authority.”
Santa Cruz is known for its moderate climate, spectacular coastline, and surfing. This is where it all began: In July of 1885, three teenage Hawaiian princes took a vacation from boarding school in nearby San Mateo, and on redwood plank surfboards introduced surfing to continental North America. They start young and keep on going here—we saw hundreds of people from 9 to 90 riding the waves.
Even if you’re not a surfer, you’ll have a good time in Santa Cruz. We spent our days taking long walks on the beach, biking along the gorgeous shoreline of cliffs, exploring the town, and of course, watching the surfers.
Here, the highlights of our time in Santa Cruz:
New Brighton and Seacliff State Beaches
Remarkably uncrowded, these lovely beaches are connected, and offer about a mile-and-a-half of coastline. There’s easy access, too—just walk down the stairs along the cliff from New Brighton State Beach Campground, and you’re on the beach. Perfect.
The beach is especially beautiful at sunset, making even the somewhat odd concrete wreck offshore picturesque. The boat was built during WWI but never commissioned; instead it was turned into a fine dining/ballroom/amusement center in 1930, and a pier was built leading to the ship. Unfortunately the venture went belly up after only two years, but the ship remains stuck in the shallows, 85 years later. It’s now a popular hangout for sea birds.
West Cliff Drive Bike Path
This fabulous multi-use path runs for 3.5 miles along dramatic cliffs with a spectacular vista of the Pacific Ocean. We easily found parking near the Santa Cruz Beach boardwalk and biked west along the wharf to small and lovely Lighthouse Field State Beach, where the posted signs said “Dogs must be leashed” and at least 20 dogs ran wild and free.
The beach is also home to a historic lighthouse turned small surfing museum filled with retro surfboards and artifacts from over a century of surfing in Santa Cruz.
We biked past an enormous bronze surfer sculpture (pictured in the header photo), and enjoyed watching scores of surfers test their skills in famous and treacherous Steamer Lane. The trail ends at Natural Bridges State Park, another pretty, small beach with a great sunset view.
This is a beautiful path to bike or stroll—don’t miss it if you visit Santa Cruz.
Natural Bridges State Park
The West Cliff Drive trail ends at Natural Bridges State Beach, with its scenic namesake rock formation. From mid-October to late January, the park is home to thousands of migrating monarch butterflies. They rest in the park’s grove of eucalyptus trees—they look like dead leaves until you see one flutter. The trees provide shelter from the wind, as well as winter blossoms that are a good nectar source.
Just a bit further is the Seymour Marine Discovery Center—well worth a couple of hours. It’s part of the University of Santa Cruz and offers interesting displays on local marine life, with knowledgable docents and students eager to share their knowledge. There are a couple of enormous gray whale skeletons outside, touch tanks inside, and tours of the labs by reservation, which we would love to do next time.
Santa Cruz Arboretum
The University of California at Santa Cruz Arboretum is a relaxing way to spend a couple of hours. Eric and I wandered the grounds, enjoying the idyllic weather and the unusual collections of plants from Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, all plants compatible with the Mediterranean climate of central California.
Downtown Santa Cruz
Katherine and I took off on our own to explore downtown Santa Cruz. Our guys try to be accommodating, but it’s most definitely not the same thing as feeling really free to linger to our heart’s desire perusing shops and galleries (without having to watch our partners’ eyes glaze over). We left Eric and Ted behind and enjoyed a fun day doing exactly as we pleased—including mid-morning mochas at Verve followed by caffeine-fueled browsing every shop on Pacific Avenue.
We had a hard time choosing between all of the excellent restaurants and cafés in Santa Cruz, but settled on Laili because of the unique cuisine—Middle Eastern with an Afghan twist. Lamb kebabs, saffron rice, pomegranate-glazed chicken, roasted cauliflower and asparagus…it was all delicious!
We topped off dinner with a trip down the street to the Penny Ice Creamery, a local shop that makes small batches of unique organic ice cream. Katherine and I chose Candy Cap Mushroom, made from local wild-crafted mushrooms. It sounds totally bizarre, but it was the best ice cream ever—the mushrooms have an intoxicating flavor something like maple syrup, but better.
Where We Stayed
We enjoyed a peaceful stay at New Brighton State Beach; it’s just five miles south of Santa Cruz. There’s also camping right on the beach at Seacliff State Beach just a mile down the road. The view of the ocean is spectacular at Seacliff, but the lack of privacy made it not as appealing. California State Parks on the coast are expensive, at $50-$55 a night ($35 for no-hook ups). But it was worth it, especially after our parking lot adventure our first night out.
New Brighton SB has water and electric hookups and showers. The sites are spacious, and the campground is dark at night, quiet, and peaceful. Our Verizon coverage was good. Best of all is the proximity to the beautiful beach.
So great to see you aren’t still in a parking lot somewhere next to wallyworld. Considering your first night things can only get better from there. Gas here is $1.91 at Arco. Hopefully CA has followed suit so you can have more spending cash for great campsites and “stuff” you really want.
Brenda, we are delighted to have upgraded from a parking lot to a campsite near the beach in California. The price of gas is definitely making it easy to travel. Time for you guys to get that Casita on the road!
That girls outing sounds like my cup of tea or rather coffee. Glad you all are having a great time :-)
Ingrid, I could get really spoiled having a girlfriend along on this trip.:-)
My oldest son lived there for just over a year and this post brings back wonderful memories of a favorite little town. He walked to Natural Bridges from work each day to eat his lunch (nice!).Your photos are beautiful – love the old boat out of water. You look grand surrounded by purple :-) I never got to see the Monarchs – what a special treat!
Thanks, Jodee—I love purple. :-) It must have been fun visiting your son in Santa Cruz—how lucky he was to be in walking distance of such a beautiful beach! It’s a wonderful town.
I’ve been in San Jose all January, helping my Dad, and got a couple of day trips “over the hill.” Need to be closer than Portland for a while, so Rick and I are thinking of moving to Santa Cruz. One of my favorite places!
Kim, that’s big news that you guys are thinking of moving! I understand why you would need to be closer to your dad, and Santa Cruz is certainly a lovely option. I can imagine you and Rick being happy there.
Love that gorgeous rock arch at Natural Bridges Beach!! The water is so blue around the surfers. We enjoyed watching them while in San Diego, also. Mushroom Ice Cream sounds…odd. Glad it was tasty:) Laurel, I love the photo of you surrounded by the beautiful purple flowers:)
Pam, I thought the mushroom ice cream was totally bizarre until I (bravely) tasted it. It was delicious! I even found a recipe for Candy Cap Mushroom ice cream on Epicurious. I might try making it sometime. :-)
Love Santa Cruz! Both my husband & younger are Banana Slugs. Did you happen to discover Emily’s Bakery? It’s one of the best! And it has such a sweet sign over the entryway: “Relax. You have plenty of time.”
Say hi to the sea otters for me!
Gretchen, how fun that you have two Banana Slugs in the family! Santa Cruz is way cool. We did discover Emily’s Bakery—such a sweet place—but at the time opted for wine tasting next door. We saw lots of sea otters in Morro Bay—coming up in our next post!
We do need those girlfriend time away from hubbies. Perhaps the caravanning is now growing on you.
What can I say, posing in front of your favorite color was a good contrast with your blue shirt.
ML, we’re having a blast caravanning together! Purple has been my favorite color forever. I can’t seem to get away from it. :-)
We have been looking to take a trip to the central coast so your post was quite timely Laurel. Santa Cruz looks to have so much to offer. I understand how wonderful it is to have a girlfriend along for the ride. I discovered how much I had missed that when we settled into Jojoba Hills.
Santa Cruz is really lovely, LuAnn. I think you’ll find a lot to enjoy there. I’d go back anytime! And yes, having a girlfriend along is wonderful!
It’s true, I did read this and did comment and I think my bad connection our last days at Myakka must have eaten it. BUT…….blabberfingers that I am, I can do it again with hopefully better results. I definitely started singing the song when I saw the title of this post. I sure wish you guys were my tour guides. I have never seen a eucalyptus blossom or a sky more beautiful than your second picture or bagpipes on the beach or resting monarch butterflies and it’s been years since I’ve seen waves that big. What a great post this is. I am just amazed that you simply tool on down the coast in the winter in California with no reservations and stay in these fantastic places. You have some sort of super mojo for sure. I am SO SICK of having to make reservations.
I’m with you, Sherry — we hate making reservations! We know we’ve been lucky. The coast of California is just fabulous, especially the central coast. But it’s not always quite so sunny and warm in the winter, which may be why we haven’t had to make reservations. :-)