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.