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Santa Cruz, California

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Personality Types that Like it Best

Did You Know … ?

  • Hawaiian royalty introduced surfing to the U.S. mainland at Santa Cruz (1885).
  • California’s first highway, El Camino Real, connected Spanish missions.
  • The sports mascot at UC Santa Cruz is a banana slug, a yellow mollusk found in nearby redwood forests.
  • O’Neill Wetsuits, based in Santa Cruz, is credited with inventing the modern wetsuit (c. 1952).
  • By the 1960s, loggers had cut nearly 90% of America’s original 2 million-plus acres of redwoods.

A surfin’ town

Santa Cruz is, for starters, a California beach town in a naturally beautiful setting. It faces south onto Monterey Bay with the Santa Cruz Mountains at its back to the northwest.

But this town has a special claim to fame in the watery world of beach locations because this is where fate put Hawaiian surfers together with ideal conditions for riding the waves and, thereby, brought surfing to the American mainland. Nowadays, Santa Cruz attracts top surfers from around the world, but the city has beaches suitable for beginners, as well.

Santa Cruz was the site of one of 21 religious missions built by the Spanish (1769-1823). From about the time California joined the union (1850), the city and surrounding Santa Cruz County evolved into a center for lumbering (cutting redwoods) and agricultural businesses that still produce flowers, strawberries, vegetables plus grapes for wine.

The railroad (operational in 1880) brought tourists, which turned local minds to preservation — California’s first state park, Big Basin Redwoods State Park, was created in 1902 — and construction of the city’s first (and still most popular) tourist attraction, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in 1906.

The beachfront amusement park boasts a 1911 carousel and a 1924 wooden roller coaster, both National Historic Landmarks. The park also offers state-of-the-art rides and other entertainment. Visitors enjoy the beaches and harbor in other ways, too, lazing on the sand, paddling a kayak or chartering a sailboat.

Santa Cruz sits at the edge of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Whale watching cruises are a natural. Additionally, the Seymour Marine Discovery Center offers close-up views of unusual sea creatures.

The Santa Cruz experience includes a pedestrian-friendly downtown replete with boutiques, galleries and public art. Also, there are nightclubs that often feature live music; outdoor bistros, and other eateries emphasizing locally grown foods and seafood while offering wine from the Santa Cruz Mountains.

The area’s natural attractions include Natural Bridges State Park, noted for the seasonal appearance of Monarch butterflies; parks for admiring redwoods or even watching theater amidst them, and not least the local wine region.

Things to do for Venturers

  • If you are up for this, Waddell Beach north of Santa Cruz is a top spot for daredevil kiteboarders.
  • Check out Moe’s Alley, a venue offering live music six nights a week. The shows cover most music genres. The Kuumbwa Jazz Center, eclectic nightclubs and free summer beach concerts are among the other venues for live music.
  • Hike the 12-mile Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail in Big Basin Redwoods State Park, which takes you on an unbroken path from redwoods in the mountains to Pacific Coast beaches. Tuck a camera into your kit.
  • Slow down; mellow out. Plan a wine tasting tour into the Santa Cruz Mountains.
  • If you are expert, ride the waves at Santa Cruz’s legendary Steamer Lane surfing spot. Alternatively, learn to surf at nearby Cowell Beach. Dry off for a visit to the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum.
  • Rent a kayak at the harbor, or rent a stand-up paddleboard as a somewhat different way to move around on the water.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Spend serious play time at Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Ride the 1924 Giant Dipper wooden coaster and the restored 1911 Looff carousel.
  • Watch elephant seals act out during breeding season (December to March) at Ano Nuevo State Reserve in Pescadero, about 20 miles north of the city. Ano Nuevo is one of the world’s two mainland seal-breeding colonies.  Also, join a guided walk, available by reservation only, along the dunes in the reserve.
  • Ride the rails. The Roaring Camp Railroads in Felton in the Santa Cruz Mountains offer roundtrip sightseeing excursions on two railways, both departing from Felton, one heading to Bear Mountain, the other to the Boardwalk (or from the Boardwalk to Felton). Time your train excursion to participate in one of the railroads’ special events such as its Musical Saw Festival with its saw-off competition.
  • See and hear Shakespeare in the redwoods. An outdoor glen and the iconic trees provide the backdrop to the summertime open-air productions.
  • Go to the Seymour Marine Discovery Center and learn more about what is in the water. For the same reason (sort of), visit the fish markets at the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf, then eat in one of its seafood restaurants.
  • Head to Big Basin Redwood State Park to see some of the state’s world-renowned redwood trees, or see them at nearby Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. Both parks are good places to hike.

Things to do for Authentics

  • See a theatrical production or an improv performance presented by the Santa Cruz Actors’ Theatre, a repertory company. Symphony and opera also are available.
  • Take a whale watching cruise. On land, you can see whales, too, by walking on fortuitously positioned trails.
  • Butterfly lovers will visit Natural Bridges State Park to be awed by the thousands of Monarch butterflies that migrate to the park from October through February.
  • For a taste of the area’s history, visit the Santa Cruz Mission. Take a walking tour in Santa Cruz to admire Victorian homes. Also, there is the Agricultural History Project in nearby Watsonville.
  • Take a romantic stroll along West Cliff Drive, a two-and-a-half-mile scenic path overlooking Monterey Bay.
  • Santa Cruz is a beach town. Go to the beach.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult the Santa Cruz County Conference and Visitors Council at