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West Cliff Drive is a must for anyone looking to experience the natural beauty of the Santa Cruz coastline. This scenic road runs along coastal bluffs overlooking the Monterey Bay, offering stunning vistas at every turn. From surfers riding waves at Steamer Lane to dolphins frolicking in the surf below, the views along West Cliff are postcard-perfect.
The three-mile drive takes you past palm tree-dotted parks, pocket beaches, and rocky outcroppings where harbor seals lounge in the sun. Stop at one of the parking pullouts or cliffside overlooks to take in the panoramic ocean views. On a clear day, you"ll be able to see from Santa Cruz all the way to Monterey. The sunset colors reflecting off the water are magnificent.
For an up-close look at the ocean, take a stroll along the paved walking and biking path that runs parallel to the road. Feel the ocean breeze as you watch surfers, kayakers, and stand-up paddleboarders play in the waves. During migration season, it"s common to spot whales spouting offshore.
West Cliff is popular with locals and visitors alike. On weekends, you"ll see fitness enthusiasts running and cycling along the path, families picnicking on the grass, and artists painting en plein air. The scenic drive is also popular with tourists, so expect some traffic congestion during peak times.
To beat the crowds, visit early in the morning or in the evening near sunset. The lighting is beautiful at golden hour, turning the ocean brilliant hues of orange and pink. For a peaceful experience, consider a weekday visit when West Cliff is less busy.
Located at the western tip of Santa Cruz, Steamer Lane is a legendary surf spot famous for its long right point break waves rolling in from Monterey Bay. With consistent swell, varieties of breaks, and ideal wind conditions, Steamer Lane attracts everyone from beginners to pro surfers looking to shred.
The point break wave wraps along the cliffside, allowing surfers to ride for hundreds of yards in the smooth rolling waves. The takeoff zone is at Steamer Lane itself, but surfers can ride the wave all the way to Cowell Beach, nearly a half mile away. With rides that long, it's no wonder Steamer Lane has hosted numerous pro surf competitions over the years.
The waves at Steamer Lane break both left and right, providing options for surfers of all levels. The inside breaks near the cliff are smaller and gentler, perfect for those learning. The outside breaks further out can reach double overhead, thrilling more advanced wave riders. There are also separate peaks that break into both lefts and rights.
With Santa Cruz facing south, Steamer Lane picks up swells from both the north and south. This gives it more consistent surf year-round than other local spots. Winter storms send large swells that can whip up huge waves, while summer often brings smaller wraps and glassy conditions. Early morning is when the wind is lightest for an optimal surf session.
The chill vibe and welcoming community at Steamer Lane make it a popular surf destination. Visitors mingle with locals while watching others ride waves from the cliff above. It's common to see pros practicing new tricks alongside groms on their very first rides. Well-known surfers who have shredded waves at Steamer Lane include Kelly Slater, Bethany Hamilton, and Santa Cruz's own Nat Young.
With its fame and idyllic setting, Steamer Lane understandably gets crowded, especially on nice weekend days. Arrive early to stake out a spot in the lineup. Pack your patience and don't "snake" waves - wait your turn for a ride. Follow surf etiquette and you'll fit right in.
Venturing into downtown Santa Cruz transports visitors to a hip, eclectic neighborhood brimming with character. Just a few blocks from the beach, downtown offers an energetic mix of bohemian shops, ethnic eateries, and lively events that capture the quintessential Santa Cruz vibe.
Wander along Pacific Avenue, the main thoroughfare lined with palm trees, surf shops, coffee houses, and locally-owned boutiques. Pop into streetside cafes serving up California cuisine and specialty coffee drinks. At night, downtown comes alive with bars hosting live music and rustic wine bars filled with laid-back locals.
One can't miss the iconic Town Clock Tower, built in 1850, standing sentry in the center of downtown. Under its watchful eye are downtown's three open-air shopping plazas packed with boutiques selling handmade crafts, organic beauty products, funky fashions, and surf gear.
Delve into Bookshop Santa Cruz, the largest independent bookstore in the county, which hosts author events and signings. Find that perfect bohemian outfit at The Hip Spot, a hidden gem filled with ethical, eco-friendly clothing and accessories. At Stripe, browse racks of stylish beachwear and cruise the sale section for major steals.
Sample Santa Cruz's creative side at the many local art galleries sprinkled throughout downtown. The R. Blitzer Gallery exhibits contemporary fine art alongside more postmodern works. At the Tannery Arts Center in an old tannery building, artists craft jewelry, glasswork, photography, and more in live-work studios.
When hunger strikes, downtown offers a United Nations of delectable eats. Satisfy Mexican cravings with fresh fish tacos and potent margaritas at lively Taqueria Vallarta. At Vim Dining and Desserts, savor Indian fusion dishes like butter chicken pizza and masala fries. For all things poke, Poke House SC serves build-your-own bowls brimming with tender ahi and spicy sauces.
No visit is complete without experiencing the one-of-a-kind Zachary's Restaurant. Since 1983, this local institution has been churning out deep dish Chicago-style pizzas heaped with chunky tomato sauce and gooey cheese. Be prepared for a wait, as Zachary's frequently has a line out the door.
Pack your sweet tooth and save room for dessert at The Picnic Basket. Their case overflows with delectable homemade sweets like rocky road fudge, fruit tarts, and the signature blackberry chocolate ganache cake. Or indulge in artisanal ice cream in flavors like honey lavender and Mexican chocolate chili at Marianne"s, a neighborhood favorite.
A trip to Santa Cruz is not complete without a visit to the famous Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, known simply as The Boardwalk to locals. This classic seaside amusement park overlooking the Monterey Bay transports visitors back to the golden age of boardwalks with its charming vintage rides and old-fashioned carnival games.
The historic Boardwalk first opened in 1907 and is California's oldest surviving amusement park. The rustic wooden rollercoaster, the Giant Dipper, has been thrilling riders since 1924 with its rickety track perched on the cliff above the ocean. At night, the neon lights of the Ferris wheel and other rides give the Boardwalk its iconic glittering allure. In addition to adrenaline-pumping rides, the Boardwalk offers family-friendly attractions like the Looff Carousel, mini golf courses, and a video game arcade.
A step inside the Boardwalk entrance instantly evokes feelings of nostalgia. The smell of buttery popcorn and waffle cones mixes with the crashing ocean waves and screams from thrill rides. Generations of families have built cherished memories strolling the beachfront promenade playing carnival games like Throw the Dart, testing their skills to win quirky prizes. The wide sandy beach beckons kids to splash in the water or build sandcastles under the sun.
Mark, a father of two from San Jose, has fond memories of family trips to the Boardwalk. "My parents used to take me and my brother every summer. We loved riding the rollercoaster over and over until we felt sick, then cooling off with salt water taffy ice cream on the beach. Now I take my own kids and see the joy on their faces just like I felt back then."
Alyssa, a college student from Los Angeles, also recalls annual childhood trips. "Walking around eating deep fried Oreos and playing Whac-A-Mole were my favorite parts as a kid. Now I go for the adrenaline rush of rides like the Double Shot that blast you 125 feet in the air in just 1.5 seconds!"
The Beach Boardwalk not only offers amusement rides but also hosts fun events year-round. In June, revelers come for the Mardi Gras parade and festival. Every Friday during summer brings free concerts at the outdoor bandstand. October features monster-themed activities for Halloween. The winter holiday season kicks off with a Christmas tree lighting and carolers.
While the Boardwalk transports visitors to the past, modern additions like an IMAX theater, laser tag arena, and zip line keep attractions fresh. The latest thrill ride, Undertow, spins riders at 50 mph while suspended on a 100-foot tower. But classic rides like the 1911 Looff Carousel remain timeless favorites generation after generation.
Tucked along the shore just west of Santa Cruz lies Natural Bridges State Beach, a stunning park preserving freshwater tidal marshes, wildlife habitat, and scenic coastal beauty. Beyond sunbathing on wide sandy beaches, Natural Bridges offers prime opportunities to spot migrating whales, seabirds, and harbor seals. Surfers flock to ride swells at the adjacent Natural Bridges Reef.
The park"s main draw is its set of natural mudstone arches carved out of coastal bluffs by the pounding surf. At high tide, waves rush through the arches and surge into secluded coves. During low tide, you can explore tide pools below the cliffs teeming with snails, sea stars, crabs, and other marine life. Trails winding above the arches deliver scenic overlooks to take in the crashing waves and rock formations below.
Seasoned hikers trek out to scenic Moore Creek and Monarch Grove to observe overwintering monarch butterflies clustered in the eucalyptus grove from November through February. The park"s salt marsh ecosystem sustains endangered species like the snowy plover, providing critical habitat for these shorebirds.
Natural Bridges is also one of the best land-based whale watching spots on the west coast. From December through April, gray whales make their annual migration along the Pacific coast. Visitors flock to the cliffs to catch a glimpse of whales surfacing, spouting, and fluking through the waves often just yards from shore.
"Seeing the whales so close on their journey is just breathtaking," shares Amy, who brings her kids each year. "Sometimes they breach clear out of the water and splash back down. The kids get so excited and start yelling, "Did you see that?!" It"s an experience we look forward to every winter."
Beyond whale watching, the rocky outcroppings offshore make Natural Bridges an iconic surf destination. Surfers have flocked here since the 1960s to ride waves breaking along the reefs. Long, peeling lefts and right peaks challenge surfers of various skill levels. Depending on swell size and direction, conditions range from playful waist-high waves to pounding, barreling surf over head high.
"I"ve been surfing Natural Bridges for over 40 years now," says Tom, owner of O"Neill Surf Shop in Santa Cruz. "It draws a real experienced, local crew who know how to share the waves. When a big northwest swell hits, it"s one of the best reef breaks in town."
While surfers must access Natural Bridges by water, visitors can watch in awe from various clifftop vantage points in the park. Seeing surfers zip across the waves with the backdrop of sheer ocean cliffs makes for epic photos.
Nestled in the rolling hills above Santa Cruz lies the sprawling University of California, Santa Cruz campus, its 2,000 acres blanketing the slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Beyond ivy-covered academic buildings, a network of hiking trails weaves through towering redwood groves, offering a serene natural escape right in the heart of campus.
For an easy nature walk near campus sights, head to the Redwood Loop Trail starting from the base of McLaughlin Drive. Meandering 1.5 miles through old and second-growth redwoods, this path gives a taste of UCSC"s stunning forest scenery. Lush ferns blanket the shady forest floor, while sunbeams streaming through the canopy spotlight changing scenery around each bend.
For a more immersive forest experience, embark on the 2-mile loop tracing Pogonip Creek within the campus"s greater 1,200 acre Pogonip preserve. This trail dips through fern-filled glens and trickling creeks shaded beneath some of the tallest and oldest redwood trees in the county. Many of these giants are over 500 years old, spared from logging when the Cowell family set aside lands that became UCSC.
Julie, an avid hiker visiting from LA, describes the enchantment of the old growth forest: "Walking under those giant redwoods that have been there for centuries, it"s like stepping back in time or into another world. I could almost feel the history and age surrounding me. It was magical."
Beyond redwoods, a mosaic of ecosystems thrives within Pogonip including oak woodlands, spring-fed creeks, and open meadows. This diverse habitat provides a refuge for an abundance of wildlife. Deer, foxes, bobcats, and coyotes roam these lands. Birdwatchers flock here hoping to spot rare species like the elusive peregrine falcon and purple martin. Wildflowers like hound"s tongue, checkerbloom, and shooting stars carpet the meadows in vibrant spring blooms.
For Rob, a senior at UCSC, Pogonip"s natural beauty and biodiversity create an invaluable outdoor escapes right on campus. "Between classes and studying, life can get really stressful. Being able to take a break and go for a hike in the middle of this ancient redwood forest helps me relax and refocus. Watching banana slugs, admiring wildflowers, hearing birds chirping - it"s amazing that we have this wilderness basically in UCSC"s backyard."
The UCSC trail system caters to hikers of all abilities, from short interpretive walks to strenuous climbs up limestone caves. The coveted view from the top of Spring Pole Ridge reveals a panorama stretching from campus below to Monterey Bay in the distance. Families appreciate easy routes like the Meadow Trail loop, perfect for little legs. For solitude and an intensive nature immersion, the Henry Cowell Backpack Loop traces nearly five miles into remote backcountry.
Nestled on the shores of Monterey Bay, the quaint seaside town of Capitola Village exudes old-world charm and a laidback beach vibe. From its colorful cottages to lively outdoor patios, this little village packs big character into its compact walkable streets.
A stroll through Capitola transports visitors back to a simpler time. The village is centered around Capitola Beach and Esplanade Park, where families picnic on the grass under swaying palms. Just across the street, Capitola Beach beckons with its soft sand, sparkling waves, and retro bathhouse.
Pastel cottages line the surrounding streets, now home to lively restaurants and boutiques. Flower boxes in vibrant hues of fuschia, turquoise, and sunflower yellow adorn the house-turned-shops. Strings of lights criss-cross above outdoor patios bustling with diners sipping local wine as live music floats through the air.
Wander down Capitola Avenue to explore the shops displaying local art, beachy home decor, and laidback fashions. Pop into Mr. Twister's Soft Serve for creamy, dreamy swirls of ice cream. At The Yacht Harbor Grill, dine on the deck overlooking the harbor, with sailboats gently bobbing in the background.
No visit is complete without strolling the Capitola Wharf, extending out into the bay's glittering waters. Watch kayakers paddling in the bay, fishermen reeling in the day's catch, and harbor seals sunbathing on floating docks. Couples and families pose for photos against the backdrop of the colorful village skyline.
"It feels like you're walking through a seaside village in the Mediterranean," shares Amy, who visits every summer from San Jose. "Everything from the vibe to the architecture makes me feel transported. My family loves bike riding through the neighborhoods, getting ice cream on the pier, and relaxing at a harborside restaurant."
While Capitola exudes timeless charm, the town also hosts lively events year-round. Every Friday night in summer brings free concerts at Esplanade Park overlooking the beach. The Capitola Art & Wine Festival takes over the village in September with local wines, crafts, and live music. Capitola's holiday spirit sparkles with a sandcastle contest, boat parade, and tree lighting.
Cameron, a college student from Capitola, appreciates the close-knit community. "Growing up going to village events, I felt like I knew everyone here. It's still a small town at heart. When I watch the beach bonfires or hear music drifting through town on a weekend night, it brings me back to simpler times."
Just up the coast from Santa Cruz lies AÃ±o Nuevo State Reserve, home to the largest mainland breeding colony for northern elephant seals. Every winter, these massive marine mammals haul out onto the beaches at AÃ±o Nuevo to give birth, mate, and molt. Visitors can get up close views of the elephant seals from designated viewing areas along accessible boardwalk trails. Seeing these giant creatures in their natural habitat is an experience that will leave a lifelong impression.
Elephant seals return to AÃ±o Nuevo each year in December to stake out spots on the beach where females give birth to pups. By January, the peak breeding season gets underway with males battling violently for dominance. The beach erupts in clashing bodies and guttural, primal calls as bulls fight to secure territories where they can gather harems of dozens of females. Successful dominant bulls, weighing up to 5,000 pounds, aggressively mate with females to pass on their genes.
Meanwhile, adorable newborn pups weighing 75 pounds at birth will double in size during the 28 days they nurse before being weaned. Pups stay on shore while mothers leave to hunt, surviving off their thick blubber until they"re ready to swim off and feed themselves around March. Throughout breeding season, adult seals cycle on and off shore on foraging trips.
Come March through May, elephant seals undergo an annual molt where they shed and re-grow their entire outer layer of skin and fur. seals spend weeks lazing on shore during this energy-intensive process. By August, the colony departs for their feeding grounds far off the Pacific coast until the cycle begins again.
For Michelle, an annual visitor from San Francisco, no other wildlife experience compares to the enormity of elephant seals. "These creatures are just so massive, louder, smellier and more primal than anything I"ve seen before on land or sea. Just watching them move and socialize is incredible. I catch myself holding my breath when two 10-foot-long bulls start roaring and fighting with their giant bodies. It"s like watching dinosaurs."
The AÃ±o Nuevo trails allow people to safely observe seals up-close from a viewing perimeter with strict rules to protect the colony. Docents provide educational narration so visitors learn about seal behavior as they watch. "The docents are so knowledgeable about each aspect of the seals" life cycle," shares Leila, a college student from Santa Cruz. "I loved learning about their adaptation to hold their breath for such long periods hunting underwater."
Access to AÃ±o Nuevo is highly regulated with entrance only available through guided tours during breeding and molting season when the elephant seals are on shore. While some drive from as far as San Francisco or Lake Tahoe to visit, locals also frequent the park. "I never get tired of visiting AÃ±o Nuevo," shares Martin from nearby Half Moon Bay. "Every year the dynamics on the beach are a little different, with new seals being born and males competing for dominance. No matter how often I come, it"s always an incredible experience."