By Lee Foster
(Author’s Note: The story of California’s Santa Cruz, both the beach Boardwalk and the progressive university, is one of the intriguing cultural tales in the history of the Golden State. This article is also a chapter update in my book Northern California History Weekends. When all the 52 chapters are updated, a new edition of the book will appear.)
Climate and seaside location have made Santa Cruz an appreciated cottage resort region since 1865. Among the town’s attractions are its charming Victorian homes and its beach Boardwalk with a historic roller-coaster. Santa Cruz also has a lively downtown. The University of California Santa Cruz, founded in 1965, provides an academic edge to the scene.
The Historic Story
Santa Cruz first existed as a Franciscan mission. The name given was La Mision de la Exaltacion de la Santa Cruz. This historic church no longer exists. To locate the old mission site, look for a hilltop with a dominant white spire. It belongs to Holy Cross Church, which sits on the same spot as the original mission.
Father Fermin Lasuen established the Santa Cruz Mission in 1791. It was the 12th of 21 in the California chain. The work of the pioneer priests—converting the Native Americans and church-building—moved quickly at first. Grass to graze cattle, local berries, redwood and pine lumber, and water were plentiful. But by 1832 parts of the mission had vanished, a victim of secularization, earthquake, and neglect.
Today Holy Cross Church (126 High St.) sits on the original site. You can see a replica of the 18th-century structure at the Mission Galleria. Details: 831/426-5686. Just down the street, half of the original mission survives as the Santa Cruz Mission State Historical Park. Here you can take a self-guided tour of the historic building that once housed Native American neophytes. Call: 831/425-5849.
The Early Santa Cruz Economy
Fueled by the early prosperity of lumber milling, lime mining for use in cement, leather tanning, and tourism, the region prospered. Citizens created a legacy of lovely Victorian architecture 1880-1900. The architectural heritage of Santa Cruz can be observed in residential areas, where many of the original homes have been restored.
The downtown is a great place to stroll and look back at history. Walk down Pacific Avenue, the main street. Many structures were damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. However, the downtown was rebuilt.
The central building here was the yellow-brick Cooper House (110 Cooper St.). Originally the Santa Cruz courthouse, built in 1895, the building was damaged in the quake and had to be bulldozed. Today the site houses mixed retail/office space.
Next door is the Octagon Building, built in 1882. Once the Santa Cruz Hall of Records, the Octagon is now part of the Abbot Square marketplace development. The site is an aspect of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History.
Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History
Next door to the Octagon, the Museum of Art and History resides in the McPherson Center (705 Front St.; 831/429-1964; https://santacruzmah.org). The History Gallery on the 2nd Floor shares the stories of the people who made history in Santa Cruz County. Learn about the farmworkers and fishermen, street performers and surfers. The earliest residents were the Ohlone people.
Other attractions, each with its historic elements, include the Santa Cruz Boardwalk and the University of California Santa Cruz campus.
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is part of a mile-long stretch of sandy seashore (400 Beach St.; 831/423-5590; https://beachboardwalk.com). The amusement park began in 1904, burned down in 1906, and rebuilt in 1907. Its large roller-coaster, the Giant Dipper, is a classic wooden structure from 1924. The Big Dipper thrilled millions of riders on white-knuckle trips.
The Boardwalk has video arcades and a wide beachfront. Centerpiece of the park is the merry-go-round. A Danish woodcarver, Charles I. D. Looff, delivered the first 70 hand-carved horses in 1911. The carousel still operates today, along with its original 342-piece Ruth band organ, built in 1894. The Cocoanut Grove Ballroom, once featuring big bands, is now an event space for rent.
West of the Boardwalk, the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf offers a pleasant stroll. Here are fish markets, seafood restaurants, and pier fishing or deep-sea fishing excursions. The wharf is also home to a colony of barking sea lions.
If you walk out on the mile-long pier, the longest on the Pacific Coast, you get plenty of bracing sea air and a splendid view looking back at Santa Cruz.
University of California Santa Cruz Campus
The University of California Santa Cruz campus started in 1965. Visit the school at 1156 High Street, tucked among acres of redwoods and rolling grasslands on the outskirts of town. The campus is interesting to visit for its architectural innovations and natural setting. From the university hills you see panoramic views of Santa Cruz and Monterey Bay. Details: (831/459-0111; https://www.ucsc.edu).
Pause near the entrance to the UCSC campus and visit the Cowell Ranch Hay Barn. Originally built in the 1860s, the barn was part of a lime works operation. It is now an event space for concerts, lectures, and similar gatherings.
Surfing in Santa Cruz
Oceanside Santa Cruz offers excellent surfing. Fortunately the surf area can easily be viewed by non-surfers. Simply walk or drive out West Cliff Drive to the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse. The lighthouse, which dates to 1869, houses the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum (701 West Cliff Dr.). The museum celebrates the various decades that the sport has flourished. Details: 831/420-6289; https://localwiki.org/santacruz/Santa_Cruz_Surfing_Museum.
From the cliffs at the Lighthouse you look out at Steamer Lane, the choice surfing area. The inside of the museum has displays on the history of surfing.
Santa Cruz is two hours south of San Francisco along the Coast Highway 1. You can also take Highway 101 south and cut across the mountains on Highway 17.
Be Sure to See
In Santa Cruz, the historic roller-coaster and carousel at the Beach Boardwalk are the top attractions along the shore. The university is a refreshing walk on a hillside.
Best Time of Year
Any time of the year is good for Santa Cruz.
For a cozy B&B, try the Babbling Brook Inn (1025 Laurel St.; 831/427-2437, https://www.babblingbrookinn.com/). Eight rooms evoke the theme of Impressionist painters.
For a leisurely dinner within the city, choose the northern Italian restaurant known as Gabriella Café. Try the prosciutto-wrapped asparagus and then the grilled quail entree. Gabriella’s is at 910 Cedar Street, 831/457-1677. Website: www.gabriellacafe.com.
For Further Information
Contact Visit Santa Cruz County (800/833-3494; https://www.santacruz).