Author’s Note: This article “California’s Santa Cruz, Epitome of Beach Culture” is one of 30 chapters in my travel guidebook/ebook Northern California Travel: The Best Options. That book is available also as an ebook in Chinese. My other Northern California travel guidebook/ebook with parallel content is my newest book Northern California History Travel Adventures: 35 Suggested Trips. Several of my books on California can be seen on my Amazon Author Page.
By Lee Foster
Santa Cruz lies on the sunny northern tip of Monterey Bay, 100 miles south of San Francisco. Weather here compares favorably to that of Key West, Florida, with 300 sunny days a year and an average high temperature of 69 degrees F. The population mix includes retirees, university students and staff, craftspeople, artists, a cluster of professionals who have put lifestyle ahead of career advancement and moved here, and the “just plain folks” who keep the community rolling along.
Santa Cruz prides itself on a strong environmental ethic. Bike paths are everywhere. The downtown, after the major earthquake of 1989, was rebuilt with stringent architectural guidelines that have re-created a small-town community feeling.
Climate and seaside location have made the Santa Cruz coast an appreciated resort region since 1865. Attractive beaches for swimming and sunning stretch along the coast for 29 miles, and some, such as New Brighton State Beach, have camping facilities.
The nearby Santa Cruz Mountains provide the lover of nature with a diverse, forested terrain, including California’s first state park set aside to preserve redwoods, Big Basin.
The Santa Cruz region can be reached from the north or south via scenic Highway 1. The fastest route from the north is via Freeway 101 or Interstate 280 to Highway 17, then across the mountains to Santa Cruz.
Santa Cruz’s History
Santa Cruz first existed as a Franciscan mission, Mission La Exaltacion de la Santa Cruz. Today you can locate the old mission site from many vantage points in Santa Cruz by looking for the dominant white spire of the later church, Holy Cross Church, on the same hilltop.
When Fermin Lasuen established the Santa Cruz Mission, 12th of 21 in the chain, the work of conversion and church building moved quickly at first. Grazing grass, redwood and pine lumber, and water were plentiful. But by 1832 the mission had vanished, a victim of secularization, earthquake, and neglect. Today you can see a 2/3-scale replica of the structure, rebuilt in 1931, at 126 High Street.
Fueled by the early prosperity of lumber milling, lime mining for use in cement, leather tanning, and tourism, the region prospered, creating a legacy of lovely Victorian architecture from 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 has changed dramatically in recent years. Until 1989, a visitor would walk down Pacific Avenue, the old main street, which had been turned into a walker’s Garden Mall. The central building here was the yellow-brick Cooper House, originally the Santa Cruz courthouse, built in 1895. Next door to Cooper House was the Octagon, built in 1882. Once the Santa Cruz Hall of Records, the Octagon now houses a museum gift shop. Most of the major brick structures on this mall walk were damaged by the 1989 quake, causing loss of life and property, and had to be bulldozed. Reconstruction in the area got off to a slow start. The heart of the community had been destroyed. However, the Santa Cruz downtown is now viable again.
Stroll the re-created downtown area along Pacific Avenue to see what a special effort Santa Cruz made post-quake. The downtown was re-constructed with a varied, low-rise architecture. Landmark businesses, such as the Bookshop Santa Cruz and the Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Company, have been re-located. Establishments such as Zoccoli Deli lend a festive lunchtime aura as patrons grab a sandwich and a few minutes in the sun on the sidewalk.
One new structure of note is the McPherson Center, 705 Front Street, home of The Museum of Art and History. The McPherson Center unites these two previously separate institutions, including many artifacts celebrating Santa Cruz County. Be sure to see the interpretation of Santa Cruz history, titled “Where the Redwoods Meet the Sea,” which focuses on the area’s complex economy, from redwood lumbering in the hills to the agricultural fecundity around Watsonville. The McPherson Center also hosts changing art exhibits and tends to be the venue for local cultural happenings. The adjacent Octagon Building, a noted historic structure that survived the earthquake of 1989, is now the museum store.
The Santa Cruz City Museum of Natural History, 1305 East Cliff Drive, includes displays on the original Ohlone Native Americans and how they lived, mainly from gathering acorns, fishing, and hunting. The Museum exhibits the local flora and fauna, from raptors to mountain lions.
One of the important historic businesses in Santa Cruz was the Salz Leather Store, 1040 River Street, which dated from 1861, making it one of the oldest leather stores and tanneries in California. The major ingredients needed for tanning were all present historically in Santa Cruz. Cattle hides were numerous. Tannin from tanoak bark was plentiful. Water to wash the hides was abundant. Lime, used to clean the hides and remove the hair, was available. The region was once a major tanning center.
Santa Cruz’s Main Attractions
Four special attractions are the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, the University of California Santa Cruz campus, the Long Marine Laboratory, and Natural Bridges State Park.
The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, 400 Beach Street, was built in 1904, burned down in 1906, and rebuilt in 1907. Its large roller coaster, the Giant Dipper, is a classic wooden structure from 1924 that has carried more than 50 million riders on white-knuckle trips. The Boardwalk has three arcades, a wide beachfront, and the Coconut Grove Ballroom. The centerpiece of the Boardwalk 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.
West of the Boardwalk, the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf offers a pleasant stroll, fish markets, seafood restaurants, and pier fishing or deep-sea fishing excursions. 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.
The University of California Santa Cruz campus, Bay and High streets, is tucked among 2,000 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. Self-guided tour maps are available at a kiosk a quarter-mile into the grounds.
Pause by the side of the road as you enter the grounds to note the old Cowell Ranch building from the limestone-mining and cattle-ranching days. Of particular interest are the ambitious 17-acre farm and four-acre gardens, inspired by the late Alan Chadwick and his organic gardening technique, the French Intensive biodynamic method.
The University’s Long Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, 100 Shaffer Road, adjacent to Natural Bridges State Park, provides information and exhibits on the fauna and flora of tide pools and nearby ocean currents. Here you can see an 85-foot skeleton of a blue whale or touch starfish and sea anemones in a hands-on tank.
Natural Bridges State Park, 2351 West Cliff Drive, offers a special encounter in winter when the eucalyptus trees are filled with the wintering monarch butterflies. You can walk on the designated paths to see clusters of the monarchs hanging on the trees. Walk also to the beach to see the “bridge” or sandstone arch that gave the park its name. Originally there were three bridges, as historical photos at the visitor center attest. One bridge fell around the turn of the century. A second fell during a storm in 1980. Guided tours of the rich tide pools occur at low tide.
Santa Cruz is now a gateway to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, a huge protected ocean environment that extends from north of San Francisco to south of San Simeon. This massive resource will never see an oil rig upon it. This largest ocean reserve on the West Coast includes the very deep Monterey canyons, the deepest such canyons off the western U.S., a kind of invisible Grand Canyon on the ocean floor. A group active in promoting the sanctuary is known as Save Our Shores.
One of the special aspects of Santa Cruz as an ocean-side location is its excellent surfing. The surf area is unusual because it can be viewed up close by the public. Simply walk, bike, or drive out West Cliff Drive to the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse, which houses the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, celebrating the various decades that the sport has flourished. From the cliffs at the Lighthouse you look out at Steamer Lane, the choice surfing area. You gaze right down on the surfers whizzing by, due to the unusual topography of Santa Cruz, which is actually facing south rather than west. In the winter, hard-core surfing aficionados gather here for competitions.
Surfing, windsurfing, and kayaking lessons/equipment rental are available on the beach in front of a hotel adjacent to the Boardwalk. Surf board rentals are available on the beach at the Boardwalk. Rental equipment can include boogieboards, surfboards, wetsuits, and fins.
One expression of the overall environmental consciousness of Santa Cruz is the Farmers Markets, held year round, but especially prominent in summer. The area also supports many U-pick farms where locals and travelers enjoy getting seasonal berries and other foods. One of the more prominent such farms is the Gizdich Ranch in Watsonville. The county also has over 30 vineyards united in a Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Association.
Bicycling in Santa Cruz
Few destinations are so well laid out for bicycling as Santa Cruz. With ubiquitous bike lanes, it is easy to get around this small city on a bike. For the visitor, a bicycle can be an enjoyable mode of transport.
Several good bike stores rent bikes, helmets, and locks. Maps of all regional bicycle trails are readily available. Some shops lead bike outings if you want to explore in a group, whether doing serious mountain biking or an urban trip emphasizing Santa Cruz history. The local bus system can take your bike on it, which extends the bicyclist’s range. For example, a local bus can take you up to the Waddell Creek area, mentioned below, and then pick you up later in the day.
The bike route to start on is the 3-mile West Cliff Trail that leads out from the Boardwalk towards the surfing area, Steamer Lane. The route is marked and paved all the way to Natural Bridges State Park, an engaging place to look at monarch butterflies in winter and the sandstone arches all year round.
Beyond Natural Bridges, you can bike with a mountain bike in Wilder Ranch State Park. Be sure to get a good map. It’s enjoyable to pack a picnic and spend a day exploring in Wilder Ranch Park.
Another favorite biking area is Nisene Marks State Park, east of Santa Cruz. Nisene Marks is an undeveloped area of second-growth redwoods. It has many miles of biking trails.
The University of California Santa Cruz campus also has good bike trails around it. A local bus can take you and your bike up to the campus if you want to avoid exerting yourself on the elevation gain.
Nearby Trips from Santa Cruz
Excursions from Santa Cruz include Big Basin Redwoods State Park, Roaring Camp and Big Trees Narrow-Gauge Railroad, and Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.
About 20 miles north of Santa Cruz, via Highway 236, lies the first state park in California created to preserve redwood trees, Big Basin State Park, 21600 Big Basin Way in Boulder Creek. Big Basin was created in 1902 as a result of public outcry over the lack of public access to the virgin redwoods in the area. Today the park encompasses 20,000 acres of diverse terrain with 60 miles of hiking trails.
When you arrive, stop at park headquarters to pick up a map and visit the museum, Nature Lodge, which celebrates the park’s history, flora, and fauna. The museum has excellent displays of stuffed birds, snakes, and mammals native to the park. The finest redwoods area along the Redwood Nature Trail near park headquarters. At park headquarters you’ll find a cross section of one tree that has been ring-dated as 2,200 years old.
Near Felton, you can board the Roaring Camp and Big Trees Narrow-Gauge Railroad, one of the last steam-powered passenger trains. The tracks twist around a five-mile loop through redwood groves. Back in the 1880s, lumberjacks and pioneers used the same train to haul out lumber and shingles. During the hour-long trip you switchback up some of the steepest grades ever built for a railroad.
At Roaring Camp you can see a covered bridge and visit a reconstructed 1880’s General Store that sells items from western garb to a complete line of books for the rail buff.
Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, 101 North Big Trees Park Road, Felton, is another of the majestic redwood parks in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Redwood Grove offers an outstanding nature walk, with 29 interpretive stations.
If driving north from Santa Cruz to San Francisco along Highway 1, two recommended stops are at Ano Nuevo-Waddell Creek and at the Pigeon Point Lighthouse.
In winter the elephant seals gather at Ano Nuevo State Reserve. They were formerly hunted to the brink of extinction. Today they have made a comeback and, guided by the ranger, you can walk out amidst these three -ton creatures. Reservations are required in winter for the guided walks. Ano Nuevo is open for perusal on your own for the rest of the year.
Just south of Ano Nuevo is Waddell Creek, a sea-access segment of the large Big Basin State Park. You can hike or bike into Waddell Creek, climbing ever higher on the ridges to survey the forests and the ocean. Maps are available at an Interpretive Center at Waddell Creek.
The next point north from Ano Nuevo, near Pescadero, is the Pigeon Point Light Station, celebrated for its classic brick architecture, one of the grand legacies of lighthouse design on the west coast. Stop in for a look around and a self-guided tour. Cottages on the property now serve as an all-ages hostel, providing a rustic but intriguing lodging option.
All considered, Santa Cruz is a special beach culture destination unlike any other in Northern California.
Santa Cruz: If You Go
Contact the Santa Cruz County Conference and Visitors Council.
This article is one of thirty chapters in Lee Foster’s new book Northern California Travel: The Best Options (February 2013). See the book online at www.fostertravel.com by clicking on Norcal in the black bar at the top of the page or use Search Lee’s Writings for Norcal. The book can be ordered on Amazon or through other retailers as a printed book or ebook. The ebook version is also available in the Apple iBook Store and the other ebook stores for B&N Nook and Sony Reader. Lee’s books/ebooks on Amazon can all be seen together on his Author Page. See the Lee Foster Author Page