Santa Cruz (California)

Mission Santa Cruz, interior of reconstructed chapel

Santa Cruz is a small coastal city (population about 55,000) in Santa Cruz County, at the north end of Monterey Bay in California, about forty miles south of San Jose and 75 miles south of San Francisco.


Santa Cruz is best known as a countercultural hub, with a bohemian feel and youthful vibe, and fun weekend tourist attractions like the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and the dubious Mystery Spot. The rather relaxed beach lifestyle is supplemented by some remaining high tech industry and a vibrant university culture. The University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC) is regarded as one of the premier centers of higher learning in the region and was once well known for its strong emphasis on the arts and humanities.

The beaches north and south of Santa Cruz are considered some of the more pristine areas of natural beauty in central California. A variety of conditions prevail, depending on the beach, few are suited for swimming due to temperature and current, several are considered an expert surfer's cold cold paradise. The beautiful beaches and the rather mild climate play a central role in local culture. Most visitors leave Santa Cruz amazed by the city's beauty and ambiance.


 Climate Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Daily highs (°F) 63 64 66 70 72 75 75 76 76 73 67 62
Nightly lows (°F) 41 43 44 46 49 52 54 54 53 50 45 41
Precipitation (in) 6.3 6.2 4.6 2.0 0.8 0.2 0.0 0.0 0.3 1.5 3.8 5.7

   Data from NOAA (1981-2010)

Get in

Highway 17 south from San Jose is the most direct route when driving from the more populated parts of the Bay Area. It is a winding and very dangerous road over the mountains, arguably the most hazardous in the state shared during the week with heavy gravel trucks, so heed the speed limits take it easy and arrive alive. ; Accidents are very common, but the road is a bit safer since the addition of concrete barriers some years ago. Beware of fog, as well as "hurried" drivers.Drive with caution especially when roads are wet.

To merge from Highway 17 to Highway 1 in Santa Cruz to continue south, you must merge three times on the dreaded "fish hook". This causes the beginning of the dreaded commute from "over the hill" to the coast for many. Traffic usually lasts from 3PM until 6PM, Monday through Friday, from just south of 41st Ave. on Highway 1, spilling back onto Highway 17 going south.

A much more beautiful, but slower, approach to Santa Cruz is on Highway 1, either from the north, San Francisco and Pacifica (about 65 miles), or from the south, Monterey and Big Sur (about 35 miles). During stormy seasons, check for rare, but often long-term road closures, especially at Devil's Slide (although a bypass tunnel is due to open in late 2012).

To take public transportation there is a commuter shuttle, the Highway 17 Express (Santa Cruz route 17; VTA route 970), that runs from the Caltrain station in San Jose 7 days a week, which is scheduled to transfer with certain Amtrak trains. There are also multiple lines that go south to Watsonville 7 days a week. Greyhound also runs buses to the city. All these lines go to, or near to, the Santa Cruz Metro Center, which is in the downtown area.

The nearest major airport is in San Jose (IATA: SJC), but San Francisco International Airport (IATA: SFO) and even Oakland (IATA: OAK) aren't much farther away, and sometimes have cheaper flights. The small regional airport in Monterey (IATA: MRY) has flights to major hubs (Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento), but in most cases San Jose is the best choice because of the greater choice of airlines and destinations. Scheduled airport shuttles provide service every few hours to San Jose, and less often to San Francisco. Caltrain also provides a route to the San Francisco airport, through a transfer with BART in Milbrae. For private aircraft, there'a 2,000 ft. runway about 10 miles northwest of downtown, near Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.

Get around

The main downtown strip is pedestrian friendly, and it's a 20 minute stroll from there to the beach. Walking to the University of California Santa Cruz from downtown is a little more difficult, with bad or non-existent sidewalks and a very steep climb.

While driving is certainly an option (parking is tight, careful to not get ticketed), Santa Cruz Metro provides bus service.

Santa Cruz can be a wonderful town for town for cycling, but be careful because drivers are no better here than in many other places. Around town and along Highway 1 is easy, but roads in the Santa Cruz Mountains are steep, winding and challenging for many cyclists. Be careful. Collisions between bicycles and cars are often reported. A number of pedestrian and car collisions have also happened in the downtown area.


A sea lion on the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf


Natural Bridges State Beach


Santa Cruz County is home to talented artists, musicians, and writers. Check out some of the locals' favorite art, music, and literary events:


Santa Cruz is a beach town, with a beach to match almost any interest. Main Beach and Cowell Beach attract large crowds to the boardwalk area on sunny summer weekends. Flocks of novice surfers balance on their boards in the quiet waters just north of the municipal wharf, in front of the big hotel that locals still call the Dream Inn. Volleyball nets are strung just south of the wharf. The boardwalk amusement area is adjacent to main beach. Heading north, Steamers Lane isn't a beach, but the famous surf break in front of the lighthouse. In the summer, its sometimes hard to see what the fuss is about, but the winter can bring big waves and spectators line the rail watching the surfers and the sea lions.

North of the lighthouse are a series of little pocket beaches, some that disappear entirely in the winter. The first one, It's Beach, and across the street at Lighthouse Field (see are two of the few places in town that dogs can be run off leash (before 10AM and after 4PM only) you will often dozens of dogs are chasing sticks, balls, and each other. Mitchell's Cove, just north, also allows dogs. Natural Bridges State Beach, whose famous monarch butterflies are discussed above, is a popular windsurfing beach. The name is misleading: one of the two stone bridges collapsed a few years ago. Just south of Natural Bridges is the tiny clothing-optional 2222 Beach.

Heading further north along the coast, you leave the city limits and pass through agricultural fields for 11 miles before reaching the small town of Davenport, which has a couple of restaurants, a B&B, and a huge cement plant that dominates the skyline. Each turnout along the road marks a beach, many of which are prime surf spots. Wilder Ranch State Park can be reached by a new bike path from just north of Natural Bridges. Its several nice beaches include Three Mile Beach and Four Mile Beach, named after their distances from town. The one known as Red, White, and Blue Beach, a private nude beach - is now CLOSED for good by the owner, Laguna Creek Beach (with parking on the east of highway 1), Panther and Hole-in-the-Wall Beach (connected by a passage that closes at high tide), Bonny Doon Beach (another famous clothing optional spot), and Davenport Beach. For those who want to tour the beaches, Highway 1 has wide shoulders that are generally safe for cycling.

It should be noted that the beaches North of the Boardwalk, especially those on the open ocean instead of the bay, can have huge waves and strong currents, so care should be taken in the water, even by strong swimmers.

There are lots of beaches south of Main Beach as well, but you'll need another guide for them.


Big Basin State Park

Santa Cruz is also surrounded by a great number of open space parks. There are two types of parks to choose from. There are inland wooded parks, (like Henry Cowell State Park) with redwood groves, and swimming in the river and open space preserves built on the coastal hills.

Wilder Ranch is a state park sitting in the hills adjacent to the coast (just west of town on Hwy 1). It has expansive views of the Monterey Bay as well as sweeping views of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The ranch also includes many old historic building, staffed with docents to demonstrate the workings of the historic ranch.

The Pogonip is located within the city boundaries adjacent to the university and accessible from Spring Street and from Highway 9 (via Golf Club). The Pogonip is an old country club which has reverted to a fairly natural state. It sits on the side of a hill and has great views as well as great natural items. Numerous springs fill the creeks, as well as a special fish pond along the Spring Box Trail.


Shopping on Pacific Avenue includes surf shops, bookstores (especially the local landmark Bookshop Santa Cruz and the excellent used book and record store Logos), clothing, and gifts.


Some favorite bookstores, ahem Book Cafes that help make Santa Cruz what it is, are worthy of a 'book crawl' quite distinct from your pub crawl:


This page uses the following price ranges for a typical meal for one, including soft drink:
Budget Under $10
Mid-range $10 - $20
Splurge Over $20





For its size, Santa Cruz has a large number of drinking establishments from Irish pubs to nightclubs. Many of the bars are located along Pacific Avenue. A serious pub crawl can be done starting at either the Asti (listing below) and ending about 7 blocks away at the Rush Inn or the other way around.


Coffee and Tea



Santa Cruz offers everything from cheap drive-up motels along Ocean Street to cute B&Bs to one somewhat shabby high-rise hotel on the beach.

It is illegal to sleep in your car in the city of Santa Cruz so do not get caught napping in the neighborhoods.



For our bohemian friends passing through (keep Santa Cruz Weird!), sleeping on city beaches cannot be recommended. Try the more chill beaches along the cliffs northwest of town, or along the sandy banks of the San Lorenzo, upriver in the gorge, along Highway 9.

Stay safe

There is much crime in the downtown area, often drug—related. You probably will be safe during the day and early evening, but keep your wits about yourself.

Go next

Nearby cities:

Nearby towns:

Nearby attractions:

For a longer trip:

Routes through Santa Cruz

San Francisco Pescadero  N  S  Capitola Monterey
Los Gatos Felton  N  E  END
San Jose Scotts Valley  N  S  END

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Sunday, January 31, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.