The Not-As-Touristy Guide to Santa Cruz, CA: Parks, Beaches, and Sightseeing

Santa Cruz Beaches / The Not As Touristy Guide to Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz has a little mix of everything when it comes to the outdoors. There’s no shortage of fun activities to do outside like hiking, surfing, sailing, and ziplining. I’m not toooo adventurous, so I can’t personally speak to the surfing, sailing, and ziplining in the area but I can definitely speak to the beaches, hikes, and sightseeing!


Seabright State Beach 

The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is a very common destination for beach-going families. With amusement park rides, ice cream, arcade, and beach all in one place, it becomes really realllly crowded. You’ll be packed like sardines on the beach. If you’re just looking to lay out in the sand, head to close-by Seabright Beach instead. The beach is actually quite large, so it never feels too crowded. There’s also a lot of waterfront area, not just sand, so feel free to walk along the water for a nice stroll. One of my favorite things about this beach is that you can have bonfires here–so bring some s’mores materials!

Wilder Ranch State Park

Up north from Santa Cruz on Highway 1, the beach is a bit hidden in this state park and actually tough to get down to. If you’re able to make it down though, you’ll see some beautiful blue water, tan sandy beaches, and plenty of wildflowers. This beach has become more popular over the years and Highway 1 can be a bit out of cell phone range, so plan your navigation before you venture to the beach. Also, be prepared to park in the dirt off Highway 1. 

Coastal Dairies State Park

Farther north than Wilder Ranch State Park is Coastal Dairies State Park. Beautiful and very similar to Wilder Ranch State Park. 

Natural Bridges State Beach

A small and cute beach often full of college students, this beach has some beautiful “natural bridges” to look at while you sit on the beach. If you walk along the beach a little further, you can see some tidepools! It can be crowded on the weekends at peak times but weekdays are usually just fine. 

Capitola Beach

Capitola’s beach is a bit small for all the crowds, but the area around it is amazing! The colorful buildings and carefree beach vibes make the area very fun. Have fun walking around the area and grab some saltwater taffy. If you’re hungry, it’s fun to get some pizza from the original Pizza My Heart location! This is definitely an area to check out if you want to go on a nice walk or grab some lunch or dinner. 


Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park

A bit north of Santa Cruz in Felton, CA is where you’ll find Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. You can hike, bike, and camp in this state park, but one of the best parts of this state park is the Garden of Eden. 

Big Basin Redwoods State Park

Another state park filled with redwoods, this one has waterfalls. Yep, waterfalls. There’s also more wildlife here, so this park is pretty strict about not leaving any food out in the open. Check out their policies before you head out. 

Old Landing Cove Trail

Part of Wilder Ranch State Park, this loop trail gives you beautiful views of the water and takes you to the beach. Rated as a moderate trail on AllTrails, come prepared if you want to hike this one. 

University of California, Santa Cruz Upper Campus (UCSC Upper Campus)

The University of California, Santa Cruz campus is nestled in between tall redwood trees. In the upper campus, there are beautiful trails that lead hikers through the meadows. You can start at the College Ten Trailhead and hike through the beautiful forest. It’s best hike anywhere on the UCSC campus on the weekends, when parking is free/reduced. 


Stroll Along West Cliff Drive for views of the water

Close to The Boardwalk and downtown Santa Cruz, scenic West Cliff Drive borders the ocean and beaches. You’ll see a lighthouse and dog beach along the sidewalk/trail here. Head to this area for a really nice and easy walk along the water. The views are so worth it. 

Santa Cruz Wharf

Not that many people venture out to the wharf, which is a little surprising because there is some excellent clam chowder waiting for you there. With a few restaurants, boutiques, and activities, it’s surprising more people don’t come out this way! It’s also a great spot to see whales, sea lions, and dolphins. 

Mystery Spot

I don’t know if I should list the Mystery Spot here but it’s one of the most common tourist destinations in Santa Cruz. It’s common to see bright yellow Mystery Spot Santa Cruz, California bumper stickers adorning sedans all across the Bay Area. TripAdvisor describes the Mystery Spot as a “gravitational anomaly” where the laws physics and gravity just don’t make sense. Many visitors either end up leaving the Mystery Spot as a skeptic, but it’s all in good fun. Admission is $8/person and $5/car for parking. 

That’s my list for now! What would you add to the list?

The Not-As-Touristy Guide to Santa Cruz, CA

The Not-As-Touristy Guide To Santa Cruz, CA

Santa Cruz, California is an unofficial hippie capital and an absolutely beautiful place to spend some time away with family, friends, or significant others. Its close proximity to the San Francisco Bay Area makes it the ideal place to get away from the fast-paced city or soccer mom suburban lifestyle. While Santa Cruz is also somewhat suburban, its vibrant personality is refreshing to those from out of town. 

Santa Cruz is one of those places where you need to peel back its layers to see its true beauty and value. So many people, including Bay Area locals, only see what’s on the surface–the boardwalk, the beach, and hippies. But there is so much more to do and explore in the area.

In fact, I cringe a little when I overhear  people say, “What even is there to do in Santa Cruz?!” because my inner voice is screaming, “WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?!”

Having lived in Santa Cruz for a few years, I came to appreciate how this little place is able to have restaurants, parks, beaches, stores, and more for everyone. Depending on your own travel interests, Santa Cruz will definitely have something you want to see. 

For this particular guide, I will be pointing out both touristy and non-touristy places to check out. I feel by doing that, you, as a potential visitor, have the information you need to decide whether you want to go to the most popular locations or if you want to head to the spots as the locals. That’s why it’s titled the “Not-As-Touristy” Guide to Santa Cruz. 

Also, for this guide, I’m going to be breaking it out into different posts:

The reason for this is because there is a lot I’m including, and I don’t want to overwhelm you with one single post that has all the information. Organizing it this way will make it easier for you to reference, I hope. 

At the end of the series, I will also be posting a downloadable version of the guide (PDF!) that you can save to your smartphone or tablet. That way, you can search the guide with the information you need without using internet. Depending on where you are in Santa Cruz, say in the middle of a forest, you may not have cell phone service but may need to reference the guide. That’s where I’ve got your back, friend. 

I really hope you enjoy this series and if you have any places or suggestions to add, please feel free to leave them in the comments!


Playing Tourist – A Visit to Alcatraz

A view of Alcatraz Island from the ferry
A view of Alcatraz Island from the ferry

I have probably mentioned this before, but it’s worth noting here again that I’m a Bay Area native. I was born and raised in the Bay Area and have lived here my entire life. 

Which brings me to my point–I’ve lived here my entire life and I have never been to Alcatraz. Until now, of course.

Actually, I can ask any of my friends who were born and raised here and I can tell you only one or two have been to the infamous penitentiary. 

Why? Well, for one, it’s pretty difficult to just go there on a whim. You definitely have to plan ahead. Another reason? It’s right in the middle of all the tourist traps in the city. Fisherman’s Wharf is known for cheap souvenirs, windy cold weather, sea lions, Pier 39, and any other touristy thing you can think of.  

About four weeks ago, we made plans to finally take a trip to Alcatraz! Was it worth it? Absolutely. There were so many unexpected perks from this trip, like panoramic views of the city and East Bay and beautiful spring wildflowers. 

Here’s a recap of our trip: 

The view of Coit Tower from the waiting area
The view of Coit Tower from the waiting area

The waiting area and ticketing area is legit. The National Parks Service really knows how to herd crowds of people and streamline the process. While we were waiting, I snapped this photo of Coit Tower. 

A view of Alcatraz Island from the ferry
A view of Alcatraz Island from the ferry

We were sailing over rough water but our ferry got us to the island in one piece. That’s a view of the island from the ferry. 

As soon as you get to the island, you’re greeting by this gigantic sign. Really, you can’t miss it. 

Right when you get off the ferry, a ranger gives you a quick rundown of what’s happening on the island and where things are at. They have some special demonstrations throughout the day but the main attraction is the guided audio tour that takes you through the jail cells and various rooms of the prison. It’s included in the admission to the island. 

On the way to the guided tour, you’re taken to a room that shows the toiletries they used, the laundry area, and the showers:


Almost all the rows of jail cells looked like this, with the exception of solitary confinement cells. These cells were state of the art. 

Alcatraz Jail Cells
Alcatraz Jail Cells
Entrance to the admin building
Entrance to the admin building
Dining Hall Menu
Dining Hall Menu

Their meals were a mere 20 minutes long. Pictured above is the menu from the last day Alcatraz was in operation.

After the tour (which took about an hour), we walked around the island to take in the views. 

Sailboats on the bay
Sailboats on the bay

And that’s pretty much it! We headed back on a ferry back to the mainland right afterward. 

Some tips, if you’re planning on making a trip:

  • Book your tickets in advance. The ferries are usually booked one week out. 
  • Try to go in the early afternoon so that you’re there before the heavy winds kick in
  • Eat well before you go. There is food available on the ferry (hot dogs, nachos…) There’s no food on the island and you’re not allowed to bring food to the island. You can drink water though!
  • Wear comfortable clothing and shoes. There’s a lot of walking involved.
  • There isn’t much cell phone service on the island. Plan accordingly. 
  • There are other special trips available, such as night tours and combo trips to Angel Island. Take a look to see what they offer!

Have you been to Alcatraz? What do you think?