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!

Beaches

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. 

Hiking

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. 

Sightseeing

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?

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