Wedged between the Monterey Bay and the San Lorenzo Mountains, Santa Cruz offers world-renowned surfing and beaches, urban street life, and beautiful Redwood forests, all within minutes of the city. Short on cash but still want to enjoy the Santa Cruz experience? Here is a list of five free and essential adventures you can check off your Outdoor Project “to do" list this summer.
If you are new to Santa Cruz and would like to get a lay of the land, you should check out the nature trails at Pogonip. Just a short drive from Santa Cruz, Pogonip is where the city and the forest meet. Hikers, equestrians, and mountain bikers all have access through the park. There are multiple trails that take you above Santa Cruz and provide you with fantastic views of the area and Monterey Bay. One of the best is near the historic Polo Club House, which was used in the filming of The Lost Boys.
Technically this may not qualify as a free adventure, as you have to pay to park in Natural Bridges State Beach. However, if you park just outside on Swanton Boulevard, it’s just a quick walk to the beach. Natural Bridges is one of the most visited beaches in Santa Cruz. It’s one of the only beaches in Santa Cruz where you can watch the sun sink behind Monterey Bay to the west. During the sunset, you can’t throw a lens cap without hitting a photographer taking pictures of the iconic rock arch that gives this park it’s name. The Beach is fairly small, though the rock face continues down the shoreline for some big waves and interesting rock formations. Picnic tables, restrooms, and barbecue pits are available if you wish to make this an extended adventure.
Ever since three Hawaiian Princes introduced surfing to Santa Cruz in 1885, this water sport has been an icon to this beach community. People from around the world travel here to surf these waters, where Pleasure Point is a local hot spot. Competition for the waves can be fierce at times, so this is probably not the best place to practice if you are a beginner. If you are not in the mood to get wet and you still want to check out the action, there is a nice viewing area from the cliff face. Parking is free, and public restrooms are available.
If you still have surfing on mind, go check out the Surfing Museum at Lighthouse Field State Beach, above the world reknowned waves of Steamer Lame. Not only will you find another local surfing hot spot, it’s free to park! There are a few short nature trails, picnic tables, and one of the best beaches Santa Cruz has to offer. The scenery is beautiful, and you get some really nice sunsets from here.
A short drive out of Santa Cruz will take you into Aptos, where you will find Rio Del Mar State Beach. This is an ideal spot to go if you are just looking to relax on the beach. The parking is free, and you can stay past sunset. Rio Del Mar is connected to Seacliff State Beach, where access is also free. You can enjoy watching the local wildlife, catching some sun, or roasting some marshmallows in one of the many fire pits!