Santa Cruz, California, the northernmost of the Golden State's true beach towns, has long been known for its world-class surf breaks and related surf culture. Santa Cruz is the location where surfing was first introduced to California by Hawaiian princes back in 1885, after all. While surfing does help serve as a tangible symbol for Santa Cruz's adventurous spirit, as an outdoor activity it really only scratches the surface of the options on offer in this northern corner of Monterey Bay.
Whether you're considering spending a weekend or an entire week in the Santa Cruz area, you'll find no shortage of outdoor recreation opportunities at your fingertips, where ocean-based pastimes are just part of the story. Rising above the Santa Cruz coastline is a topographic relief comprised of redwood forested mountains and river valleys that provide experiences of a different sort, ranging from family-friendly hiking excursions to heart pumping gravity-fed fun. One thing both Santa Cruz ocean and mountain adventures have in common: quick immersion into raw and beautiful nature.
Below is a quick-and-dirty adventurer's guide to the Santa Cruz area. By no means are the suggestions below comprehensive, but they do provide a good sampling of the activities around Santa Cruz that are easily accessible.
The redwood forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains are home to some of central and northern California's top mountain biking trails. With the Soquel Demonstration Forest trails located up off the summit of Highway 17 and multiple mountain biking trail networks within riding distance of town, riders can choose between leaving the vehicles behind, arranging a shuttle, or heading up to "the Demo."
Santa Cruz is blessed to be surrounded by a diverse network of state parks, such as Wilder Ranch State Park located just north of town, where all trails within the park are multi-use and open to riding. Whether you're casually cruising through an open meadow on a family ride overlooking the Pacific Ocean or ripping down singletrack through the Enchanted Loop, Wilder Ranch has riding options that cater to all. Being multi-use, all of Wilder's trails are great for hiking as well.
On the south side of town, Forest of Nisene Marks State Park is another alluring venue for both hiking and riding. Beneath the canopy of redwoods and fir trees visitors can stay cool on a warm day or escape a foggy summer morning by following Aptos Creek as it meanders its way through the lush forest. Old-growth redwoods are located near the entrance of the park, and more scenic trails are found deeper within the park and beyond the steel bridge. Note that not all trails in Forest of Nisene Marks State Park are open to mountain biking.
Come spring, waves aren't the only oceanic recreational resource found in Santa Cruz; there's also a surplus of wind! Waddell Beach sits 16 miles north of town and pulls in more wind than most. Each afternoon during spring and summer months the wind picks up by early afternoon and continues howling until early evening-ish, offering the perfect setting for kitesurfers to take to the water. At Waddell, the wind and waves combine to create one of the best kitesurfing locations on the West Coast. The only caveat is that Waddell Beach really isn't a beginner kiting spot; strong winds can combine with large waves and add another level of complexity. Get your basics down first, however, and Waddell will reward you with with wind-fueled, wave-riding excitement right in front of the scenic Rancho Del Oso portion of Big Basin Redwoods State Park.
If you're interested in an ocean activity that requires less wind, less expertise, and less gear, consider shoving off from Santa Cruz harbor in a kayak. Kayak Connection, a local outfitter based in the harbor, rents kayaks and provides instruction before you set out to explore the calm waters of the harbor and beyond. Kayakers can take in the Santa Cruz coastline from the unique perspective of being on the water while exploring the Santa Cruz wharf and the kelp forests off the renowned surf spot known as Steamer Lane. Stay on the lookout for marine life because kayaking is great way to experience the sea otters, sea lions, seals and even humpback and gray whales that frequent the area.
With full days of mountain biking, hiking, kiting and paddling, you're likely to be tuckered out by the day's end and in need of a comfortable bed to rest up. While a diverse range of accommodations can be found throughout the Santa Cruz area, why not stick with the nature theme? You can stay in a cozy riverside cabin or camp along the coast and let the sounds of the breaking waves lull you to sleep.
Six miles up both Highway 9 and the San Lorenzo River from Santa Cruz is the quaint town of Felton, where you'll find Fern River Resort. Situated in a tranquil setting beneath towering redwoods and on the banks of the San Lorenzo River, Fern River Resort offers guests cabins ranging from one bedrooms up to full houses that can sleep 12. Lying across the river from the ancient redwood groves of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, the resort is within walking distance of "downtown" Felton, where multiple restaurants and a good old-fashioned ale house awaits.
If camping is your calling, we recommend reserving a beachside campsite in advance and camping along the coast at New Brighton State Beach. New Brighton State Beach Campground offers easy beach access and scenic sunsets over Capitola and Pleasure Point. While this gem of the Santa Cruz area is located adjacent to both Capitola and Aptos (think access to Forest of Nisene Marks State Park), you'll feel like you're worlds away.