While Santa Cruz gets thumbs-up for its hang-loose surf scene, oceanfront amusement park, flawless beach, and classic wooden pier, there’s another giant treasure lurking just beneath the surface. Migratory whales, including grays, blues, and humpbacks, can all be spied off the coast here at different times of year, and dolphins, sea otters, and seals are observed year round. See for yourself on exciting whale-watching cruises, chartered sailing excursions, or—for staggeringly intimate encounters—on guided kayak paddles when waters are calm.
What makes Santa Cruz such a prime spot for whale watching? According to Gary Griggs, director of the Institute of Marine Sciences at U.C. Santa Cruz, the town’s location on the northern end of Monterey Bay puts it on the edge of some of whales’ favorite undersea dining rooms. “The whales are here feeding on sardines, anchovies, and plankton, which have been attracted by blooms of microscopic plants such as diatoms,” explains Dr. Griggs. What’s more, Monterey Bay’s unique geology produces an area of relatively calm bay waters, where, according to Dr. Griggs, “plankton, small fish, seabirds, whales, and dolphins congregate to share in the food.” It makes for a fascinating, lively mix, and a great opportunity to learn more about California’s fascinating and delicate ocean ecosystems.
The ultra-mellow beach town of Santa Cruz along Highway One has a decided split personality, and both sides are cool. First, there’s family fun at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, a yesteryear-style esplanade lined with arcade games, corn dogs, a wooden roller coaster, and a historic carousel. Then there’s downtown Santa Cruz, where college students browse for vintage and boho chic, and down-to-earth restaurants focus on healthful meals made of organic, local ingredients.
If you love nature, Santa Cruz makes an excellent launching pad. Board a boat tour from the wharf for whale-watching—grays, blues, or humpbacks, depending on the time of year—or take a winding drive in the Santa Cruz Mountains to see the ancient trees at Big Basin Redwoods State Park. And there’s another nature-inspired gem tucked in these hills: a generous selection of wineries, most specializing in Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon.
But at its heart, Santa Cruz is a surf town, dating back to 1885 when three visiting Hawaiian princes rode the local waves on redwood planks, and where today’s top surfers seek out quintessential California breaks at Steamer Lane and Pleasure Point. Need more proof? The late legendary surfer Jack O’Neill, wetsuit pioneer and elder statesman of everything surf-related, made Santa Cruz his home. The O’Neill Coldwater Classic and other international surfing contests take place here every year.
The century-old Santa Cruz Wharf is the longest wooden structure of its kind on the West Coast—a staggering 2,701 feet/823 meters long. Walk to the end to get a bird’s-eye view of Steamer Lane surfers to the north, or come at dusk to watch the lights glow on the colorfully lit Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Along the waterfront, you can rent kayaks, standup paddleboards, or motorboats. Stroll past the fresh fish restaurants and souvenir shops and strike up a conversation with fishermen angling for perch, rockfish, and lingcod. Better yet, join ’em. You don’t need a license to fish from the pier, and local tackle shops can get you outfitted.
With expansive beaches and some of the world’s best off-shore breaks, Santa Cruz is famous for its high-stoke surf culture. But there’s so much more to this laid-back strip of shoreline than wetsuits and short boards. A short drive from both San Jose and San Francisco, Santa Cruz makes for the perfect weekend getaway—although once you’ve had a taste of the area’s eclectic charm and natural beauty, you may never want to leave.
Experience easygoing luxury at the Dream Inn
Staying near the beach is never a bad idea—and you can’t get much closer than the Dream Inn. Built on the site of Jack O’Neill’s first shop, this 1960s-era hotel sits just steps from Cowell Beach. The 165 rooms, all of which boast ocean views and private balconies or patios, are beachy-chic thanks to colorful, surf-inspired decor. Take a dip in the heated beachfront pool and listen to the crashing waves as you float in 85-degree water. Watch the sunset through picture windows at the on-site Jack O’Neill Restaurant, serving local seafood and farm-to-table fare.
Take an at-sea animal adventure
For a completely new perspective on Monterey Bay’s marine life, rent a vessel from Venture Quest Kayaking and paddle out from shore. You’ll float by sea lions sunning themselves on rocky outcroppings as pelicans swirl overhead. Watch for dolphin fins, frolicking otters, and seal heads bobbing up from the surf. Book a guided tour to explore the sea caves at Wilder Ranch State Park or get an up-close look at 50-foot-long gray whales during the migration season (March through May).
Get a sense of surfer history
Legend has it that surfing first arrived in the United States when a trio of traveling Hawaiian princes paddled out in Santa Cruz. The Santa Cruz Surfing Museum honors the city’s cowabunga history with far-out artifacts, photographs, and plenty of old-school boards. After you’ve learned what Burt Landess first used for a board (hint: you can also iron on it), step outside to watch history come to life. Take a stroll around Lighthouse Point and you’ll see dozens of daredevils shredding the break at Steamer Lane.
Get your kicks on a wooden roller coaster
Built in 1907 as the “Coney Island of the West,” the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is proof that a seaside amusement park never goes out of style. Feel the salty air whip through your hair on the stomach-flipping Double Shot or the Giant Dipper, a thundering wooden roller coaster with a 70-foot drop. Easy riders will love the Looff Carousel, which features real horse hair and a 342-pipe organ. Treat yourself to a classic carnival snack and try your luck at an arcade game before going for a stroll along the wharf.
Hike among the giants
Head north on California State Route 9 to explore a wildly different side of Santa Cruz County. A short 20-mile drive will take you from sandy beaches to shaded sequoia groves. Big Basin Redwoods State Park, located in Boulder Creek, offers easy access to these ancient giants. Take the 3.4-mile, out-and-back hike to Sempervirens Falls. Along the way, you’ll see 300-foot-tall redwoods, Douglas fir, five-finger fern, and maybe even a banana slug or two, before reaching the straight-from-a-fairytale falls.
If your inner escapist is yearning for Pacific vistas, forested hikes, and farm-to-table dining, this Mission-style resort in Santa Cruz’s tree-clad hills is your hall pass to getaway bliss. Chaminade Resort’s 156 rooms, 11 villas, four tennis courts, and two restaurants are perched on a hillside overlooking Monterey Bay’s blue expanse.
A $7.9 million facelift in 2016 added a fresh, artistic whimsy to the guest rooms and public spaces here. Historic black-and-white photos adorn the walls, and in-room refrigerators are disguised as vintage iceboxes. Oversize dominoes designate the room numbers. Guest beds are backed by “abacus” headboards—and yes, you can move the beads around for any bedside arithmetic needs.
The resort’s bohemian vibe fits right in with Santa Cruz’s eclectic energy. Take a 15-minute drive down the hill to shop downtown, golf, or stroll the vibrant Santa Cruz Harbor, where you can hop on a boat for a bay cruise. Or just stay put—Chaminade’s 300 acres are filled with possibilities. Take a swim in the heated pool or breathe warm, therapeutic air in the Himalayan salt sauna. Hike three miles of shady trails. Pamper yourself with a massage or facial. In summer and fall, plan ahead for Chaminade’s farm-to-table dinners, where you can meet and mingle with local food producers and vintners as you nosh your way through five farm-fresh courses paired with Santa Cruz Mountains wine.
Year-round, Linwood’s Bar & Grill and Sunset Restaurant serve enticing California cuisine, and they add a big “bone-us” for dog-loving travelers: a pooch menu that entices canine guests with peanut-butter-and-bacon pup cakes. (And of course, your fur baby can sleep next to you in Chaminade’s pet-friendly rooms.)
It has been three decades since Hollywood introduced audiences to The Lost Boys, a film that cast Jason Patric and Corey Haim as a pair of brothers who encounter a gang of young vampires stalking the fictional California town of Santa Carla.
Filmed almost entirely around Santa Cruz County, The Lost Boys starred Patric, Haim, and Kiefer Sutherland, years before they became household names, and unfolded around the beaches, boardwalks, and bridges of Santa Cruz. Like the forever-young teenagers at the heart of director Joel Schumacher’s celebrated scary story, many of the locations where the movie was shot live on, offering a unique opportunity to see the world of The Lost Boys firsthand—without the risk of running into any vampires.
Mark the 30th anniversary of The Lost Boys by visiting some of the Santa Cruz locations it features—all marked and made easy with this downloadable location map produced by the Santa Cruz County Film Commission.
Extending along the coast of Monterey Bay, this famous oceanfront walkway is home to amusement park rides, shops, and music venues—and it also provided the backdrop for countless scenes in The Lost Boys. The historic Looff Carousel is featured prominently in one of the film's earliest scenes, when Sutherland's character and his vampire gang are introduced, while the massive Giant Dipper roller coaster looms large in the background of many nighttime scenes.
Haim’s character meets the eccentric Frog Brothers, played by Corey Feldman and Jamison Newlander, at this shop, which is actually located in downtown Santa Cruz—not on the boardwalk, as it appears to be in the film. A fixture in Santa Cruz for more than 40 years, Atlantis Fantasyworld relocated after the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 destroyed the original shop, but shop owner Joe Ferrara—who appeared as an extra in The Lost Boys—still runs the store at its Cedar Street location.
The longest pier on the West Coast, this half-mile wharf in Monterey Bay is featured in the film as the location of Max’s Video Store. The shop that doubled as the video store is currently the home of the Santa Cruz Bay Company gift shop, but the building’s distinctive shape and entrance will likely be familiar to eagle-eyed Lost Boys fans.
Exterior shots of the rustic house where Patric and Haim’s characters live with their mother and grandfather actually feature the clubhouse for the Pogonip Country Club. The unique property, located high in the hills above Santa Cruz, was the home of a social club, golf course, and polo club at various points over the years. Although the structure has been unoccupied for decades, it remains a popular landmark for hikers (but hopefully not vampires).
One of the most memorable scenes in the movie was actually filmed outside of Santa Cruz—in Santa Clarita, five hours south. The Iron Horse Trailhead trestle bridge that the vampire gang hangs from in the film is located off Interstate 5 on the Magic Mountain Parkway, about 40 miles north of Los Angeles. The bridge now features a pedestrian walkway, for anyone who would prefer to cross over it instead of hanging underneath.
This remarkable preserve, California’s oldest state park, is an emerald gem in the Santa Cruz Mountains. With more than 80 miles/128 kilometers of trails winding through redwood groves and other lush habitats, Big Basin makes an appealing weekend getaway for people in the Silicon Valley, about an hour’s drive west. Moms and dads love letting the kids loose to dabble their toes in clear streams, or watching them conjure up enough courage to kiss a banana slug (ask a local; it’s a belt-notch experience for many a Northern Californian).
Big Basin offers a variety of campsites, including 38 walk-in sites—a short walk lets you pitch your tent in ultimate peace and quiet. Hike, mountain bike, or ride horses on designated routes. Trekkers love the 10.5-mile/17-km Skyline to the Sea Trail, which runs along Waddell Creek to the ocean and nearby Theodore J. Hoover Natural Preserve. There are also plenty of gentle, scenic rambles, such as the 4-mile/6-km Sequoia loop trail (complete with a small waterfall), and .5-mile/1-km Redwood loop trail that takes visitors to some of the park’s tallest trees. Pick up maps and hiking tips from rangers at park headquarters, and ask about guided twilight hikes and campfire programs.
A wide beach and splashable waves are always inviting; add a colorful boardwalk with rides, games, and music—well, how can you say no? Not many people do—this popular waterfront boardwalk is a summertime ritual for countless California families, a wonderful way for you to relax and play just like the smiling locals. While there are countless attractions lining the historic boardwalk, the big star is the Giant Dipper, a burly wooden coaster first opened in 1924 and generating screams, squeals, and squinched-shut eyes for decades.
These days, it’s not the only thrill ride in town; the boardwalk also features the 125-foot/38-metre-high Double Shot tower for heart-in-throat adrenaline lovers. For tamer rides, especially for little ones, take a spin on the painstakingly restored 1911 Looff carousel (yes, that’s real horse hair in the tail of your painted steed). A noisy but fun indoor arcade offers laser tag, mini-golf, skee-ball and countless video games. Peace out with a ride above it all in the overhead Sky Glider funicular (providing GoPro-worthy views of the beach, rides, and Santa Cruz Mountains. On Wednesdays in summer, stick around for free outdoor movies on the beach; and on summer Fridays, for free concerts.
This town’s shopping scene is eclectic, even funky. Downtown Pacific Avenue offers many shops with a local twist, including the venerable O’Neill’s where surfer guys and girls can find a bikini or board shorts, flip-flops, or a wetsuit—the creation and design of the city’s favorite son, the legendary Jack O’Neill (he still lives a beach ball toss from the beach here). The independent Bookshop Santa Cruz is packed with happy locals, especially during frequent author talks, and many other boutiques offer art, clothing, and home furnishings. Antique hounds should head to the Santa Cruz Antique Faire (8 a.m. to 6 p.m. the second Sunday of the month, on Lincoln St. between Pacific and Cedar Streets).
Winding into the Santa Cruz Mountains, you expect the towering redwoods and the misty ocean views. But wineries? It’s surprising but true: the Santa Cruz wine region boasts more than 70 wineries, producing a wide range of varietals from its mineral-y soils. One of the state’s first AVAs, the under-the-radar wine region is best known for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Microclimates abound, with warm sunny days, nights brushed with fog, and almost everything in between.
Wine experts note that the rugged region practically forces character into wine. On the often-foggy slopes, the grapes ripen slowly. Marine air cools the vines at night, keeping acids intact (a good thing). Flavors mature in the grapes before sugar levels spike too high, allowing lower alcohol levels in the end. These are lively, interesting, arresting wines. Mountain soils here are often thin and stony, and this is a good thing too: Vines that struggle in poor soil produce fewer, better grapes, with more concentrated flavor.
A must-see example of the region’s remote, low-key wineries is Ridge Vineyards, perched on a steep slope on the northern reaches of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Ridge first hit the wine scene with a flourish at the famous 1976 Judgement of Paris blind tasting (the subject of the 2008 film Bottle Shock); a Ridge Cabernet was ranked by the world's top tasters above some classic Bordeaux. Ridge wines are still considered top shelf. Bring a picnic, buy a bottle, and relax with a stellar view east across the Silicon Valley. Locate other vineyards and tasting rooms such a Lester Estate Wines, Beauregard Vineyards, and Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard with this map, or seek out some of the spots recommended by locals.
In-town tasting options are another way to sample local wines. Stop by Storrs Winery, located in a former mill, to sample Chardonnay, Zinfandel, and Pinot Noir, or Stockwell Cellars on the city’s west side, where the cavernous setting can also accommodate live music and a gallery for local artists. At Capitola’s Pelican Ranch, enjoys tastes of Burgundy- and Rhone-style varietals.
Few can resist the funky, sunny, life-lovin’ vibe of the surf culture in Santa Cruz. Legend has it three Hawaiian princes brought surfing here in 1885, with legendary Hawaiian surfers such as Duke Kahanamoku following in their footsteps. Locals soon took to the consistent, easy waves at Cowell’s, and right-handed point breaks at Steamer Lane and Pleasure Point, and they’ve been carving it up ever since.
Thanks to local legend Jack O’Neill's 1950s invention of the wetsuit to battle the Pacific’s notoriously chilly waters, newbies and experienced surfers alike can spend more time out there waiting for the perfect wave. If you want to give the sport a try, the friendliest breaks are found at Cowell’s, next to the Santa Cruz Wharf; breakers fronting Capitola are usually novice-friendly too. Club Ed Surf School offers lessons for all abilities; equipment includes wide, easier-to-balance long boards and wetsuits.
To learn more about the local surf scene and its legends, visit the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, quaintly housed in a former lighthouse along West Cliff Drive. Look over the seawall to see top surfers riding the break at Steamer Lane. And to chill out like a legend, visit the beachside Jack O’Neill Lounge at the Santa Cruz Dream Inn. Surrounded by surfing memorabilia and a great view of Monterey Bay, sip a signature cocktail, or ask for Jack’s favourite after-surf libation, a Ketel One Martini. In October, the O’Neill Coldwater Classic attracts many of the world’s best surfers.
The over-a-century-old Santa Cruz Wharf is the longest wooden strucutre of its kind on the West Coast—a staggering 2,701 feet/823 meters long. Walk to the end to get a bird’s-eye view of Steamer Lane surfing to the north. Come at dusk to watch the lights glow on the colorfully lit Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Near the base of the wharf, rent kayaks, standup paddleboards, or motorboats. As you walk farther out on the wharf, strolling past the requisite fresh fish restaurants and souvenir and trinket shops, strike up a conversation with the local fishermen angling for perch, rockfish, and lingcod. Better yet, join ’em. You don’t need a license to fish from the pier; local tackle shops can get you fully outfitted too.
Along the waterfront, you can also join guided kayak paddles, take a whale-watching trip, or join a sailing cruise.
Sure, you can get your fill of corn dogs and cotton candy down on the boardwalk, but tucked into Santa Cruz’s historic downtown buildings and in nearby communities are surprising finds, where talented chefs and artisanal food makers will tempt you to try their latest creations.
First, let’s talk coffee. Warm up on foggy mornings with a richly flavorful brew at two local favorites, Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Company and Lulu Carpenter's. For decadent pastries along with your java, try Kelly’s French Bakery, a happy find tucked among warehouses on the west side of town. Or if you’d rather sip on a local craft brew while you enjoy one of the bakery’s gourmet sandwiches, take a seat at Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing, located in the same building; you can order from Kelly’s full menu there. Another solid lunch option is Zoccoli’s Delicatessen (we dare you not to love the hot tri-tip sandwich), and double-scoops of lively flavors (ginger snap or lemon poppyseed) at Penny Ice Creamery. Marianne’s is another favorite for ice cream, with innovative flavors such as spicy Mexican Chocolate or Northern Oregon Blackberry.
Hopefully you’ll have room for an amazing dinner. There’s a huge range of options—get fresh seafood and sunset views at Johnny’s Harborside and Crow’s Nest; or for Italian cuisine, settle in at homey and charming Lillian’s Italian Kitchen (black truffle-stuffed gnocchi for grownups, classic meatballs for kids). La Posta, in the Seabright neighborhood, features a fresh, market-driven menu, and downtown, Laili serves Mediterranean cuisine with an Afghan twist. Try one of their filet mignon kabobs for a satisfying grilled-meat fix, or one of their vegetarian- and vegan-friendly options, like pomegranate eggplant.
Insider tip: If you don’t want to limit yourself to just one restaurant, check out Abbott Square Market downtown. This indoor-outdoor food hall is housed in the city’s former jail, and is home to such purveyors as Pizzeria La Bufala, All Aboard (for lobster rolls, oysters, and chowders), and Poke It, which specializes in Asian and Hawaiian poke bowls. The adjoining Museum of Art & History is well deserving of a visit as well, and if you can, make it to either one—the market or the museum—during one of MAH’s First Friday events; the art-loving crowd spills over into Abbott Square’s bars and restaurants and at that point, all bets are off.
The Santa Cruz Mountains were once a vibrant logging area—and with logging came railroads. Today, logging is largely gone, but one leftover from that bygone time is the charming scenic railway at the Santa Cruz Roaring Camp Railroads. Century-old steam locomotives take passengers on entertaining rides into redwood country, offering intimate views and big vistas of towering redwoods. Year-round, trains depart from tiny Felton to make an hour-long loop through forests to the summit of Bear Mountain. Along the way, conductors share interesting stories and information about the region and its railroad history.
For an entertaining treat, join a themed train ride, offered throughout the year. Consider a ride on the Starlight Evening Train, ride to a campfire supper and sing-along on the Western Moonlight Dinner Train, or root for the hero during a Great Train Robbery. Roaring Camp itself is a recreated 1880s logging camp, with sites including a covered bridge, a period opera house, and a classic general store. Kids enjoy watching demonstrations in blacksmithing and making candles by hand.
Daily in summer (weekends in spring and fall), Roaring Camp also operates a round/trip Santa Cruz Beach Train, picking up and dropping off passengers in Felton and at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.
The trains have both covered and open-air passengers cars. If you opt for open-air seating, consider bringing earplugs or sound-blocking headphones for babies or young toddlers with sensitive ears. There’s plenty of kid-friendly fare available for purchase, but this is one of the few attractions that allows visitors to bring in their own food.
Thomas the Tank Engine stops by once or twice throughout the year. These days are especially popular, so buy your tickets well in advance and get there early.
When it comes to thrills, turns out rides at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk aren’t the only option in the region. Nearby Mount Hermon lets you “fly” through coast redwoods on a soaring zipline, suspending you some 150 feet/46 meters above the forest floor. And it’s not just about ziplining here; this forest adventure includes the zipping as part of a spectacular, two-hour canopy tour, with an informative guide helping you navigate two thrilling sky bridges as you learn about the coast redwoods and their unique ecosystem.
Mount Hermon bumps up the excitement even more with an Adventure Course featuring 14 activities ranging from clambering up cargo nets to traversing swinging logs and sky bridges.These courses are suitable for anyone at least 57 inches/23 centimeters tall and weighing between 75 and 250 pounds/34 and 113 kilograms (ages 10 and up). Groups of smaller kids (ages 6 to 11) can get in on the forest fun at Mount Hermon’s pint-size adventure course, with ropes, mini-zip-lines, and platforms. And pretty trails around the property are open to all, with a creek for splashing and ferns, wildflowers, and flittering birds.
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