Located 65 mi/105 km south of San Francisco, Santa Cruz is in many ways the quintessential California town, combining a laid-back counterculture atmosphere with plenty of shore activities and, of course, surfing. The historic boardwalk contains one of the oldest amusement-park areas on the West Coast. One of its roller coasters is a National Historic Landmark, but the park also includes a state-of-the-art coaster and an amusement area with special effects and robotics.
The prominence of surfing in Santa Cruz can be judged by the statue the city erected to celebrate the sport. There are several places along the coast to shoot the curls (or watch others do it). Steamer's Lane, off Lighthouse Field State Beach, is the town's most famous spot, and Cowell Beach and Manresa State Beach are also popular.
Whether you can hang 10 or not, you'll enjoy the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, contained in a lighthouse off West Cliff Drive, near Lighthouse Field State Beach. It covers the sport from its infancy in the 1930s, explaining changes in board technology and chronicling the stars of the surfing world. Phone 831-420-6289. http://www.santacruzsurfingmuseum.org.
Of course, the town's numerous beaches can be used for activities aside from surfing. You could, for instance, hang out on the beach. There are also fishing and swimming for those who want to be active, and sailboat cruises for viewing the beach from the bay.
There's a lot of shoreline to choose from in the Santa Cruz area, so you should be able to find a beach to fit your activities and temperament. We like Natural Bridges State Beach for the monarch butterflies that congregate there October-March. For a more upscale beach-town experience, you can drive 6 mi/9 km to enjoy Capitola's beaches and shops. This delightful resort village has some exceptional bed-and-breakfast inns and shorefront fine-dining restaurants.
The University of California at Santa Cruz campus is located in the hills overlooking the town and bay. The campus' modern architecture blends impressively with the redwood-forest surroundings. http://www.ucsc.edu.
If you're in Santa Cruz between December and March, don't miss the chance to see the elephant seals bellow, snort and frolic during breeding season at Ano Nuevo State Reserve in Pescadero, about 20 mi/32 km north of the city. Guided walks along the dunes area of the reserve are available by reservation only—make your plans at least a month in advance because the walking tours are very popular. The reserve is one of only two mainland seal-breeding colonies in the world. Because the state began limiting access to the area in the 1970s, the seal population has grown from only 35 to more than 3,000 animals. Phone 650-879-2025. http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=523.
Another must-see near Santa Cruz is one of the area's redwood parks—most notably Big Basin Redwood State Park, a hiker's park about 25 mi/40 km up-canyon from Santa Cruz. (It was California's first state park.) Another good spot for inspirational hiking is nearby Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.
A historic narrow-gauge railway, the Roaring Camp and Big Trees Railroad, carries sightseers from Felton to the beach in Santa Cruz through Roaring Camp. Their Redwood Forest Steam Train goes from Roaring Camp to Bear Mountain and back. http://www.roaringcamp.com.
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