Santa Cruz's natural beauty — from sandy beaches to redwood-studded mountains — attracts outdoor adventurers looking to hike, bike, watch wildlife or simply take in the breathtaking scenery. The fact that it is home to UC Santa Cruz gives the town a "youthful" feel, with a thriving music, arts and cultural scene. Amidst the relaxed vibe, you can also find world-class dining, premiere day spas and boutique shopping opportunities.
Whether you're looking to dance the night away, ride a zip-line across a redwood canopy or simply dig your toes in the sand, this quintessential California enclave has it all.
Downtown Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz features a vibrant downtown center, with a pedestrian walkway on Pacific Avenue extending from the clock tower to the bus depot. Here, people watching is an artform as the mall pulsates with sidewalk performers from musicians and jugglers to people offering to read your fortune.
Nestled in the downtown area you'll find small cafés, outdoor bistros and boutiques selling everything from fine art to local handmade wares. There is also a colorful display of public art scattered throughout the city proper, including a variety of sculptures, mosaics and murals. The Museum of Art and History features contemporary and regional art exhibits as well as historical collections.
The Catalyst has been Santa Cruz's hotspot for nighttime music and dancing since the 1960s. Head to the Kuumbwa Jazz Center for an intimate setting with steamy jazz performances.
Wilder Ranch and Seymour Marine Discovery Center
A mile north of Santa Cruz, Wilder Ranch State Park's 7,000 acres of coastal terrace, rolling hills and marshlands are a paradise waiting to be discovered. Hikers, mountain bikers, equestrians and joggers will appreciate the 35 miles of multi-use trails that traverse the park.
Coastal headlands offer a rare glimpse into pristine beaches of Northern Monterey Bay. The newly restored Meder farmhouse is a hands-on living history museum where visitors can catch a glimpse of what life was like 100 years ago on this historic dairyfarm. Free tours are open to the public Sundays at 1 p.m. Info: 423-9703, www.parks.ca.gov
Heading back down the coast, the Seymour Marine Discovery Center offers a variety of hands-on experiences to learn about marine science and the creatures that live in Monterey Bay.http://seymourcenter.ucsc.edu
California's oldest seaside resort beckons with Bay vistas, world-class dining, a thriving beach scene and the ambiance of a Mediterranean villa. Take a walk down the charming esplanade, which is surrounded by oceanfront restaurants and curves to a palm tree-lined beach filled with sunbathers, colorful umbrellas and a breathtaking view.
A staircase at the end of the esplanade climbs 86 steps up to Depot Hill. Here, you can walk through a neighborhood of beautiful houses built in 1884. Walk through the headlands and gaze out over the coast towards Aptos. On your way back down, enjoy gorgeous views of the village.
Pack a picnic lunch at Gayle's Bakery or take the cable car to Shadowbrook for fine dining on the river. Treat yourself to a luxury getaway at Caress Day Spa. From June through August, Capitola Beach features Wednesday evening "Twillight Concerts" as well as periodic "Sunday Art and Jazz Festivals." Info: capitolavillage.com
Santa Cruz Redwoods
The Santa Cruz Mountains are testament to early conservation efforts that began in California more than 100 years ago. Though much of the forested land is second growth, there are still places where visitors can experience the magic of giant old-growth redwood trees. Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, off Highway 9 in Felton, offers an easily accessible Redwood Grove Trail that circles large old-growth redwoods, including the park's rare albino trees.
The tallest tree in the park is approximately 285 feet tall and 16 feet wide. The oldest trees in the park are 1400 to 1800 years old. Visitors can hike, bike or ride horses through lush canyon streams, open meadows and redwood, pine and oak forests. The park offers campgrounds, picnic areas and a visitor center with interactive exhibits. Info: 335-4598, www.parks.ca.gov
Adjacent to Henry Cowell, Roaring Camp Railroads offers visitors the opportunity to take a journey back in time on a steam engine locomotive through scenic redwoods up to Bear Mountain. April through September, Beach Trains will carry riders to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and back. New this year, Roaring Camp will offer redwood canopy tours, where adventurers can explore the giant trees up-close via zip-lines, bridges and platforms. Info: 335-4400, www.roaringcamp.com.
Elephant seals at Año Nuevo
Approximately 25 miles north of Santa Cruz in San Mateo County, Año Nuevo State Park is famous as a breeding ground for elephant seals in the wintertime.
However, many people don't realize that spring is a great time to catch a glimpse of these enormous marine mammals. For one, you don't need a reservation or a guided tour- you just go to the park, pay the fee and get a permit. Also, spring is a great time of year for birdwatching and you're likely to be gifted with an explosion of wildflowers gracing the dunes and coastal bluffs.
And though you may not see the carnal interactions of winter, you will still be rewarded with baby elephant seals, known as "weaners," as well as juveniles and adults that come ashore to molt. Early morning is the best time to see weaners as they haul ashore after their overnight swimming practice — and it is also the least windy time of day. No food is allowed in the viewing area, though hikers are encouraged to carry water. Picnic areas are available in the parking area or at Cove Beach. Info: (650) 879- 2025, www.parks.ca.gov.
With more than 29 miles of beaches fringing its shores — and more than 300 sunny days a year — Santa Cruz County is a beach lover's paradise.
Best beaches for families: Natural Bridges State Beach, Main Beach (in front of the Boardwalk), Capitola Beach.
Beaches for "grommits" and novice surfers: Cowell Beach, Capitola Beach.
Best waves for experienced surfers: Four-mile (at Wilder Ranch), The Hook at Pleasure Point, Steamer Lane.
Good vantage points to watch the pros ride the waves: Lighthouse Point, overlooking Steamer Lane; Pleasure Point, overlooking The Hook.
Best fishing beaches: Rio Del Mar and Seacliff State Beach.
Best beaches for bonfires: La Selva Beach, Manresa Uplands State Beach, Twin Lakes State Beach, Rio Del Mar Beach.
Beaches with campsites: Sunset State Beach, New Brighton State Beach.
Beaches where dogs can run off-leash: Seacliff State Beach, Rio Del Mar and Manresa State Beach; Its Beach (dogs aren't the only free spirits here — it's also one of Santa Cruz's clothing-optional beaches).
Scenic beach drive: West Cliff Drive.
Best oceanfront running: Anywhere in Aptos, West Cliff Drive.
Best beach for sunset views: Bluffs of Seacliff Beach.