Santa Cruz Weekend Guide: Hiking, Biking, and Coastal Adventures

Santa Cruz is perfect weekend getaway from San Francisco.
Santa Cruz is perfect weekend getaway from San Francisco. Anita Ritenour
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It's a destination revered among surfers: the California coastal town of Santa Cruz, known by many as the birthplace of the sport on the mainland, when three Hawaiians rode redwood boards near the mouth of the San Lorenzo River in the 1880s. And whenever a swell hits now, hundreds of wave-chasing adventurers descend on Steamers Lane near the Lighthouse.

Generations of families know the place, too. Hundreds of thousands show up every summer to play games on the boardwalk and ride the Big Dipper, the creaky wooden roller coaster that’s been there since 1924.

The laid-back college town just 75 miles south of San Francisco offers endless options for an outdoorsy weekend, whether your speed is an adrenaline-fueled mountain biking, heart-pumping hikes, or just a simple cruise through downtown. Here, a Santa Cruz Santa weekend guide that offers inspiration for your getaway.

Where To Hit the Trail

Berry Creek Falls is a highlight of Big Basin State Park.
Berry Creek Falls is a highlight of Big Basin State Park. Blane Bachelor

Right in the heart of Santa Cruz, Pogonip offers 640 acres of redwood forest, wide open meadows, and beautiful views of Monterey Bay. You can bring your dog and run or hike a long loop in the city-owned park that shares a boundary with the UC-Santa Cruz campus.

And if Pogonip’s eight miles of trails aren't enough, the park also shares a boundary with Henry Cowell Redwood State Park, a 4,650-acre adventure in tall, tall trees, 15 types of fern, and an abundant if slow-moving community of banana slugs—these little critters are icons in these parts. Shady and cool all summer, the park features 35 miles of trails that wind up into the Santa Cruz mountains on both sides of the San Lorenzo River.

Big Basin State Park, the oldest of California’s parks, also sits just up the road. A windy road takes you out of town and up to the main entrance in Boulder Creek. And a straight shot up Highway 1 leads to the park’s Rancho Del Oso unit. This park offers 80 miles of trail, enormous waterfalls, and 2,000-year-old trees.  

Where to Grab a Paddle

Paddlers near the lighthouse in Santa Cruz.
Paddlers near the lighthouse in Santa Cruz. Don DeBold

Any given Saturday, you will see kayakers, stand-up paddlerboarders, outrigger canoeists, and rowers starting their adventures from the Santa Cruz Harbor. The inlet is well protected and the dock on the west side is an easy place to launch if you bring your own boat. Inside the harbor, the Kayak Connection rents both kayaks and stand-up paddleboards and offers lessons and tours.

Once you paddle out past the jetty, a right turn takes you past the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, Steamers Lane, and Seal Rock. Steer clear of the rock and the sea lions sitting and barking on top of it, but be prepared that other critters may not give you the same wide birth. On a recent morning paddle, a pod of a hundred or so dolphins swam between a group of paddlers. Sea otters also regularly pop up or float on their backs in the kelp beds, and whales tend to breach wherever they want.

If Pedaling Is More Your Speed

Make like the locals and cruise through Santa Cruz.
Make like the locals and cruise through Santa Cruz. Richard Masoner

Santa Cruz County offers great rides with lots of grinding climbs and ripping descents for serious cyclists—both on mountain and road bikes.

Looking for a relatively flat ride on skinny tires? You can head north out of town on Highway 1, in the morning before the wind comes up. Ride past Wilder Ranch, past berry farms and wide open space to Davenport, a former whaling town on the water. Grab a cup of coffee at the Whale City Bakery and turn around for a gentle 22-mile ride.

Cyclists looking for more miles and elevation gain can continue from Davenport up Bonny Doon Road to Empire Grade Road and back down the winding tight two-lane road to High Street into town. The 30-mile loop isn't for the faint of heart, with 3,000 feet of climbing.

Mountain bikers can start on the relatively mellow trails in Wilder Ranch, or ramp up the adrenaline at the top of Nisene Marks State Park in neighboring Aptos.

For an even more casual spin, rent a cruiser and roll through town like the locals. The West Cliff Drive Bicycle Path is three miles of easy riding—the perfect stretch or soaking up the stunning views of the California coastline.

Where To Refuel

Downtown Santa Cruz has plenty of dining options and watering holes.
Downtown Santa Cruz has plenty of dining options and watering holes. Davide D'Amico

Santa Cruz's cheerful-yet-chill downtown is full of great spots to grab a bite and a beer. For an ideal post-adventure meal, head  El Palomar  for individual tacos and a pile of guac from the bar. Or, for a more upscale experience,  Oswalds  is another recommended spot. And if you want to keep an eye on the water while you eat and drink, the iconic  Crows Nest in the Harbor has beautiful views, while  Aquarius in the Dream Inn combines all the best that’s locally grown, harvested, and caught.

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