Santa Cruzians enjoy themselves in a very vertical and horizontal landscape including the structure of 200 ft. tall Redwood forests the vast views and beaches along the Monterey Bay. There are a number of beaches and natural areas of interest along the coast. In addition to the coast, other points of interest include spiritual retreat centers, sauna and spa houses, tea houses, wine bars, numerous music and night clubs, dance, yoga and qi gong classes, and plenty of lodging choices.
Santa Cruz is considered part of the southern San Francisco Bay area, but actually sits on the nortnern edge Monterey Bay. Santa Cruz is well secluded because the Santa Cruz mountains dissect it from San Jose.When one is beginning in San Francisco, driving along Highway 1 South along the Pacific Coast, and nearing the boundary of Santa Cruz County one enters a scenic route to many State park excursions. The State Park system sprawls east of Highway 1 until the Santa Clara/San Jose boundary. South of San Francisco there are nearly 60 miles of state park along the coastal zone.
The beaches right before boundary for the Santa Cruz county line include Ano Nuevo State Park (with annual Dec-March. Northern Elephant Seal breeding) and Gazos Creek, which both border the Butano state park property that goes deep into the Redwood forest of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Continue south deeper into the forest and Big Basin Redwoods State Park is the last remaining old growth redwood forest of the county, as well as 18,000 acres of second growth pine forest.
According to the University of California, Santa Cruz, there are several hundred mountain lions living in this area. There is a Skyline to Sea trail from the mountains to the coast and reaches Waddell Creek Beach, where hang-gliders and wind surfers pepper offshore with colorful parashutes. Following Hwy 1 south past agricultural fields along the marine terraces, one reaches Davenport, a small town with a few local restaurants and inns.
Once entering the greater Santa Cruz metropolitan area, Wilder Ranch State Park has beautiful walking trails and meadows, and following a few turns Natural Bridges State Beach is the off Hwy 1 towards the coast. Natural Bridges in the Santa Cruz suburban area, and hosts monarch butterflies in the Eucalyptus groves migration every October to March. A few miles from Natural Bridges visitors can find the Seymore Aquarium and Marine Laboratory full of educational exhibitions and docent led tide pool viewings.
Driving along West Cliff drive, with suburban homes backing up to beachfront properties with large open windows, the low cliffs give way to the beach and is accessible at various pullouts via stairways and trails.
The Lighthouse Field State Beach hosts a Surfers Museum, annual surfer festivals, and boasts of 40 acres of scenic beachfront meadows, and viewpoints that serve as a greenbelt to the suburban surrounding areas. This area can become quite crowded as it is in the middle of a populated area, but never the less this area is full of wildlife such as Brown Pelicans, Red-Tailed Hawks, Double Breasted Comorants, Bottle Nosed Dolphins, Grey and Humback Whales, Elephant Seals, Harbor Seals, Sea Otters, and Sea Lions can be spotted from various picnic tables and benches.
The San Lorenzo River flows to the beach through a long valley in between the Santa Cruz Mountains and the coastal mountains and reaches downtown Santa Cruz providing a walking trail along the riverine corridor .
The oldest amusement park in California, the Beach Boardwalk is near the end of the San Lorenzo river, and has multiple roller coasters and arcade buildings on a sandy beachfront.
Adjacent to the Beach Boardwalk is the Santa Cruz Fishermans Wharf, with fresh seafood restaurants and elephant seals living on the wooden rafters below the decks which howl and groan throughout the evening.
Recreation activities such as beach sports, fishing trips, boat rentals, scuba diving, kayaking, and surfing are popular via the various equipment rental outlets for exploration of the Monterey Bay.
Within walking distance of the Boardwalk, Pacific avenue is the main street of downtown, where one can easily stroll into various stores holding imported treasures from all over the world, peruse the Wednesday farmers market, or engage the highly active nightlife at bars and clubs. Artists, liberal activists, environmentalists, alternative healers have practice here since the hippy movement of the 60's, and the social culture is lively with music and art events. The Santa Cruz neighborhoods have prominent Victorian homes, where no detail is spared on elaborate historical house painting or upkeep.
Student culture is about one tenth of the population and the University of California, Santa Cruz is a large spread out campus with buildings nestled within the Redwood forest on the hilltop overlooking Santa Cruz. Annually in the Summer, Shakespeare Santa Cruz, performs two to three plays in the Redwood grove ampitheaters at the campus. Also worth visiting is the large UC arboretum and sustainable agroecology farm on the campus.
South of Santa Cruz downtown, the City of Capitola is a quaint seaside resort and boutique shopping area with many craft galleries, family owned wineries and restaurants, reminding one of an esplanade in the South of France, or Italy.
On the outskirts of the Santa Cruz metropolitan area, the Sunset Beach State park is a 7 mile long beach that contains the gigantic 200ft tall Pajaro Dunes, surrounded by seasonal farmland. At the Southern edge of the County, Elkhorn Slough is one of only 17 National Estuarine Research Reserves, and is the largest of protected coastal wetlands in California. It has a varienty of habitats including tidal mudflats, freshwater ponds, tidal sloughts, salt ponds, among others. There are numerous professional charters, and guided tours available to view the spectacular bird and wildlife viewing in this area.
Underneath the waters of Monterey Bay, beginning roughly at the boundary between Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, there is a deep submarine canyon equivalent to the size of the Grand Canyon. The canyon supports abundant food web via coastal upwelling of cold waters and nutrients from deep inside of the canyon that support the phytoplankton. It is also one of the largest kelp forests in the nation. This canyon is roughly 6000ft deep, and 95 miles long, and is part of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary which is the largest Marine Sanctuary in the United States stretching from San Francisco to Santa Barbara.