A Weekend Getaway in Santa Cruz

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I have been living in San Francisco for just over a year now and it really has been an incredible experience. The food selection is amazing, the people are friendly and interesting and there is nearly always something cool going on around town….  but….   I really miss having a warm summer.

Summer here typically consists of two months of relatively warm and clear weather from late September through November. This is really the only time you can safely head out in shorts and a tee.

To combat this lack of summer warmth we have been told to venture out of the city for weekends away as the temperature changes dramatically with only a 30-minute drive or more.

So we recently took this advice, rented a cheap car, and set off for sunny Santa Cruz which lies approximately 80 miles (128 kilometers) to the south of San Francisco.

Santa Cruz route
Santa Cruz route

The journey is around two hours but the drive itself was quite spectacular as we took the slower route along the coast down highway 1. Luckily for us, the weather was very clear, (normally a lot of fog as you exit the city) so the views were well worth the extra few minutes of driving.

There is a plethora of accommodation in Santa Cruz to cater to the influx of weekend warriors coming from the Bay area. The majority is made up of budget-style motels and they all seem to be located within a mile or so of the Beach Boardwalk.

What to do in and around Santa Cruz

The majority of tourists seem to come to Santa Cruz specifically for the beaches and the historic Beach Boardwalk. It is surprising how often an advertisement will come on in San Francisco with their catchy tune but obviously works well.

The Beach Boardwalk

Opened in 1907 the Beach Boardwalk is California’s oldest surviving amusement park and one of the few seaside parks on the West Coast of the United States.

The cable car along the beach
The cable car along the beach

The Boardwalk features both modern and classic rides, carnival games, restaurants, miniature golf, video game arcades, and family bowling, all located on a mile of sandy beach. One of the best things about the Boardwalk is that entry is free, of course, this doesn’t include any of the rides or games but is a great way to check out the park and decide if you want to go on any of the rides. Ride tickets cost anywhere from $3 – $5 and they also offer affordable ticket options where you can get a season pass for $69.95 which includes unlimited ride entry.

One of the main attractions of the park is the Giant Dipper. This classic wooden roller coaster was first opened in 1924 and recently surpassed a whopping 60 million visitors. It is a bone-shaking experience from start to finish but one that will definitely leave a big smile on your face.

Big dipper

Ocean Kayaking with Kayak Connection

Just off the coastline of Santa Cruz lies the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, the largest national marine sanctuary in the United States. Encompassing 276 miles of shoreline and 6,094 square miles of ocean it is home to one of the most diverse marine ecosystems on the planet, hosting marine mammals, seabirds, fish, invertebrates and amazing kelp forests that the local otters call home.

One of our favorite activities is to get out on the water in a kayak and Lisette and I always jump at any opportunity to do so. We decided that this time, rather than just grab a rental, it would be great to join a tour. After a quick search online I found Kayak Connection, a local business with great reviews that did both rentals and ocean tours through the marine park.

Kayak Connection office
Kayak Connection office

On the morning of our tour, our guide David greeted us with a big smile and thoroughly explained the safety aspects along with a brief on some of the marine animals that we would potentially see out on the water. We were lucky to have a gorgeous blue sky with very little wind as we set off paddling from Santa Cruz Harbor.

David was extremely passionate about the conservation of this protected area which was reflected in his enthusiastic approach to teaching us about the tainted history of over-fishing in the bay as we paddled through the harbor entry including how the otter population was nearly wiped out.

The area is a playground for whales, dolphins, and other marine life and we had only just cleared the harbor mouth when we were greeted by a friendly harbor seal. After an enjoyable paddle across the bay with spectacular views of the boardwalk and pier we arrived at the local surf spot, Steamer’s Lane. Here we watched a number of sea otters playing among the kelp. There were two in particular that were very inquisitive and swam right towards our kayak….amazing!!

On the paddle back we passed by the pier where hundreds of sea lions basking in the warmth of the sun on the wooden foundations. One even swam out to greet us and followed close behind for a while as we head back to the harbor.

Overall this was an incredibly memorable experience and one I would strongly recommend to anyone looking for an eco-friendly adventure.

Ocean kayak tour

Redwood Canopy Tours at Mount Hermon

The Redwood Canopy Tours at Mount Hermon offers visitors an exciting eco-adventure into the redwood canopy of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Enjoy the coastal redwood forest from the unique perspective only a zipline canopy tour can offer. The two-hour guided tour includes six zip lines and two sky bridges at heights of up to 150 feet. Each tour of up to eight is led by two certified guides who share their ecological knowledge and bring the history of the Santa Cruz redwood forest to life. The Redwood Canopy Tours are the original canopy tour ziplines in the redwood forest and is the first facility of its kind in the region.

Ziplining course in the redwoods
Ziplining course in the redwoods

Other Attractions

Of course, if you are coming to Santa Cruz you are more than likely going to be here for the beaches and Boardwalk but here are a  couple of other attractions you might like to check out while you are in the Santa Cruz area: The Mystery Spot and the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum.

Finally, a Great Bite to Eat

We were looking for somewhere interesting to eat on Saturday night and happened to stumble across The Greek – Authentic Cuisine restaurant (with a little help from Yelp). This family-run establishment is apparently quite iconic in Santa Cruz due to the lively owner Vasilis and coincidentally it turned out to be his 64th birthday on the night that we were there.

The restaurant has a fun and lively feel with traditional Greek live music, plates smashing on the floor and a homely feel to the decor. Sara, our waitress, noted that Vasilis's hand-sketched all of the artwork that adorns the walls….quite impressive we thought.

The Greek Authentic Cuisine Restaurant
The Greek Authentic Cuisine Restaurant

The meal portions were very generous so we decided to go with the smaller size house specialty salad along with some dolmathes and tzatziki for starters. All in all the food was delicious and well worth checking out if you plan on visiting Santa Cruz.

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Michael Glass

Michael is the founder of Backpacker Travel. He also runs walking tours in San Francisco and is a freelance travel writer. Michael is extremely passionate about travel and loves to explore festivals around the world.

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2 comments on “A Weekend Getaway in Santa Cruz”

  1. Such great inspiration to get out and explore your local region! I have always wanted to visit Santa Cruz, and you have successfully made me want to go even more now:-)

    I am looking forward to reading some of your posts about your festival visits in the future.

    1. Glad the article has helped you realize that sometimes we miss out on cool things that are happening in our own backyard. That is one of the purposes of the site when we launch is to give you a taste of the things you might enjoy on your own doorstep.

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