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Highway 17 south from San Jose is the most direct route when driving from the more populated parts of the Bay Area. It is a winding road over the mountains, shared during the week with heavy gravel trucks, so heed the speed limits; accidents are common, but the road is much safer since the addition of concrete barriers some years ago. Beware of possible fog, as well as "hurried" drivers.
To merge from Highway 17 to Highway 1, in Santa Cruz, to continue south you must merge three times on the dreaded "fish hook". This causes the beginning of the dreaded commute from "over the hill" to the coast for many. Traffic usually lasts from 1500 until 1800, Monday thru Friday, from just south of 41st Ave. on Highway 1, spilling back onto Highway 17 going south. Traffic has been getting worse going north during the morning commute with the increasing population in Watsonville. Currently, there is construction in both the north and south bound lanes on Highway 1, in the vicinity of the "fish hook", to alleviate these problems.
A much more beautiful, but slower, approach to Santa Cruz is on Highway 1, either from the north, San Francisco and Pacifica (about 65 miles), or from the south, Monterey and Big Sur (about 35 miles). During stormy seasons, check for rare, but often long-term road closures, especially at Devil's Slide.
See "Get Around" to get from stations to your hotel.
To take public transportation there is a commuter shuttle, the Highway 17 Express (Santa Cruz route 17; VTA route 970), that runs from the Caltrans station in San Jose 7 days a week, which is scheduled to transfer with certain Amtrak trains. There are also multiple lines that go south to Watsonville 7 days a week. Greyhound also runs buses to the city. All these lines go to, or near to, the Santa Cruz Metro Center, which is conveniently located in the downtown area.
The nearest major airport is in San Jose, but San Francisco and even Oakland aren't much farther away, and sometimes have cheaper flights. There is a small regional airport in Monterey, but in most cases San Jose is the best choice. Scheduled airport shuttles provide service every few hours to San Jose, and less often to San Francisco. Caltrans also provides a route to the San Francisco airport, through a transfer with BART in Millbrae.
When your want to get out of the hotel and see Santa Cruz there are a number of options for getting around.
The main downtown strip is pedestrian friendly, and it's only a 20 minute stroll from there to the beach. Walking to the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC) from downtown, is little more difficult, with bad or non-existent sidewalks and a very steep climb up to the campus.
While driving is certainly an option (there is enough parking in most places), Santa Cruz Metro also provides bus service.
Especially during the summer, Santa Cruz is a wonderful town for bicycling. Cycling is often faster than cars in the summer, not to mention much more enjoyable. In and around town and up and down Highway 1 is easy, but roads in the Santa Cruz Mountains are steep and winding and will be challenging for many cyclists. Be careful. Collisions between bicycles and cars are often reported in the paper. Sadly a number pedestrian and car collisions have also happened in the downtown area.
From high class to kitschy you hotel will give you access to all Santa Cruz has to offer.
Downtown Santa Cruz, Lots to see and do here all day and night. Quite a bit of "Santa Cruz" character mixed with some great restaurants and lots of cool shops. Mostly it's a great people watching center. The nightlife is also worth sticking around for.
The Beach Boardwalk: A historical amusement park that has been around since the 1900s, the Beach Boardwalk features one of the oldest wooden rollercoasters still in use in the US as well as numerous modern attractions. Entrance is free, rides cost between $2-4 each (but less than $1 on selected summer evenings!). Day, month, and yearly passes available.
Mystery Spot: Take Branciforte Drive to the famous ('As Seen on TV') tourist trap, complete with antigravity cabin and amazing hillside of illusion.
Natural Bridges State Park: Open daily, sunrise to sunset. State beach park with nature trails. Yearly monarch butterfly migration. Entrance free. Fee for parking.
Surf Museum: Located in the lighthouse at Lighthouse Point, West Cliff Drive. Memorabilia from the origins of surfing in California to the present day. Thursday through Monday, Noon-4:00 pm.
UC Santa Cruz: Up on the hill at the north end of town. This is a smaller UC campus (except for the brand new campus in Merced), with about 15,000 students, but it is spread over almost a thousand acres, mostly covered with redwood forests with the occasional stunning view of the bay. There is an UCSC Arboretum specializing in native plants and plants from Australia. Mountain bike and hiking trails criss-cross the upper part of campus, connecting Wilder Ranch State Park to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park (get a trail map and a parking permit from the kiosk as you enter campus). The Bay Tree Bookstore sells clothes with the UCSC mascot -- the banana slug -- but keep your eyes open for the mountain lions rarely seen on campus.
Delaveaga Frisbee Golf Course: It is very challenging. Saturdays are busy, especially in the morning. The course is awesome and even if you don't play the hikes in the area are spectacular. Beware of the Poison Oak.
Big Basin Redwoods State Park: The oldest state park in California. If features stately redwood groves and the Tree-to-Sea Trail. Hike from Big Basin Park headquarters to Waddell Creek Beach.
Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park: Just north of Santa Cruz in the mountains, it has a great nature center and little trail with old growth redwoods. Right next door is Roaring Camp Railroads where you can ride either the beach train to the Boardwalk or the steam train to Bear Mountain.
Año Nuevo State Park: A park 25 miles north on Hwy 1 with one of the largest populations of Elephant Seals, guided tours are available during the winter (which is breeding season). Animals are there year round.
Along with the beach, Santa Cruz offers many other reasons to get out of your hotel and make the most of your stay.
Relax and enjoy the scenery...
Road Biking - Road cyclists in central Santa Cruz can easily escape the big city by going out Empire Grade, taking Branciforte to either Glen Canyon or Granite Creek, or even going out Hwy 1. A little to the east, two not so steep roads are Old San Jose Road (bit trafficky / better for descending, reachable from Branciforte via Laurel Glen) or Eureka Canyon (from Corralitos). Some good connectors are Bear Creek, Smith Grade, Ice Cream Grade, Hwy 35, or even Mt. Hermon (from Granite Creek to Felton Empire). The worst traffic will be on Graham Hill or most of Hwy 9. To avoid Hwy 9 you'll need to do some climbing, but if that's you're thing then try Empire Grade, Mountain Charlie, Zayante, Felton Empire, the wonderful Jamison Creek up from Big Basin Park, or the ridiculous Alba Road. Roads in Santa Cruz can be steep, and expect most to have some extended pitches of over 10%.
Santa Cruz County is home to many wonderfully talented artists, musicians, and writers. Check out some of the locals' favorite art, music, and literary events. You could even plan your hotel stay to coincide with one:
The Open Studios Art Tour is a program of the Cultural Council of Santa Cruz County which was created in 1985 to give the public with an opportunity to collect art and to meet and learn from local Santa Cruz County artists. Approximately 275 artists open their studios (which are usually located in their homes) to the public. The tour runs for three consecutive weekends each fall.
Don't miss the annual Santa Cruz Blues Festival.
Santa Cruz boasts a lively Salsa dancing scene, with Salsa by the Sea a key attraction. Every Sunday year round (weather permitting), locals come to the Boardwalk to dance in the open air by the beach. Hours vary by the time of the year, but sometime in the afternoon, and always free. Other regular events are at the Vets Hall every Tuesday and both the Palomar and E3 Playhouse every Friday.
You came looking for beach hotels and this place really delivers, because Santa Cruz is a beach town, with a beach to match almost any interest. Main Beach and Cowell Beach attract large crowds to the boardwalk area on sunny summer weekends. Flocks of novice surfers balance on their boards in the quiet waters just north of the municipal wharf, in front of the big hotel that locals still call the Dream Inn. Volleyball nets are strung just south of the wharf. The boardwalk amusement area is adjacent to main beach. Heading north, Steamers Lane isn't a beach, but the famous surf break in front of the lighthouse. In the summer, its sometimes hard to see what the fuss is about, but the winter can bring big waves and spectators line the rail watching the surfers and the sea lions. In the summer, docents are often on hand on weekends to help with wildlife spotting in the Monterey Bay Sanctuary.
North of the lighthouse are a series of little pocket beaches, some that disappear entirely in the winter. The first one, It's Beach, is one of the few places in town that dogs can be run off leash (before 10 AM and after 4 PM only), and often dozens of dogs are chasing sticks, balls, and each other. Mitchell's Cove, just north, also allows dogs. Natural Bridges State Beach, whose famous monarch butterflies are discussed above, is a popular windsurfing beach. The name is misleading: one of the two stone bridges collapsed a few years ago. Just south of Natural Bridges is the tiny clothing-optional 2222 Beach.
Heading further north along the coast, you leave the city limits and pass through agricultural fields for 11 miles before reaching the small town of Davenport, which has a couple of restaurants, a B&B, and a huge cement plant that dominates the skyline. Each turnout along the road marks a beach, many of which are prime surf spots. Wilder Ranch State Park can be reached by a new bike path from just north of Natural Bridges. Its several nice beaches include Three Mile Beach and Four Mile Beach, named after their distances from town. Further north are Red, White, and Blue Beach, a private nude beach - now closed for good by the owner (at the red, white, and blue mailbox), Laguna Creek Beach (with parking on the east of highway 1), Panther and Hole-in-the-Wall Beach (connected by a passage that closes at high tide), Bonny Doon Beach (another famous clothing optional spot), and Davenport Beach. For those who want to tour the beaches, Highway 1 has wide shoulders that are generally safe for cycling.
There are lots of beaches south of Main Beach as well, so exploring here will be fun and rewarding.
This is a great way to get out of your hotel and do something active. Santa Cruz is also surrounded by a great number of open space parks. There are two types of parks to choose from. There are inland wooded parks, (like Henry Cowell State Park) with redwood groves, and swimming in the river and open space preserves built on the coastal hills.
Wilder Ranch is a state park sitting in the hills adjacent to the coast (just west of town on Hwy 1). It has expansive views of the Monterey Bay as well as sweeping views of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The ranch also includes many old historic building, staffed with docents to demonstrate the workings of the historic ranch.
Henry Cowell State Park is located along highway 9 just north of town. This is a heavily wooded park containing many historic redwood trees. The San Lorenzo River flows through the park forming a canyon that makes you feel you are somewhere far away. Make sure to visit Big Rock Hole; a quaint swimming hole with room to splash around and even a rope swing!
The Pogonip is located within the city boundaries adjacent to the university and accessible from Spring Street and from Highway 9 (via Golf Club). The Pogonip is an old country club which has reverted back to a fairly natural state. It sits on the side of a hill and has great views as well as great natural items. Numerous springs fill the creeks, as well as a special fish pond along the Spring Box Trail.
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For a longer trip:
From your hotel in Santa Cruz you have a number of options for great day-trips.
Drive up to the mountains of Santa Cruz.
Drive down South along the coast of Monterey Bay to the city of Monterey.
Head up the coast towards San Francisco via Half Moon Bay
Source: Wikitravel 2008