By Christa Fraser

While municipal bigwigs argue whether Santa Cruz or Huntington Beach can claim the title of being the original Surf City, Santa Cruzians continue to live the California beach lifestyle. With an envious blend of coastline and public open space, local garages are commonly packed with bikes, surfboards and kayaks rather than cars.

The county comprises a variety of distinct terrain—redwood and oak groves, marine terraces, expansive meadows, long, sandy beaches, and coastal mountains.

November and December can be one of the best times to visit. Average temperatures range from the mid-60s to the 80s. Winter’s big waves are just picking up, the hiking and biking trails are not too muddy and the beaches are nearly deserted.

Autumn visitors can find an inexhaustible list of outdoor activities within a short drive of the Bay Area.

Old Cabin trail in Wilder Ranch State Park.

Photo by Mark Woodhead


Rocky hillsides, root-filled redwood forests and miles of terraced cliffs give this bike-loving community a reason to hit the trails on a regular basis. From a simple people-watching cruise along West Cliff to a zone-inducing singletrack, Santa Cruz County offers all kinds of two-wheeled recreation.


  • West Cliff – From the famous Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk to Natural Bridges State Beach, lazy pedalers can take a slow spin along picturesque ocean cliffs and watch surfers and sealife. Round trip is around seven miles.
  • Ohlone Bluff Trail – This trail, just north of town, offers miles of flat riding with access to several secluded beaches. Park in the Wilder Ranch parking lot and head towards the ocean on the fire road.

Cross Country

Wilder Ranch – This area is a favorite gym for many area cyclists who go there to pump up their legs and lungs. This state park encompasses 6000 acres and offers virtually every type of riding. For a classic introductory ride, park in the Wilder Ranch lot and take the Englesman fire road to Old Cabin, Old Cabin to the top of the Eucalyptus Trail. From there riders can opt to head back down into Wilder or Grey Whale Ranch.

  • Nisene Marks – This steep, redwood forest nearly became off limits to bikers recently. Fortunately, the fire road is still legal to ride. For a classic uphill, the 17-mile Aptos Creek Fire Road loop from the entrance in Aptos to the Sand Point Overlook and back shouldn’t be missed. Riders will pass the epicenter of the 1989 earthquake that leveled parts of the county.
  • Soquel Demonstration State Forest or ‘Demo’ – Miles of challenging singletrack and fire roads are legal and waiting to be ridden in this area above Nisene Marks. Open to the public, but administered by the California Department of Forestry, this area boasts no facilities. Park at the entrance on Highland Way.

Bike rentals – are available from Family Cycling Center on 41st Avenue: Cruisers, tandem cruisers and Santa Cruz mountain bikes. (831) 475-3883

Kelp bed exploring

Photo by Mark Woodhead


The protected Santa Cruz coastline sits inside of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Underwater forests of giant kelp, pods of southern sea otters and other marine mammals, and miles of scenic coastline invite even the most novice paddlers to explore.

The easiest tours leave from either the Santa Cruz Municipal Pier or the harbor. Local companies offer a variety of guided natural history, wildlife viewing, kayak fishing and full-moon tours, weather permitting. Most companies also rent boats for self-guided tours.

Elkhorn Slough, situated along the Pacific Flyway bird migration route, is a ‘don’t miss’ location for paddlers. The Slough is the second largest coastal wetland remaining in California, and offers superlative bird and marine mammal viewing. (Parking costs $2.00 at the boat launch in Moss Landing.)

Call these companies for further details and to make reservations:

Hiking/Trail running

Big Basin, California’s first state park, features some of the state’s largest redwood trees. Over 80 miles of trails and a variety of distinct ecosystems wind through this century-old park. Hike to Berry Creek Falls from Waddell Creek (11 miles roundtrip). Trailhead is at the Waddell Creek turnout on Hwy 1. Or plan a day long hike-a-thon and do the Skyline to the Sea trail (12.5 miles one way). Trailhead is located across from park headquarters in Boulder Creek. Shuttle recommended. Contact park headquarters at (831) 338-8860 for more info.

For runners, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park’s Fall Creek Trail is a nearly 7-mile loop through classic, creekside redwood stands with moderate elevation gains.

The park is about five miles out of Santa Cruz on Highway 9, near Felton. 831-438-2396

Photo of Micaela Eastman by Nikki Brooks


The classic waves that make this area a breeding ground for phenomenal surfers are a finite resource. The best way to get in the water without hassle is to do it as unobtrusively as possible. A one or two-person private lesson with one of the following surf schools should provide a proper lesson in etiquette and safety:

Disc Golf

De Laveaga Municipal Park, known to most locals as “DayLa,” features a popular disc golf course. Head up there to play a round or just hike to the top for the view of Santa Cruz proper from Top of the World, otherwise known as Hole 27.

(831) 462-5293


Every December, sailors decorate their boats with lights for a maritime Christmas parade in the harbor (Saturday, Dec. 3, 5:30 p.m.) If you don’t know someone with a boat you can take a sightseeing cruise on the bay with one of these two companies:

Brews and Bottles

Only in Santa Cruz

Places to Stay

Spendy (but worth it):


Cheaper: Camping

  • Big Basin Redwoods State Park(831) 338-8860
  • New Brighton State Beach (831) 464-6330
  • Manresa State Beach (831) 761-1795