This week, Hoodline's Bay Area Day Trips series is enjoying summertime in Santa Cruz County. This ocean-front county is famous for its waves, and indeed beaches feature prominently in our roundup of day trip-worthy destinations. But there's a whole lot more to the area, from ancient redwood groves to mountain wineries and local lore, so read on to plan your day of fun.
Surfing students ride the waves Photo: Laila Weir / Hoodline
Try out surfing with a group or private lesson
Santa Cruz County is majorly popular with surfers, new and old. If you've always wanted to catch a wave, there are lots of local surf schools offering group and private lessons for adults and kids. For example, the Richard Schmidt Surf School has been giving high-quality surf lessons in the area (and introducing newbies to water safety and surf etiquette) since 1978. Also recommended is Adventure Out, or search for the many other options to find the lessons or surfboard rentals right for you.
Keep in mind that surfing is about the conditions, and you may head out when it's gray and windy but the tides and waves are just right. But don't worry – you'll be wearing a wetsuit, and the exercise of paddling out should warm you up in no time. Surfing is only for strong swimmers, so if any in your party aren't there yet, consider having them enjoy the action from the beach. Watching surfing can be almost as much fun as the sport itself.
Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park Photo: CA State Parks
Roam among the redwoods in the Santa Cruz Mountains
Visit Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park to roam 40 acres of old-growth coastal redwood trees and marvel at these ancient giants: The largest tree in the park is some 277 feet tall and 1,500 years old. Walk the flat 0.8-mile Redwood Grove Loop Trail and step inside the hollow Fremont Tree. Download a self-guided audio tour, or go on a Saturday for a guided tour at 11 a.m.
This under-appreciated park is beautiful and peaceful, and you'll find plenty more to explore here as well. It offers 30 miles of trails for long or short hikes at any level. Bring your swimsuit, too, and check out the popular Garden of Eden swimming hole.
If you have a designated driver, stop off at one of the Santa Cruz Mountains' wineries before heading home.
More information: www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=546
Capitola Photo: Laila Weir / Hoodline
Explore the historic beach resort town of Capitola
This historic town has beautiful beaches, a cute downtown to shop and explore, a fishing pier, loads of waterfront dining, and all kinds of rentals (boats, surfboards, paddleboards, etc.). Hang out at the beach that edges downtown if you want to eat out or park right near the beach. Just be aware that you have to pay for parking and may have to move after two hours. If you're willing to walk several blocks to the beach, just head to the Beach and Village parking lot near City Hall for an easier experience. Don't miss stopping into the little museum to get a glimpse of Capitola history if you're in town on a weekend. It's free and open from 12 to 4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.
If you're bringing your own picnic and looking for a less crowded and less urban beach experience, on the other hand, check out Hidden Beach (yes, that's its real name) in very nearby Aptos. You'll park in a small lot or along the street if it's crowded (parking can get tricky on a nice weekend), then walk a short way to the wide, beautiful beach.
Plenty of people swim at the Pacific beaches in Santa Cruz County, with or without wetsuits, but you're still in NorCal – i.e., beware of big waves, brush up on your ocean safety, and bring layers. Wind and fog are just as possible as burning sun.
More information: www.cityofcapitola.org
Natural Bridges State Beach Photo: CA State Parks
Enjoy nature (and maybe stage a photo shoot) at Natural Bridges State Beach
The lovely Natural Bridges State Beach is a great destination for beach lovers and nature lovers, as well as avid photographers. The rock arches that give the park its name offer an irresistible photo op, as well as fun exploring. You'll also find tidepools where you can see all kinds of ocean life at low tide: sea stars (the creatures formerly known as starfish), sea anemones, crabs, and more. You'll also see shorebirds (beware the bold, thieving seagulls if you bring a picnic!), and with sharp eyes you may spot seals, otters or even migrating whales offshore.
If you love it (or if you don't make it this summer), visit in winter to take a short hike to an area where migrating Monarch butterflies flock to spend the winter. The sight of hundreds of them covering the trees is not to be missed.
More information: parks.ca.gov/?page_id=541
Photo: Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk / Facebook
Get your thrills on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is open again! Get the amusement park experience without crowding into an overheated and overpriced park. There are rides and carnival games for every style and age, in a mellower beach boardwalk environment (mercifully cooled by the ocean air). Pay just for what you want to ride, or, for the best value, get an unlimited rides wristband for $39.95-$59.95. (Groupon has also been known to run deals.) Buy online ahead of time for a discount and visit on a weekday if you can for the best prices.
There are plenty of food and drink stands around the Boardwalk, or bring a picnic and eat on the beach! Come with layers, sun protection, and a water bottle. Masks are currently recommended for unvaccinated visitors.
The Boardwalk is a day trip in and of itself, but if you plan just to check out one or two attractions, combine with a roam around other parts of Santa Cruz. Or finish off your day with a casual dinner at one of the city's many taquerias and other dining options.
More information: beachboardwalk.com