After traveling around the country for a year on the Find Your Campspot Tour, I say with utmost certainty that the Santa Cruz, California, area was one of my absolute favorite places to camp. Surrounded by the Santa Cruz Mountains, sky-scraping California Redwoods, the rugged Pacific coast, and the city of Santa Cruz, I’m not surprised that it’s one of the top destinations in California on Campspot. With so many activities in the area, I’m highlighting 13 things to do when visiting the Santa Cruz redwoods and coast to help start planning your trip to one of the most exciting places to camp in California.
1. Visit the Redwoods of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is the closest Redwoods National or State Park to the city of Santa Cruz. Located in Felton, a small town nestled among the redwoods, the park offers a variety of activities such as hiking, camping, birdwatching, fishing, trail running, and biking trails. Below are three walking and hiking trails within the park that vary in difficulty but provide visitors with the unique experience of walking among the redwoods.
Due to its accessibility and flat grade, the Redwood Grove Loop Trail enables visitors to look up without the obstacle of uneven terrain. Of course, some may scoff at the idea of an easy hiking trail, feeling like it’s not worth doing if it’s not challenging enough. Still, I think this trail is an excellent example of how simple moments in nature can be just as impactful as those at the top of a difficult summit.
Some quick facts about Redwood Grove Loop Trail:
- It’s just under a mile long in total.
- It’s ADA and wheelchair accessible.
- Dogs, horses, or other animals are not permitted on the trail.
- Biking is not permitted on the trail. A woman swerved past me on a bike as I was looking up and a nearby lady called after her to stop. It’s important to be respectful of the rules.
- Dispersed throughout the trail are benches to rest and take in the sights.
Rated as moderate difficulty, the Cape Horn Loop Trail follows Fall Creek before reaching a fork that takes you higher elevated redwood groves before looping back to Fall Creek. The trail goes along the edge of the burn area from the CZU Lightning Complex fires in 2020. While you cannot hike into the burn area, the trail’s proximity to it provides you a unique perspective of the effect fires can have on these ancient forests.
Some quick facts about Cape Horn Loop:
- The loop length is 3.5 miles long.
- Elevation gain is just under 700 feet.
- While it is considered an “out and back” trail, it is actually an out and back with a loop before turning back. Got that?
- While I’m not sure if it’s permitted or not, when we were there, there were folks hiking back with towels and bathing suits, having soaked in the creek.
Although rated as easy difficulty, the Roaring Camp Loop trail has some elevation gain that will surely get your heart pumping. The loop circles Bear Mountain while also going through the Cathedral Redwoods Grove. The most significant draw of the hike is that the trail intersects with the Roaring Camp railroad (as well as abandoned tracks), and if you get the timing right, you’ll be able to see the steam train chug by. I feel like it’s obvious but keep your distance when it passes. At specific points, the trail does zigzag with other trails. To avoid getting lost, check the GPS map on your phone every so often.
Some quick facts about the Roaring Camp Loop Trail:
- The length of the loop is 2.4 miles, yet, going off on other paths to catch a train go by adds distance. Go and explore!
- This trail and the trails it intersects with are open to mountain bikers. Cyclists are normally very vigiliant and good about communicating around corners with a shout or a bell but it’s helpful to be aware.
- While the elevation gain is 328 feet, some hikers report feeling like the trail ought to be considered as moderate difficulty rather than easy.
- There aren’t any trail makers so come prepared!
2. Go On a Whale Watching Tour
Due to its rich diversity of marine life, Monterey Bay is one of the best places to go on a whale-watching tour. Acting as a gathering place for all sorts of marine and animal life, not far off the shore, is one of North America’s deepest submarine canyons. In fact, it’s larger than the Grand Canyon! The canyon walls help send plankton and other nutrients up to the surface, where whales and different marine life feed. This means you have a pretty good chance of seeing a whale while on a whale-watching tour within Monterey Bay, especially if you choose a charter company that knows its stuff. We went with Stagnaro Charters, but there are a handful of options within the bay.
Another thing to keep in mind is the time of year you’re visiting. We happened to be there during the tail-end of the gray whale’s migration period. Because of this, we got to see the gray whale pictured above. It was heading to a sandy beach where it gave those on the Natural Bridges State Marine Reserve cliffs a good view of it scrubbing its barnacles off.
Keep an eye out for a cluster of seagulls or other sea birds, as they often are in the same area as humpback whales feeding on krill. We followed a pair of humpbacks, pictured above, for almost an hour or so. They actually circled our boat a few times!
Another thing I’ll mention about the whale-watching tour is that I was worried about getting seasick, but I was completely fine on this tour. The combination of fresh air, good weather, a steady boat, and staying toward the back of the ship helped immensely.
3. Go for a Ride On Roaring Camp’s Redwood Forest Steam Train
Arguably one of the most unique ways to experience the area’s redwoods is by weaving through them on a steam train. As you can imagine, redwoods are sought after by loggers. According to Roaring Camp, steam locomotives were used to haul giant redwood logs out of the mountains in the 1880s. Their 1890 steam engine is one of the oldest and most authentically preserved steam engines people can ride in the US.
The train ride lasts 75 minutes and goes around Bear Mountain. As of October 2021, the ticket price for adults (ages 13+) is $33 and $24 for children (ages 2-12). The ride also includes a history lesson of Roaring Camp as told by the train conductors.
4. Walk the Santa Cruz Wharf
I love visiting the California coast because it usually means I’ll be seeing sea lions. Believe it or not, that’s one of the highlights of California for me. Walking the Santa Cruz wharf was one of my favorite things to do while visiting the area because below the end of the boardwalk are dozens upon dozens of sleeping, cuddling, sneezing, and barking sea lions.
One of the wildest things is how high the sea lions leap out of the water to get onto the beams. I thought the tide assisted them, but, lo and behold, one sea lion in the water lept out to land on a beam right in front of us. They may look like big potatoes, but they are impressive sea creatures.
I’ll mention that the Santa Cruz Wharf gives you one of the best views of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and the Santa Cruz Mountains in the distance. Those mountains are covered in redwoods! Hard to imagine the size of those giants when they look so tiny and far away from here.
5. Drive to Big Sur on Highway 1
If you have a car, a day trip worth the driving time is one to Big Sur. Hopping on Highway 1 and heading south, drive along the Monterey Bay coast, where on your left, you’ll see fields upon fields of farms. By the time you get to Monterey, you’ll notice a change in the terrain and the Santa Lucia Mountains.
Driving through Carmel and winding your way down the coast, you see the bright colors of the flora, the rugged rocks of the shore, and bobbing black blobs in the water that just might be otters or sea lions, but you’ll need a good set of binoculars to make sure. Eventually, about 15 miles after Carmel, you’ll reach the famous Bixby Bridge.
A few things about going through Big Sur:
- Big Sur is huge and so if you’re planning a day trip, I’d recommend focusing on driving through it and heavily utilizing the pullovers dispersed throughout Highway 1.
- In addition to the Santa Cruz area, Big Sur is also home to the redwoods. The state parks where you can explore the redwoods include Pfeiffer Big Sur and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.
- Being along the water, the weather can be quite unpredictable. Pack options and keep an open mind if it’s not perfectly sunny out.
6. Visit the Tiny Town of Pescadadero and Pigeon Point
Also on Highway 1 but to the north of Santa Cruz, is the small farm and ranch town of Pescadero and the Pigeon Point Light Station. Constructed in 1872, Pigeon Point Lighthouse is still active, although it uses an automated LED beacon.
I’m not sure what it is about lighthouses. Perhaps they serve as a connection to the immenseness that is the ocean? Or is it because of its symbolism for safety and refuge? Whatever the case, Pigeon Point Lighthouse captures the heart as it’s been going through an extensive restoration since 2001.
Several miles up Highway 1 from Pigeon Point Lighthouse is the community of Pescadero. Because of its proximity to the coast, the town has become a tourist destination for those wishing to get away from the sprawling cities of San Fransisco, San Jose, Santa Cruz, and Palo Alto.
While Duarte’s Tavern is the most frequently mentioned restaurant to visit (it has been family-owned since its conception in 1894), we wanted to sit outside and opted for Mercado y Taqueria De Amigos, located in the town’s gas station. We ordered California burritos and one fish taco because, when in Rome, right? Sitting on a picnic table in the back of the gas station, looking at the Santa Cruz Mountains covered in fog, sipping on Mexican coke, and biting into heaven wrapped in a tortilla, I thought to myself, “Self, why are California burritos called California burritos? Why does french-fries make it “Californian?” Deep thoughts, I know.
7. Explore the Local Food Scene
Pretty Good Advice was my favorite place to eat in Santa Cruz. Pulling in a bit of their backstory from their website, Pretty Good Advice has an 83-acre farm in the Santa Cruz Mountains that bypasses raising animals. Instead, it focuses on growing hundreds of orchard fruits, perennial herbs, mushrooms, and vegetables. Their farm directs their menu, focusing on seasonal, 100% vegetarian options in addition to plenty of vegan alternatives.
They say that their all-day breakfast sandwiches and burgers are the backbone of their concept and offer five different variations of each. I opted for Mike’s Good Morning Deluxe that was made up of crispy potato, fried egg, sweet pepper jam, PGA aioli, avocado smash, and pepper jack on ciabatta bread. I also had their iced coconut caramel coffee, which was delicious, but we also ordered their Arnold Palmer that was made with pineapple lemon, and I still think about it months later.
While walking the Santa Cruz wharf, you’ll pass by Stagnaro Bros restaurant and fish market. Their website shares that the family comes from a small fishing village in northern Italy called Riva Trigoso. In 1913, Matteo Stagnaro left Italy, and after landing in Ellis Island, he made his way west to Santa Cruz, where he joined other Italian immigrants fishing around the Bay Area.
Unfortunately, Matteo caught pneumonia and passed away, leaving his wife and two young sons to fend for themselves. Through the years, the small family struggled but survived, and in 1937, the eldest brother opened a small seafood market and cocktail room on the wharf and was eventually joined by his brother in ownership. Together they grew the Stagnaro Bros empire, and, to this day, nine family members are still involved with the business.
Feeling the maritime ambiance, we ordered fish tacos and ate them on a wharf bench, watching fishing boats in the distance. Hungry seagulls bopped around us, waddling back and forth as if they were tourists themselves.
To fuel your Santa Cruz and redwood excursions, you’ll need a caffeinated pick-me-up. Founded in 2007 and still based in Santa Cruz, Verve Coffee Roasters services the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and has four locations in Japan.
Their coffee is small-batched roasted daily in Santa Cruz, using vintage roasters combined with an energy-efficient roaster. Their approach to coffee pays homage to the past roasting techniques while also looking to the future. In addition to coffee, they offer food varying from decadent toast to a hearty grain bowl. The Santa Cruz bakery, Manresa Bread, sells several pastry options, including a ham and cheese brioche or, my favorite, almond croissants.
We picked up a pizza from Bantam before heading to watch the sunset on the beach and were so pleased with the Neopolitan-style pizza that we returned a couple of days later. Tyler and I are suckers for a classic Margherita pizza, and theirs did not disappoint. Saucy but not soggy and with chewy, smokey crust, Bantam, I miss you.
8. See the Natural Bridges and Arches Along the Pacific
Naturally-made structures boggle my mind. Before this, we visited Arches National Park and learned how the sandstone arches were made by erosion. Wind and water, yet again, prove to be nature’s best architect as natural bridges and arches line the coast near Santa Cruz. In actuality, two of the three most famous natural bridges in Natural Bridge State Beach succumbed to these natural forces in 1905 and 1980. Now, only one bridge remains. Regardless, the cliffs and arches in progress are just as impressive as the bridges that once were.
9. Watch the Kitesurfers at Waddell Beach at Big Basin Redwoods State Park
Specific to the spring season due to shifting weather patterns, Big Basin’s Waddell Beach is a hotspot for kitesurfers. Conversion vans and Subarus with tricked-out roof-racks line the beach’s parking area as kitesurfers come and go. We loved watching the process of it all, watching the surfers inflate and deflate their kites, help each other catch the wind before setting out, and then weave around each other in the water like a big dance.
10. Catch a Santa Cruz Sunset
West coast sunsets are the dreamiest. Coming from West Michigan, I’m spoiled with growing up seeing the sunset on Lake Michigan. I hadn’t realized how unique water sunsets were until I began traveling and RVing around the country. The convergence of the warm sky with the cool blue tones of the water, the sounds of the waves, and the crowds that gather make the experience of a Santa Cruz sunset a must-do activity when visiting the area.
11. Visit the Felton Farmers’ Market
While staying at the Santa Cruz Redwoods RV Resort in Felton, we visited Felton’s Farmers’ Market. Happening every Tuesday from 1-6 PM, from the first Tuesday in May to the last in October, we actually visited the first farmers’ market in 2021. There was this air of excitement around the whole thing, seeing as the 2020 season was impacted by the pandemic’s beginning.
There were many growers and farmers from the Santa Cruz mountains, and it was impressive to see the diversity of goods offered from the region. The Felton Farmers’ Market had it all: vegetables, fruits, honey, sauces, meats, and fresh baked goods.
I jumped at the chance of early strawberries and peaches (In May? Are you kidding me?) and prepared a peach and strawberry shortcake for coffee around the campfire.
12. Check Out Shark Fin Beach and Davenport Beach
Either as a separate trip or on your way to Pescadero and Pigeon Point Lighthouse, visit Shark Fin Beach and Davenport Cove. An ideal spot for a beach day, the cove protects you from the high winds of the Pacific and provides you with a big enough area that you won’t feel on top of another beach-goer.
If you prefer not to climb down to the beach area because it is rather steep, walk the Shark Fin Cove Loop for fantastic views of the sharkfin, cliffs, and ocean.
Just up Highway 1 is Davenport Beach. Although it’s technically called San Vincente Beach, it’s become Davenport Beach because of its proximity to the small town of Davenport located across the highway. We visited during sunset, and a group of teenagers was having a big bonfire in the sand. “What a cool place to grow up,” I thought. I love how communities and cultures along the ocean incorporate the water into daily activities and plans.
13. Camp Among the Redwoods at the Santa Cruz Redwoods RV Resort
You’ll need a home base for all of these activities, and of course, I’m going to suggest that you camp, the best way to travel and experience an area. As RVers, we stayed at the Santa Cruz Redwoods RV Resort in Felton, California, but they also have glamping and tent options. Read through Santa Cruz Redwoods RV Resort: Park Spotlight for a more in-depth synopsis of the campground.
As I said, we stayed in our trailer, which squeezed right into a cluster of redwood trees. Because of its immersion within a redwood grove, The Santa Cruz Redwoods RV Resort in Felton is one of my favorite campgrounds we’ve visited. The campground gets busy, and I could see some traditionalists dislike the congestion but think the campground layout and the redwoods provide each campsite a recreational area. But, of course, some campsites are better than others, so choose your spot wisely and utilize Campspot’s lock-in feature to secure your site.
Like I said, Santa Cruz Redwoods RV Resort offers several glamping sites, including the one above overlooking the San Lorenzo River. In addition to RV and glamping sites, the campground also has several tent sites with nearby facilitates for campers.
The Redwoods and Coast are Calling. Go Answer!
There is so much to do around Santa Cruz, the nearby redwoods, and the coast. This list highlights a portion of what the area offers, but it’s sure to send you well on your way to creating your own adventure that you won’t forget. Be mindful not to overdo it when it comes to planning. Instead, give yourself time to just be among some of the most beautiful terrains this nation has to offer. You won’t regret it.