Santa Cruz, California, is home to a beautiful rugged coastline, lush redwood forests and scenic mountain landscapes, making it a prime destination for both surfers and hikers. It may be surprising but there are a variety of incredible hiking trails to explore in Santa Cruz. Some are long, others are short and they range from easy to challenging, meaning there is something to suit all hikers at any time.
Explore Santa Cruz’s vibrant nature up close and personal by hiking through mystic forests, climbing sand dunes and stumbling upon hidden beaches. Santa Cruz really is a hiker’s paradise, and with great vacation rentals all over for hikers to rest and recover after their hike, you can’t ask for a better adventure destination.
Hit the Trails
There are many amazing hikes for you to explore in Santa Cruz, here are just 7 we recommend you try on your next trip to Surf City;
1. The Redwood Grove Loop
Found within the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, this trail is around 1 mile long and leads you through an old-growth redwood forest, where you can marvel at these majestic giants. This trail would be considered easy for hikers and is more suited to those seeking a leisurely stroll with amazing scenery.
If it’s a hot day, take a detour through the River Trail which follows along the San Lorenzo River. There are several small paths en route that lead down to the river for you to take a dip and cool down.
2. The Monarch Butterfly Nature Trail
Located on Natural Bridges State Beach, this short trail is just under a mile long but what it lacks in length it makes up for in scenery. This trail is home to thousands of migrating monarch butterflies from October through February.
It’s also a good idea to pay attention to the weather when you visit. The minimum temperature a monarch needs to fly is 55°F degrees. Temperatures below 55°F, mean you are more likely to see monarch clusters hanging like leaves off the eucalyptus trees, which can also be quite mesmerizing. But please note, when the monarchs are clustered it is easy to pass them up! Make sure to look closely!
3. Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail
This is one of the most popular hiking routes in the area, and it is suited to those seeking a challenge and fantastic views. The hike is on average around 29.5 miles point-to-point, starting in Castle Rock State Park at Saratoga Gap, and winds its way down through lush redwood forests to the Pacific Ocean at Waddell Beach in Big Basin Redwoods State Park. The hike is usually done within 3 days and reservations can be made in advance to use the campgrounds.
4. Old Cove Landing Trail
This is one of the most scenic hikes in our opinion. The Old Cove Landing Trail to Ohlone Bluff Trail, a 2.5 mile coastal trek that just happens to be one of the prime spots for wildflowers. You can access the beach from here and walk along the bluff leading to the cove. If you’re lucky you just might come across gulls, pelicans, geese, sea lions passing, and maybe even migrating whales. This coastal trail is known to keep breezy so pack a jacket.
5. Sequoia Trail Loop
This 4.7 mile trek takes hikers through lush forests, waterfalls, and provides access to the famous Mother and Father of the Forest trees. It is located within California’s oldest state park, Big Basin, and is home to some of the most impressive redwood trees in the area.
6. The Loma Prieta Grade Trail
Located in Nisene Marks State Park, this 8 mile out-and-back loop trail is generally considered an easy route, taking on average 1 h 58 minutes to complete. The trail leads to the site of the epicenter of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
It is also a very popular area for birding, hiking, and mountain biking, so you’ll likely encounter other people while exploring. The trail is open year-round and is beautiful to visit anytime. You’ll need to leave pups at home — dogs aren’t allowed on this trail.
7. Natural Bridges to Lighthouse Field Loop
This 4.7 mile long trail takes hikers around 1.5 hours to complete and is generally considered easy. The route begins at the Natural Bridges State Park and takes you three miles along the coastline on the West Cliff Multi-Purpose Cycleway that goes to Lighthouse Field State Beach. En route you’ll encounter breathtaking beach views, large coastal scrub meadows that are filled with native wildflowers in spring, and of course lighthouses overlooking the pacific ocean.
Some Tips Before Exploring The Great Outdoors
- Choose the right trail for you: Santa Cruz, California, offers a variety of hiking trails with different levels of difficulty and terrain. Research the trails beforehand and select one that matches your fitness level, interests, and time constraints.
- Dress appropriately and wear proper footwear: The weather in Santa Cruz can be unpredictable, so it’s essential to wear layers to accommodate changing temperatures. Bring a lightweight, water-resistant jacket for possible rain or wind. Wear moisture-wicking clothing to stay comfortable and dry, and opt for sturdy, comfortable hiking shoes or boots with good traction.
- Respect wildlife and the environment: Santa Cruz is home to a diverse range of plant and animal species. Keep a safe distance from wildlife and never feed or approach them. Stay on marked trails to minimize your impact on the environment and avoid trampling delicate vegetation. If you’re planning a picnic or camping, bring trash bags so you follow the Leave No Trace principles to preserve the area’s natural beauty.
- Bring essential supplies and know your limits: Carry plenty of water, snacks, SPF and a basic first aid kit. A map and compass or GPS device can be useful for navigation, especially on longer or more remote hikes. Portable charger for your phone in case of emergencies. Know your limits and listen to your body; if you start to feel overly fatigued or experience any signs of heat exhaustion or dehydration, take a break, hydrate, and assess whether it’s safe to continue.
With so many scenic routes to choose from, Santa Cruz is truly a hiking lover’s paradise. With so many hikes to choose from, for both skilled and novice hikers, choosing Santa Cruz for your next on-foot adventure in a no brainer. With so many sights to explore, like ancient redwood forests, vibrant wildlife, running rivers and stunning beaches, you’re in for many memorable hikes. So, happy trails and remember to tread lightly as you immerse yourself in everything Santa Cruz has to offer.
Commonly asked questions about hiking in Santa Cruz, California
The best time to hike in Santa Cruz is typically spring (March to May) and fall (September to November) when the weather is mild and comfortable. During these seasons, you can enjoy blooming wildflowers or colorful foliage. However, the area offers beautiful scenery year-round, and many trails are accessible even in winter.
Some parks and trailheads in Santa Cruz may require a day-use or parking permit, which can often be purchased at the entrance or parking kiosk. Be sure to check the park website or trailhead signs for any permit requirements and fees.
As with any outdoor activity, there are inherent risks when hiking. Common safety concerns in Santa Cruz include unpredictable weather conditions, poison oak, ticks, and the occasional encounter with wildlife such as mountain lions or rattlesnakes. It’s important to be prepared, hike with a buddy or in a group, stay on designated trails, and follow proper safety precautions.