We were in Santa Cruz in mid-October 2022, as part of Big Trip #4.
We made it to the California coast! Our original itinerary had us staying in Monterey at Monterey County Fair RV Park, but they scheduled an event overtop of our stay and canceled everyone’s reservations. Nice. So we reevaluated and decided that Santa Cruz seemed like a cooler place to hang out, with an interesting in-town campground. We still got to briefly explore Monterey when we spent a night in Marina, and then we headed up to Santa Cruz on the north side of Monterey Bay.
Santa Cruz is a hip surf town loaded with history, but here are the two things that most excited me about visiting Santa Cruz: 1) the movie The Lost Boys was filmed there, and 2) the mascot of the University of California Santa Cruz is a banana slug.
[As I type this in January 2023, Santa Cruz and Capitola are reeling from massive storms and flooding and preparing to get hit again. We are thinking of those affected.]
We are big fans of waterfront campgrounds, and in Santa Cruz we landed at our second marina campground of the trip (the first was in Duluth, MN). Santa Cruz Harbor RV Park is a no-frills campground with narrow spots and full hookups and resident sea lions across the street!
The campground is convenient to everything in Santa Cruz: a short drive to downtown or the beach boardwalk, or if you have a little more time and energy, you can bike. Santa Cruz is a very bike-friendly town.
We didn’t have a ton of time in Santa Cruz, so we tried to hit a few different parts of town to get a good overview.
Downtown: Santa Cruz has a compact and walkable downtown area stretching several blocks along Pacific Ave and its neighboring streets, close to the trails by the San Lorenzo River. We ate lunch on a bench and people-watched, then walked through the Makers Market craft fair that happens every third Sunday. I fell in love with the adorable clay earrings from peripheral.us! Santa Cruz also has a downtown farmers market on Wednesdays, which we weren’t around for.
Beach Boardwalk: The iconic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk seaside amusement park is not dog-friendly! We didn’t realize that, took Bugsy in, and pretty quickly got booted out. It seemed like a fun place to take kids, or for teenagers to hang out, with the rides, arcade games, and junk food.
Lighthouse Point: Dogs are welcome here! We left the boardwalk and headed out to Lighthouse Point, the site of a surfing museum and a grassy lawn overlooking Steamer Lane, a famous surfing spot. We enjoyed watching the surfers, but were disappointed that the seals and sea lions who frequent Seal Rock weren’t around.
Capitola: The pastel houses of Capitola Village, beachfront condos painted pretty colors, were on our to-do list, so we tootled around this tiny beach town. It’s super cute and full of neat shops and restaurants.
UCSC: I had to go to UCSC to buy Banana Slug t-shirts for my poor nephews who would be mortified and never wear them. Why are they the Banana Slugs, you ask? Well, they’re common in redwood forests, and per UCSC, “the students’ embrace of such a lowly creature was their response to the fierce athletic competition fostered at most U.S. universities…that athletics [should be] for all students…and that the joy of participating is more important than winning.” I mean, that’s just fantastic.
After we hit the bookstore, we walked around campus a bit, but didn’t really know where to go so it wasn’t much of a tour. Our takeaways: the school has lovely trees, and the sports fields have sweeping views of downtown and the ocean, and wild turkeys roam the campus!
Scotts Valley: The reason we visited Scotts Valley, 15 minutes north of Santa Cruz, was to work out at MADabolic, our gym from back home. We didn’t do anything else there, but it’s near Big Basin Redwoods State Park and Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, if you’re looking for some nature.
Of course a surf town has lots of breweries, and we hit as many on J’s to-do list as we could. As a reminder, when we research breweries, our priorities are: a cool scene–judging by Google photos–that feels more like a brewery than a restaurant, a beer list that interests us, which often means at least one hazy and one sour, and a decent website that makes us think the owners are cool and obsessed with the quality of their product. Alas, none of the Santa Cruz breweries we visited made us swoon. What did we miss?
New Bohemia Brewing Co (NuBo) was our first stop. J wasn’t thrilled with his IPA, but I got a mimosa slushy! I was pretty excited about that. NuBo specializes in traditional European styles, which generally aren’t for us, but it was a nice spot.
Shanty Shack was our second brewery in Santa Cruz. They have a great patio with live music, but again, we weren’t jumping for joy over their beer.
From there, we walked to Woodhouse Blending and Brewing, an airy taproom with nice decor and a big patio. They also specialize in more traditional beer, and I ended drinking a cider from another (local) establishment. Their Brazilian food menu looks awesome! Woodhouse’s ambiance was probably our favorite of the breweries we visited in Santa Cruz.
Our final brewery was Humble Sea. J liked the IPAs he tried, and I had a meh jalapeño seltzer as they didn’t have any sours on tap. We sat on the patio and ate food truck pizza (verdict: tasty but flimsy) while we sipped.
J needed a haircut (his last one was in Ellensburg, if you recall), so Bugsy and I walked from the campground, along the harbor and then a busy road, to Verve Coffee Roasters and J met us later. The coffee and wifi were good, but the seating is very limited despite them having a big outdoor area.
Driving in and out of our campground, we kept passing the party lights on the patio at Seabright Social, so stopped for a nightcap our last night in town. Our experience was underwhelming, but Seabright Social has a busy schedule of events, surely making it a fun neighborhood destination.
When we got to town, our first order of business was finding some healthy food! We headed downtown to Cafe Gratitude for a nourishing if bland veggie and rice bowl. We’d ordered ahead, and the indoor tables are reserved for people who order there, so we sat on a bench outside to eat (even though the restaurant was empty).
The winner for both best food and best drink we had in Santa Cruz was at Hula’s Island Grill! We sat at the bar and had a not-overly-sweet (a rarity!) tiki cocktail and ordered dinner to take home: J got a poke bowl, and I ordered the crab curry. OMG the crab curry! Super delicious! We had a great time at the bar and then a fabulous dinner at home.
Steamer Lane Supply was possibly at the top of our to-do list for Santa Cruz: seafood tacos, quesadillas, bowls, and sandwiches at a state park overlooking the Steamer Lane surf break, what’s not to love? Well, we didn’t expect them to be on winter hours (the website said they closed at 6, the employee closing up said 5:30), and so we got there two minutes too late on our last day in town. BOO.
We didn’t make it there, but Harbor Cafe near the campground is on many “best of Santa Cruz” lists. They’re only open until 2pm Thursday through Monday, and a boozy brunch didn’t fit our tight schedule for exploring the area. Next time!
We only scratched the surface of things to do and see in the Monterey Bay area, but we had to hit the road. Next up, we were heading south on the Pacific Coast Highway to Big Sur, one of the most scenic stretches of the iconic 650-mile coastal highway.
If we find ourselves in Santa Cruz again, here’s what’s on our list:
- Find some beer that suits us better. J had identified some possibilities other than the breweries above: Greater Purpose Brewing and Discretion Brewing, perhaps; and a couple beer gardens: Beer Thirty and Brews at the Beach
- Try for fish tacos at Steamer Lane Supply again
- Check out Harbor Cafe for brunch
- Have a cocktail and appetizer at Alderwood, the only Santa Cruz restaurant mentioned in the Michelin Gude
- Consider visiting the redwoods in the state parks north of Scotts Valley