This Gorgeous Coastal California City Is a Perfect Road Trip Destination — With Steam Train Rides, Hiking Trails, and Small Towns

Here's how to plan the ultimate Santa Cruz road trip itinerary.

Adventurous travelers could spend weeks traversing California’s 840-mile coastline, stopping to hike its rugged, seaside cliffs or explore destinations like Santa Barbara and Big Sur. If you're cruising the westernmost edge of the Golden State, you'll find Santa Cruz County right in the middle — a low-key swath that may surprise you with its redwood-lined trails, historic boardwalk, and shorelines adorned with seabirds and formidable rock formations. Here are six ideas for your Santa Cruz road trip itinerary, each one giving a glimpse of local life in the coastal destination.

Hit the trails.

 trail follows a well worn path amongst some of the largest redwood trees at Henry Cowell Redwood State Park

Salil Bhatt/Getty Images

Santa Cruz is rich with incredible hikes, so pack your most comfortable shoes and favorite snacks. Head to Wilder Ranch State Park first, where the popular Old Cove Landing Trail delivers scenic views of the Pacific Ocean along an easygoing, 2.5-mile loop. A bit south lies Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, full of gorgeous redwoods and pines, as well as creeks snaking through the trees. Redwood Grove Loop and River Trail are recommended for kids due to their length and proximity to water, especially if it’s a warm day to splash and play. And if you want to get off the beaten path, drive to Quail Hollow Ranch County Park in Felton and try the Sunset Trail. This out-and-back path will take you about two hours, and it shows off some unique regional geography.

Ride a redwood train.

Roaring Camp Train on a bridge in the woods

Visit Santa Cruz County/Walter Scriptunas

Redwood logging was commonplace up and down California for decades. Luckily, we no longer fell these giant beauties, and some of the machinery used to move them once upon a time remains, giving visitors a peek into the past. Visitors at Roaring Camp in Santa Cruz County can ride magnificent steam trains reminiscent of those critical to the logging economy that thrived here. The slow ride takes passengers through stunning redwood forest, and the steam whistle is plug-your-ears loud. It’s a great time for train enthusiasts of all ages.

Stop in Davenport.

Davenport Overlook

Visit Santa Cruz County/James Watkins

This tiny town just north of Santa Cruz proper is a nice stop for a meal and beach walk. Have a burger at Davenport Roadhouse, which gives off perfect saloon vibes with its dark interior. It also hosts live bands most weekends. For a chill breakfast or fresh pastry, try Whale City Bakery across the way. Then, stroll Shark Fin Cove, named for a massive rock formation that stands guard just off the sand.

Sip some apple cider.

Martinelli's glass

Visit Santa Cruz County/Garrick Ramirez

Martinelli's bar counter
Visit Santa Cruz County/Garrick Ramirez.

If you ever got to stay up until midnight on New Year's Eve as a child, chances are you sipped Martinelli’s apple cider to celebrate. The famous brand has been producing beloved beverages for more than 150 years, and is headquartered in the Santa Cruz County city of Watsonville. Drop by the company store for complimentary cider tastings; you’ll be surprised how many flavors they make, including peach, apple, mango, and pear. Plus, you can take some home by the case if you find a favorite.

View of rollercoaster on the beach boardwalk

Visit Santa Cruz County/Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

Go thrifting.

You never know what you’ll find in a small-town thrift shop. If the idea of the hunt appeals to you, try your hand at thrifting in the Santa Cruz area. Head to the red barn in Felton that is The Abbot’s Thrift, followed by the Bizarre Bazaar down the street. In Santa Cruz proper, check out vintage clothes at Tomboy and Forever Thrift. If you’re lucky, you’ll score a secondhand treasure to remember your trip.

Go wild at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

View of rollercoaster on the beach boardwalk

Visit Santa Cruz County/Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

Open since 1907, this seaside amusement park was the bee’s knees for NorCal kids growing up in the 1990s, and the fun continues today. The best plan is to buy a wristband for everyone in your party so you can enjoy unlimited rides all day long, including the Giant Dipper, a historic wooden roller coaster that’s been moving and grooving for nearly 100 years. Save time for mini golf at Neptune’s Kingdom and carnival games located at the Midway Games section of the park. And if you need a break from the lines or crowds, the beach is right there, so you can dig your toes in the sand or even catch a wave between rides and concessions. Bring some saltwater taffy to the beach, too — some of the best can be bought at Marini’s Candies, found right on the boardwalk.

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