Plan Your Day Trip to Santa Cruz: Attractions & Activities


Embarking on a day trip from San Francisco to Santa Cruz promises an adventure filled with stunning coastal views, iconic surf culture, and an array of outdoor activities. The journey along the Pacific Coast Highway offers a scenic route that leads to the heart of Surf City, where the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, natural wonders, and a vibrant community await. This guide will ensure you make the most of your day trip, with tips on the best spots to visit and activities to enjoy.

Key Points

  • Planning your route: Navigating from San Francisco to Santa Cruz via the Pacific Coast Highway and Highway 17, with stops at notable landmarks.
  • Top attractions: Exploring the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, Natural Bridges State Park, and local surf culture, including shops and surfing spots.
  • Outdoor activities: Engaging in kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, and visiting the sea lions at Santa Cruz Wharf.

Planning Your Route: San Francisco to Santa Cruz

The journey from San Francisco to Santa Cruz is a scenic one, with two main routes to choose from: the Pacific Coast Highway (Route 1) and Highway 17. Route 1 offers breathtaking coastal views, while Highway 17 provides a more direct route through the Santa Cruz Mountains. To avoid traffic, consider starting your day trip early in the morning or later in the afternoon.

Exploring Santa Cruz’s Iconic Attractions

Santa Cruz is home to several must-visit attractions, such as:

  • The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk: This historic amusement park features classic rides, games, and beachside fun for all ages.
  • The Santa Cruz Wharf: Stretching out into the Monterey Bay, the wharf offers dining, shopping, and opportunities to spot sea lions.
  • UC Santa Cruz: The university’s stunning campus is worth a visit, with its redwood forests and breathtaking views of the bay.

Immersing in Surf Culture

Known as Surf City, Santa Cruz has a rich surfing history and is home to influential brands like Santa Cruz Skateboards, Santa Cruz Surfboards, and O’Neill Wetsuits. Popular surfing spots include Steamer Lane and Pleasure Point. Don’t miss the annual clam chowder cook-off at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

Outdoor Adventures Beyond the Beach

In addition to surfing, Santa Cruz offers a variety of outdoor activities:

  • Kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding: Explore the calm waters of Capitola or venture out to see the sea life around the Santa Cruz Wharf.
  • Wildlife observation: Keep an eye out for sea lions, otters, and various bird species.

Discovering Natural Wonders

The route from San Francisco to Santa Cruz is dotted with natural beauty spots, such as:

  • Natural Bridges State Park: Famous for its natural rock arch and monarch butterfly grove.
  • Pescadero State Beach: A secluded beach with tide pools and a picturesque lighthouse.
  • Shark Fin Cove: A unique rock formation resembling a shark’s fin, perfect for photography.

Culinary Delights and Local Treats

Santa Cruz is known for its delicious local cuisine, including:

  • Clam chowder: A must-try at various restaurants along the wharf and at the annual cook-off.
  • The Penny Ice Creamery: Handcrafted ice cream made with locally sourced ingredients.

Supporting local businesses during your day trip is a great way to immerse yourself in the community.

A Journey Through Charming Coastal Towns

Along the way from San Francisco to Santa Cruz, you’ll pass through charming coastal towns like Half Moon Bay and Capitola. These towns offer a perfect opportunity to stretch your legs, explore local artisan shops, and soak in the laid-back atmosphere.


How long does it take to drive from San Francisco to Santa Cruz?

The drive from San Francisco to Santa Cruz typically takes around 1.5 to 2 hours, depending on traffic and the route you choose.

What are the best times to visit the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk?

To avoid crowds, visit the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk early in the morning or later in the afternoon. Weekdays tend to be less busy than weekends.

Can you rent surfboards or wetsuits in Santa Cruz?

Yes, there are several surf shops in Santa Cruz that offer rentals for surfboards, wetsuits, and other gear.

Are there any recommended spots for kayaking or paddleboarding for beginners?

Capitola is a great spot for beginners to try kayaking or paddleboarding, with its calm waters and picturesque scenery.

What are some not-to-miss local food specialties in Santa Cruz?

Be sure to try the clam chowder, either at the annual cook-off or at various restaurants along the wharf. The Penny Ice Creamery is also a local favorite for handcrafted ice cream.


About the author

Jyssica Schwartz is a prolific author and avid explorer who is captivated by San Francisco’s vibrant dining scene, scenic hiking trails, and rich cultural heritage. She finds endless inspiration in the city’s unique blend of islands, breweries, and cultural festivals, always eager to discover new trip ideas that showcase its distinctive spirit. From tasting the best craft beers to finding hidden gems among the city’s renowned restaurants, Jyssica loves immersing herself in San Francisco’s diverse offerings.