Santa Cruz, California: Pier & Boardwalk

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From Monterey, Hwy. 1 carries you quickly northward, as a four lane (or greater) freeway over much of the route.  That was fine with me, since I had seen enough of the coast the day before, and was ready for a little change of scenery.  So I decided on making just one more stop before motoring on up the road to San Francisco: Santa Cruz.

view of santa cruz boardwalk from the santa cruz pier

Santa Cruz may very well be the perfect Pacific Coast destination.  This small town has a picture-perfect downtown, which you’ll probably drive past, as you head for the beach.  Once at the water, you’ll find plenty of attractions to keep you (and your kids) busy.

There’s plenty of parking near the Santa Cruz boardwalk, but it’s not cheap.  A day of parking runs about $10.  Plan on spending a few hours so you’ll get your money’s worth.

Walk out on the pier, and you’ll find great seafood restaurants and gift shops.  Back on land, there’s a giant arcade (known as the Casino), a wide, sandy beach, and the main attraction, the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, which you can see in the picture above.

lighthouse area, from the pier at santa cruz

You can almost see one of Santa Cruz’s two lighthouses in this photo.  Eat at one of the restaurants on the pier, and you’ll have an excellent view.

Santa Cruz Harbor is framed by not one, but two lighthouses.  The Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse is home to the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, and dates back to the 1960’s.  The other, known as the Walton Lighthouse, sits at the end of a jetty, and was dedicated in 2002.

view of casino and boardwalk from pier, santa cruz

A closer view of the Casino and Boardwalk.

people on the beach at the boardwalk, santa cruz

Look closely!  That dark spot in the water is either a seal or a sea lion.  If you don’t have a close encounter with one while you’re swimming, you’ll find quite a few of the creatures hanging out at the end of the pier.

santa cruz beach, near the boardwalk

There were plenty of people on the beach during my visit on Memorial Day weekend, but as you can see, there was still plenty of space left on the beach.

skyride above the boardwalk, santa cruz

The sky ride provides a great way to orient yourself to all of Santa Cruz’s attractions.  From up here you can see it all, the boardwalk, rides, beach, lighthouses, and pier.

view from skyride of the pier at santa cruz

A look back at the pier, from the sky ride.

beach and skyride, santa cruz california

Another view of the beach, from the sky ride.

You can buy a ride-all-day pass, or just purchase enough tickets for select rides.  The coolest rides, like the Giant Dipper, require 6 tickets, meaning one ride costs $3.90 (at least, in 2004).

beach and lighthouse, santa cruz california

In the distance you can see the brand-new Walton Lighthouse, one of two that light up Santa Cruz Harbor at night.

giant dipper, boardwalk, santa cruz california

top of the giant dipper at the santa cruz boardwalk

The Giant Dipper’s big dip.

Access to the Boardwalk is free, so you can hang out without spending a dime.  Several booths sell tickets for rides, and there are a couple you simply must try: the Giant Dipper roller coaster (the only surviving wooden roller coaster on the Pacific Coast, built in 1924), and the Looff Carousel (built in 1911).

If you’re not content with a plain old motel room, you could choose to rent out a small castle for a week.   For $2,000 a week, you can rent out the Howden Castle, about 20 minutes from Santa Cruz, in Ben Lomond.  The castle comes complete with 3 bedrooms, 4 baths, a dungeon, and a moat.  Can any Holiday Inn offer that?

I-280 Into San Francisco

scenic view along interstate 280 south of san francisco

Leaving Santa Cruz, Hwy. 17 takes you north, and gives you a choice.  You can either speed towards San Francisco along Interstate 280, or US 101.  Both are multi-lane freeways, and both will get you there in about the same amount of time.  I chose 280, since parts of it are designated as a scenic route (that’s right, an 8 lane scenic route).  While the freeway does pass over some rolling, green mountains, and it does provide a few turn-offs which lead to scenic viewpoints, it’s difficult to think of a giant freeway as “scenic”.

One good thing about I-280: it dumps you right downtown in San Francisco, near Pacific Bell Park.  From there, it’s fairly easy to find your way to wherever you’re going in the city.

The Pacific Coast Highway continues along the coast from Santa Cruz, north to San Francisco.  The drive will take much longer, of course, than the freeway.

Note: This trip was first published in 2004.

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