When my sister-in-law and I started batting around the idea of a family weekend on the California coast, we initially set our sights north of the Bay Area. But a quick look on Airbnb returned very few (if any) homes near Point Reyes that could accommodate 10 people, so we began to expand our search option to include the south, too. Then, Lisa found a four-bedroom house just a few blocks from the coast in Santa Cruz, where she went to college, and less than a week later, that’s where we were headed.
I’ll admit initial reaction was one of hesitation. In the past, I’d been to Santa Cruz on numerous occasions and had mixed reactions: As a college athlete, I had fond memories of beating their women’s tennis team on their home turf, while as a marathon runner in my mid-20s, I recall getting punched by a random dude (likely on drugs) while I was minding my own business on Pacific Avenue and taking a stroll after a race with my running buddy Autumn.
I’ve come to find that Santa Cruz is indeed a town of dichotomies—and not always positive ones either.
But first, we had to get there.
We left San Francisco around 3pm on a Friday with the intention to arrive in Santa Cruz around dinner time, so we could catch the sunset. Here’s the thing you should know about that drive: If you’re planning to cut down from Ocean Beach and mosey along the iconic Highway 1, you need a good three to four hours to do so, possibly more if you intend to stop for a beer (there are a handful of breweries along the Pacific Coast Highway) or bite to eat (ditto to restaurants). Google Maps will tell you it’s just an hour and a quarter if taking the inland way down I-280 or an hour and 45 minutes should you opt for the scenic route along the coast.
So why the added time? Well, because this, of course:
You’re going to want to stop every 10 feet along the way to snap a picture. Just trust me on this; give yourself plenty of time to take your photos, to pull a 180 in one of the many shoulders or parking lots when you see something in the rearview mirror that strikes your fancy.
Because there is a lot that will.
After a super rainy morning on our food tour in San Francisco, we were blessed with blue skies and a few dramatic, fluffy, white clouds. In other words, it was a photographer’s dream weather. There was no way we’d be making this drive quickly.
During my four years living in the Bay Area, half of those were spent in San Mateo County—which is where we were legally married in 2009 for those of you keeping track at home—and often would drive over the hill to Half Moon Bay for the afternoon simply for the views. There aren’t many things I miss about being a California resident, but that is one of them.
Not being on a tight schedule for a change allowed us to pull over at many places we hadn’t before, like the second of two lighthouses at Pigeon Point that serve as an international hostel, and many we had such as Bunker near Devils Slide and San Gregorio. All of these should most definitely be on your list of stops.
And like I’m going to pass up a chance for a yoga pose on the edge of a cliff. That’s just plain crazy talk.
Toward the end of our drive, we sped up and skipped stopping anywhere beyond Santa Cruz as we were quickly losing light. However, given my past experiences with Santa Cruz, I wasn’t expecting much by way of the perfect golden hour picture I wanted either.
So color me surprised when we pulled into town from the west end—the best end—as opposed to arriving via the inland route and find that our house was right next to a vista like this one:
Natural Bridges State Beach is a beauty, a true Santa Cruz gem, and we were staying mere blocks away from it; in fact, we could feel the chill of the Pacific breeze sneak in through the back door when open. We pulled up to the house, ran in to say a quick hi to SVV’s family, who we hadn’t seen in 18 months, then bolted for the beach as the sun was sinking and promising a good show.
Later in the weekend, we would head down to Lovers Point in Pacific Grove, but this very spot in Santa Cruz ought to have been called as much with all the couples who were making out in the parking lot and on the craggy cliff overhanging the beach. It was … awkward. I didn’t know where to look. But can you blame them, I suppose?
OK, Santa Cruz, I thought, I could have done without the PDAs but I’m impressed with the view, the drive in doesn’t exactly suck and, fine, your beaches are gorgeous. That said, it will take more than that to win me over. What else you got for me?
Planning a California vacation? I have plenty of added ideas here:
- Windswept + Wild Down Highway 1
- A Day Trip to Half Moon Bay
- A Detour to Point Reyes National Seashore
- A Magical Weekend in Muir Beach
- Planning a Family Vacation to Santa Cruz
- Sunny Days on the Santa Cruz Boardwalk
- Art and Food in San Francisco’s Mission District
- Berkeley in Bloom: 24 Hours in the East Bay
- Skiing Lake Tahoe’s Heavenly Resort