How to plan the perfect day trip to Santa Cruz 

May 20, 2023 — by Meher Bhatnagar
The view off of the cliff overlooking Bonny Doon Beach.
Summer is right around the corner, so here is a list of must-visit spots in Santa Cruz.

Picture this: You’re driving to the beach on a warm summer day following a grueling school year of endless work, severe sleep deprivation and academic pressure. You feel yourself loosening up as you wind through the Santa Cruz Mountains with the car windows down, blasting A$AP Rocky and wearing your best swim attire in the 80-degree heat.

No doubt everyone loves to go to the beach in the summertime, especially to nearby destinations like Santa Cruz, but planning a day trip takes time and effort. Here is a detailed itinerary of my ideal Santa Cruz beach day.

After leaving home, you will drive by all the shops located on North Santa Cruz Avenue near downtown Los Gatos as you merge onto the highway. Leaving earlier in the morning will help you avoid the swarm of traffic that usually appears around 11 a.m., giving you more time to relax and enjoy your day. 

Highway 17, notorious for being dangerous and tricky to drive, nonetheless offers sweeping views of mother nature and wildlife. You can often spot animals traversing the wilderness by the sides of the road, such as roaming deer and chirping swallows.  Music is also crucial on the drive, as it sets the tone for the trip: Fun summer artists like Tame Impala, Mac Demarco and A$AP Rocky are must-listens.

As soon as you roll into downtown Santa Cruz, the vibe of the surrounding area changes from tranquil suburbs to a more rustic beach town feel. People walking around in bathing suits drinking fruit juices or eating acai bowls is a common sight. 

You may feel hungry when you arrive, so stopping for a light meal is always a good idea. One of my favorite spots near downtown is Taqueria Los Pericos, the perfect Mexican restaurant for something quick and inexpensive to eat. Crisp, crunchy nacho chips paired with their wide selection of salsas is the best snack when served with their hearty burritos. 

Additionally, if you happen to be near the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, the city’s biggest tourist hotspot, there will be unlimited options for concessions (though it’s slightly on the more expensive side). The oreo funnel cake, a fried dessert, is a personal favorite of mine for its sweet taste and crispy texture.

Funnel cake secured, you can take a stroll around the Santa Cruz main beach itself, which is crowded with many tourists flooding in and out throughout the day. You can also stop by the Boardwalk’s amusement park for entertainment; rides such as The Big Dipper allow you to momentarily glimpse the entirety of the beach and surrounding areas while speeding by on a thrilling roller coaster. 

However, if you’re more like me and visiting the Boardwalk every time has begun to lose its novelty, there are other beaches in the vicinity that allow for new experiences and more peace and quiet away from the crowd. 

One of my recent favorites has been “Its” beach, which is located just a couple of miles from the Boardwalk on West Cliff Drive but has significantly less tourists. This spot is north of Lighthouse point and many locals come here to play with their dogs and lounge around in their bathing suits. A large rock structure located nearby provides ample shade if the sun begins to burn.

Another more popular spot is Bonny Doon Beach, situated near Davenport along the coast, 15 minutes away from the downtown area. This beach is a part nude beach; one side of the beach is nude and one side is not. Fortunately, you can’t see into the nude area from the non-nude side, which allows all people to enjoy the natural beauty of this area at their own comfort. Formed within a divot and surrounded by cliffs, Bonny Doon features stunning scenery: Whether it be near the railroad tracks that lay atop the cliff or the delicate sand by the beach’s sparkling tide pools, there are spots all around to take aesthetic Instagram photos of.

If you aren’t much of a beach person — don’t worry. Located just a few minutes away from Bonny Doon is a small strawberry picking patch called Rodoni Farm Fresh Produce, open from May to October, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Glimmering, ripe strawberries in all shapes and sizes spring abundantly throughout the patch. Picking strawberries is one of my favorite activities to do whenever I visit Santa Cruz in the summer — not only is it extremely affordable, but it also provides you with a fresh snack as you embark on the drive back. 

One last stop which isn’t as well-known as some of these other places is a watering hole close to UC Santa Cruz named Garden of Eden, just off of Highway 9 as you approach Santa Cruz. Pro tip: Get here early in the day to avoid crowds; it is much more enjoyable to jump off the rocks into the glistening water without waiting groups of tourists breathing down your back. The flourishing greenery surrounding this spot is what makes it so unique and peaceful, briefly isolating visitors from the more crowded parts of Santa Cruz. 

These are just some of the activities and attractions that Santa Cruz can dazzle visitors with. Though there are surely many more, this list consolidates some of my favorite spots and can help give you some suggestions for your next trip down to the beach town located just 20 miles away from home.

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