If you’re looking for an easy 48-hour getaway from San Francisco, I highly recommend a weekend in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Less than 1.5 hours from the city, the region boasts all the iconic California travel experiences, from hiking among the redwoods to more than 30 wineries. Plus, you’ll be just 10-15 minutes from the city of Santa Cruz which means you can easily combine a weekend of mountain and beach adventures.
I was first introduced to the Santa Cruz Mountains on a camping trip with coworkers last year – before that, I had no idea this beautiful place existed so close to my home!
Now, I’m obsessed and for my 30th birthday Nick surprised me with a treehouse getaway in Scotts Valley. It was so fun and relaxing to just chill out in nature, hike and drive around capturing all the incredible views. So I put together a weekend travel guide to the Santa Cruz Mountains to help you explore this hidden California gem!
Travel Guide: A Weekend in the Santa Cruz Mountains, California
Transportation in Santa Cruz
The Santa Cruz Mountains are less than a 1.5- hour drive from San Francisco and I recommend driving yourself (or renting a car) so you can fully explore the area.
However, once you’re there, there are actually a decent amount of public transit options (bus service) as well as Uber and Lyft in most towns. However, the state parks often don’t have cell service so you wouldn’t want to get stuck relying on ride sharing services!
Where to Stay in the Santa Cruz Mountains
While there are plenty of hotels in the area, to get the full experience of a weekend in the Santa Cruz Mountains you should try camping, glamping or renting a house.
As I mentioned in my quarterly travel spending update, Nick took me to this amazing Airbnb treehouse. The pictures are a little deceiving as it was in a family’s backyard, but if you close the back window and only look out upon the deck, it’s just you and the redwoods!
I loved spending the weekend there and basically pretending I lived in a treehouse fairy tale. Plus, it had all the basic amenities like a fridge, shower, electricity and even a TV equipped with Netflix.
(P.S. Sign up for Airbnb using my referral link for $40 off your first booking)
The Santa Cruz Mountains are also home to several state parks where you can reserve a campsite. The easiest place to score a spot on short notice is probably Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, although there are several others in the region that are more popular.
If you’re more interested in renting a house, I suggest trying Airbnb or VRBO and aiming for one of the cute small towns like Ben Lomond, Felton or Boulder Creek. You’ll have easy access to great restaurants and shops without being too far from nature.
State Parks to Explore in the Santa Cruz Mountains
The Santa Cruz Mountains are home to so many state parks! A few that I recommend visiting include:
Big Basin Redwoods State Park & Castle Rock State Park
Big Basin is California’s oldest state park and is one of the best places in CA to see ancient coastal redwoods. There are trees that are more than 50 feet in diameter and 200+ feet tall! While you’re there, visit the Redwood Loop trail for an easy 0.5-mile walk among some of the most impressive trees. A free self-guide brochure gives you more information about the trees along this route.
More adventurous hikers can explore further, as the park has more than 80 miles of trails, including 5 backcountry trail camps (reservations required). The Skyline to Sea Trail is one of the most iconic backpacking trips in the region. Lasting approximately three days (30 miles), the hike starts at Castle Rock State Park and descends into an old-growth redwood grove, passes Berry Creek Falls and ends at Waddell Beach.
If hiking 30 miles isn’t your thing, you can also drive from Big Basin to Castle Rock State Park on Route 236 and 9. The roads are super windy but uncrowded, making it a fun day’s adventure.
Castle Rock is known for its sweeping vistas so be prepared to pull over for photo opps! This park is also popular among rock climbers, who flock to the Goat Rock limestone formation that offers one of the best views of the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
Henry Cowell is another nearby park famous for (duh) its redwoods. It houses a 40-acre grove of old-growth trees and like its neighbors, offers all types of outdoor activities from hiking to camping and even swimming at the Garden of Eden swimming hole.
If you’re interested in visiting the beach and boardwalk in Santa Cruz, definitely check out Roaring Camp Railroad near Henry Cowell. Here, you can take an 1880’s steam train through the woods all the way down to the boardwalk.
Wilder Ranch State Park
Wilder Ranch encompasses 7,000 acres from Ben Lomond Mountain to the coastline. Visitors can experience California history by exploring historical sites within the park, including an early dairy ranch, Victorian home and water-powered machine shop.
Dining & Nightlife in the Santa Cruz Mountains
There are tons of great restaurants to check out during a weekend in the Santa Cruz Mountains. A couple I’d highly recommend near where we stayed in Scotts Valley include:
Heavenly Roadside Bistro for incredible brunch. The menu here was overwhelming with so many options that sounded too good to be true (breakfast nachos?!). We both ended up getting egg scrambles that filled us up for an entire day of hiking and exploring. The place was popular, but it’s large so the wait wasn’t long (plus, service was friendly).
Bruno’s Bar & Grill for bar food, drinks and plenty of TVs playing sports. One of the staff at Big Basin actually recommended it and told us not to be deterred by the fact that it was in a strip mall. We weren’t!
The place was massive with a restaurant, bar and upstairs area that had a pool table and games. The bartenders were really friendly and made us some delicious cocktail concoctions. I spotted another patron who ordered a bloody Mary that had practically an entire meal on it. And most importantly, the food was bomb dot com and truly affordable for California. I had a $9 burger and it was so tasty.
Visit the Santa Cruz Beach & Boardwalk
While you’re in the area, you can’t miss a visit to the nostalgic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. It’s California’s oldest amusement park, and is registered as a California Historical Landmark. While you will find some old-school wooden roller coasters and rides, the park has also kept up with modern times. From mini golf to bowling to arcade games, there’s something for everyone.
If you get hungry though, I do recommend skipping the grossly unhealthy boardwalk food and making a beeline to walkable and casual La Montana Taqueria for some delicious and authentic quick-serve Mexican food.
Explore Local Wineries in the Santa Cruz Mountains
While I didn’t partake in the winery scene of Santa Cruz during any of my recent visits, it’s definitely on my to-do list. This region is known as one of California’s up-and-coming wine regions, and I’m sure it’s the perfect place to sip and relax, away from the tourist hordes of Napa. In fact, there’s even a treehouse on a winery that you can stay in (guess Nick knows what he’s getting me next year!).
For more information on wineries in Santa Cruz, I recommend The Wandering Blonde’s post: Redwoods & Red Wine: A Guide to California’s Santa Cruz Mountain Wine Region.
That wraps up my guide to a weekend in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Would you visit this lesser-known California gem?
P.S. You may also be interested in my other post: 4 Awesome Day Trips from San Francisco.