San Francisco - Santa Cruz
Pacifica, Half Moon Bay, Santa Cruz with extension along Skyline Boulevard and a stop at Henry Cowell Redwood State Park
depending on what your plans are I would say 1.5 – 9 hours
SF-SC without stopping: 1.5 hours
Half Moon Bay: + 1.5 hours
Ano Nuevo State Park on HWY 1 (recommendable only from Dec-March): + 3 hours
Alternative route along Skyline Boulevard, Saratoga, passing several vineyards and Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park: + min. 1.5 hours (incl. stops approx.+ 4 hrs)
Santa Cruz: + min. 2 hours
SF – SC: 73 miles
SF-Skyline Boulevard-Vineyards-Redwoods-SC: 150 miles
Start at Ocean Beach, San Francisco
From Union Square – follow Geary Street straight towards Golden Gate Park. After 7 miles make a right into Point Lobos Avenue, since Geary Blvd turns into a one-lane road for the oncoming traffic at this point. Continuing on Point Lobos Avenue takes you directly onto the Great HWY that goes along Ocean Beach.
From Fishermens Wharf – follow North Point Street towards Ghiradelli Square until its end and make a left into Van Ness Avenue. Immediately turn right into Bay Street and drive around the park by turning right into Laguna Street, which becomes Marina Boulevard later. Follow Marina Boulevard until Divisadero Street, which is on your left. Turn into Divisadero and continue until Geary Boulevard, please make a right here. At the end of Geary Boulevard make a right into Point Lobos Avenue, since Geary Blvd turns into a one-lane road for the oncoming traffic at this point. Continuing on Point Lobos Avenue takes you directly onto the Great HWY that goes along Ocean Beach.
1st stop: Ocean Beach
If you haven’t been to Ocean Beach yet, this is your opportunity for a stop at San Francisco’s city beach. If you are lacking time, enjoy the drive along Great HWY.
In case the Great HWY road is closed make a left turn and immediate right to follow the road that runs parallel to the 4-lane road and is called Great HWY as well. At Sloat Blvd you are able to return to the main Great HWY road.
Ocean Beach sprawls several miles to the South, past San Francisco Zoo to the beginning of Skyline Boulevard. The neighborhood that runs parallel to Ocean Beach is called Outer Sunset. Many houses have a rooftop patio with an amazing ocean view, which are barely used thanks to frequent coastal fog.
If you came here during fog you will feel the cool air and face some low visibility.
At the end of Great HWY stay right to enter Skyline Boulevard, which is also known as HWY 35. Continue south, where you will come across Fort Funston, a steep cliff line and popular recreation area
During low tide you can walk along the beach for miles or you take the easier hike on the paved trail above the cliffs. If you are an early bird or have enough time on your way down HWY 1 make a stop to enjoy the spectacular landscape along the dunes.
In Daily City Skyline Boulevard meets HWY 1. Make sure you exit onto HWY 1 towards Pacifica and further down to Half Moon Bay.
2nd stop: Pacifica
The closer you get into Pacifica the more beautiful the coastline becomes. Close to the city’s limit in the South you will come along Linda Mar Beach/Pacifica State Beach, a scenic bay that is worth a stop.
If you haven’t had breakfast yet you will find some shops at the Linda del Mar Center to your left. Instead of having the breakfast in the shopping mall take it to the beach. This is one of the most popular surf spots in Northern California and lies behind Taco Bell. BTW – this beach is the southern limit of a sharks’ breeding area, which stretches from Stinson Beach, over San Francisco Bay down to Pacifica. This is why the signs of the latest shark sighting are no joke.
If you want to stretch your legs hike over the hills to your left or right where you can expect some scenic vantage points at Shelter Cove (South) and Rockaway Beach (North).
3rd stop: Devil’s Slide
Leaving Pacifica you will first drive through a eucalyptus forest before you are entering a tunnel, which construction was finished recently.
The region to your right is called Devil’s Slide, a spectacular shoreline similar to the Big Sur known for regular erosions and rockslides. Its unstable conditions caused many road closures over the last decades and a tunnel was built to assure a safe passage. Since March 2013 the original route along Devil’s Slide was re-routed through the tunnel. In future Devil’s Slide should be be accessible for hikers again.
Further south you are passing Gray Whale Cove State Beach and Montara Beach before you enter the tiny town of Moss Beach.
4th stop: Moss Beach and El Granada/Half Moon Bay Harbor
The tiny village of Moss Beach is famous for its distillery. During prohibition the distillery was involved in smuggling whiskey to all parts of the US using the beach below as a ship landing.
Nowadays the distillery claims to accommodate a ghost, which might be a made up story to pull visitors. However, the venue is popular for its patio that overlooks the ocean and rough cliffs. During winter months it is a great spot to do whale watching. The pation offers cozy wooden sofas and has open firepits. Bring some warm layers during summer since Moss Beach and Half Moon Bay are usually covered in coastal fog during these months
You will reach the distillery by turning right into Cypress Ave from HWY 1, making another right into Marine Boulevard, which leads to Beach Way and the restaurant’s parking lot. The distillery is promoted through a huge wooden sign at HWY 1 as well.
A few miles further south you will enter El Granada, home of Half Moon Bay Harbor and Maverick’s, Northern California’s big wave surf spot. Tide and swell have to be perfect to get big waves here but this happens almost every year in January or February. During that time the world best big wave surfers are holding a competition in Half Moon Bay.
But even without Maverick’s it’s worth to visit the harbor. Make a right into Capistrano Road (at the light behind the airfield). To your left you have the Maverick’s merchandise shop and some small eateries, including a fish shack with decent sandwiches. Straight ahead you approach Half Moon Bay Brewery, a local microbrewery and to the right you have a small shopping mall.
The beach to the harbor’s left is popular with beginners and advanced surfers and runs parallel to a small hiking path. Usually you can watch a bunch of surfers here or try it yourself by booking a lesson at the local surf school: www.openoceansurfing.com
Make sure you make an appointment in advance.
5th stop: Half Moon Bay
Following HWY 1 further towards Half Moon Bay you pass several beach accesses. From the parking lots at the beach you can enter a long trail atop the cliff line from where you have a scenic view over the shore.– as long as the weather is good enough.
The easiest beach accesses with parking lots are located to your right along Young Ave or Poplar Street (close to the town’s limit in the north to your right from HWY 1).
Half Moon Bay’s small commercial strip is located at Main Street. There you will find coffee shops, galleries and other independent stores. Parallel to Main Street along Johnston Street and between Kelly and Miramontes Street is the old jailhouse that displays old jail equipment and bedding.
Golfers or fans of luxury hotels should make a right before Half Moon Bay’s city limit into the Miramonte Point Road. At its end you will hit the Ritz Carlton and the Half Moon Bay Golf Links. The hotel and golf course were built along the cliffs and the scenic walking path is open to public. The hotel’s exclusive outside patio and bar offers awesome views over the ocean, towards Half Moon Bay and the Old Course’s 18th hole.
If you haven’t had a break yet, this is a great spot to do so. On the grounds you have 25 free public parking lots for visitors. You will get the access code at the little hotel entrance booth. Please note: as soon you drop off your car at the hotel’s entrance it counts as valet parking and you have to pay extra for that.
In case the free parking spots are taken you will find additional public parking on Miramonte Point Road in front of the Ritz-Carlton entrance.
Leaving Half Moon Bay there are two different ways to continue to Santa Cruz:
Route 1: Continue along HWY 1 to Ano Nuevo State Reserve, the worldwide biggest land-based breeding ground for elephant seals and sea lions. Stopping there is only worth it from December to March. If you are planning to visit the reserve during winter/spring you need to make your tour reservation far in advance: www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=523
Route 2: Extend the route along Skyline Boulevard, a crest in the Santa Cruz Mountains with lookouts over Silicon Valley. This way passes along vineyards and leads you through forests towards Santa Cruz. If you like you can stop at a Redwood State Park, which offers more beautiful trees than Muir Woods, as well as less tourists.
This tour is also recommended if the coastline is covered in coastal fog.
6th stop: Pigeon Point Lighthouse
Behind Half Moon Bay the route continues along the coastline with amazing views over the ocean and mountain range. On your way are several beaches, including San Gregorio, Pomponio and Pescadero State Beach. All of them are great photo spots.
A few miles south of Pescadero State Beach you will approach Pigeon Point Lighthouse to your right. This lighthouse is one of the tallest in the USA and was built in 1872. Further info is available under:
7th stop: Ano Nuevo State Reserve
http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=523 - recommended from Dec – March when it is populated with elephant seals.
Approximatley 7.5 miles behind the lighthouse follows Ano Nuevo State Reserve, which is the largest land-based breeding ground for elephant seals and sea lions.
From December till March you can attend a guided tour (about 2.5 hours) that goes through the breeding grounds. During the tour you will walk along the cliffline with beautiful views over the ocean and breeding grounds. From time to time it can happen that a male elephant seal is lying next to you since he is recovering from a fight with another male trying to protect his territory.
The reserve starts selling tickets for the guided tours at the end of October. Make sure you buy the tickets early since there is a huge demand and they sell out quickly. If the weather is bad, don’t hesitate to stop by spontaneously because some participants won’t show up if its rainy.
6th stop: Skyline Boulevard
Follow HWY 92 up to the summit and make a right onto Skyline Boulevard. Behind the intersection of 35 and 84 (La Honda Road and Alice’s Restaurant) is Thomas Fogerty Winery with its duck pond and an impressing view over Silicon Valley. Wine experts won’t be too enthusiastic but the view is paying off.
If you do not want to stop here you will get another opportunity enjoying the view over Silicon Valley further south to your left from the parking lot.
From there you can see Stanford University and Palo Alto (in the middle, visible due to the tall campanile), the South Bay and San Jose to your right (east) and far away in the back (northwest) San Francisco – assumend the view is clear.
7th stop: Henry Cowell Redwood State Park
From HWY 35 make a left onto HWY 9 towards Boulder Creek/Felton (approx. 26 miles from HWY 92).
Drive through Felton up to Big Trees Park Rd to your left, the entrance of Henry Cowell Redwood State Park.
The territory orginially belonged to the Zayante Indians before the Spanish and later the Mexicans took over and sold the grounds to their fellow countrymen.
In the 19th century Henry Cowell bought parts of these grounds, to build a limekiln on it and to use the Redwoods to heat the kiln.
During that time lime was a popular construction material for the growing gold rush towns and so far transported from the east coast. After the residents in Santa Cruz area discovered lime resources they started mining and used the lime as new source of income.
After lime was replaced by cement as construction materiall, the kilns were closed and the grounds lay idle. In his testament Cowell disposed parts of his fortune to the public and the park grounds became property of the state of California who turned it into a state park.
The park offers several longer hiking trails, but also a 20-minute loop along the highest and oldest redwood trees. Compared to Muir Woods National Park the State Park is less crowded with tourists, maybe the reason that the park is more beautiful and less commercial. For further info please check their official website: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=546
Next to the State Park you have the Felton Roaring Camp, a former logging town that dates to the 1880s. Most buildings are well preserved and besides a souvenir shops you can wander around the old school house and community hall. Under the following link you have a map of the small village:
By following HWY 9 to the South you will automatically hit HWY 1 again at the city limit of Santa Cruz.
To get to the scenic West Cliff Drive at the ocean make a right onto HWY 1 and follow the road along Mission Street and Coast Road leaving the city again until you reach Western Road to your left (about 2 miles in total).
The signs leading to Western Road are pretty non-existing. The only one is mounted directly at the street but maybe it helps to mention that there is a traffic light at this tiny intersection.
8th stop: Santa Cruz
18 miles further down HWY 1 you will enter Santa Cruz.
Santa Cruz is mainly known for its boardwalk at the beach, a common highlight in travel guides. To put this straight first: for me it’s a total LOWlight and puts this wonderful town in a wrong perspective! At least you will find an old wooden rollercoaster there, but Santa Cruz has much more to offer than just the touristy and crowded boardwalk.
Instead of driving into its city center first, head to the ocean. At the first light behind the city limit turn right into Western Drive.
Everyone, who has taken the alternate route over Skyline Boulevard has to leave Santa Cruz on HWY 1 and turn left into Western Drive after passing Mission Street.
At the end of Western Drive turn right again and immediate left into Natural Bridges Drive. At the end of Natural Bridges Drive make a left into Delaware Drive and then another right into Swanton Boulevard. The boulevard leads you directly to the ocean. At the stop sign stay right and drive onto the parking lot to your left. Here you can park 30 minutes for free, enough time to enjoy the first impressions of scenic West Cliff Drive.
To your right is the entrance to Natural Bridges State Park, but you do not have to go there, since one of the bridges is located in front of and usually occupied by birds or pelicans. To your left is the famous West Cliff Drive, a mixture between a beach promenade, hiking, and biking trail, which leads directly to Santa Cruz’s Municipal Wharf and along one of the most famous surf spots in California.
Follow West Cliff Drive after you left the parking lot. If you want to hike along the scenic path park at on one of the side roads but prepare yourself for a 5.4 miles hike (roundtrip).
Alternatively you can park at one of the lots along the drive and explore the promenade in sections. Another idea is to drive down to the corner of Washington and 2nd Street and to rent a beach cruiser at the bike shop.
A stop you shouldn’t miss is Steamer Lane, the most famous surf spot in Santa Cruz. Steamer Lane is next to the tiny lighthouse (nowadays a surf museum) on your way to the wharf.
If the conditions are good, the waves are smashing against the cliffs and “the lane” is packed with surfers. Actually you cannot miss the spot since it’s usually crowded with spectators. If you are lucky a surf contest is taking place during your visit.
Behind Steamer Lane you will see a huge rock in the ocean and the sounds are telling its own tale - if not: take a closer look. The rock is the home of dozens of sea lions, seals and pelicans.
If the view is clear you can see on the other side of the bay: Monterey, the mountains above Carmel and the beginning of Big Sur.
You will find parking lots in front of the lighthouse and further down the street on both sides. To your left are also public restrooms in case you need a pitstop.
Continuing straight you will reach Cowell’s Beach next to the wharf and the boardwalk. Behind the Dream Inn Hotel you have to pay for parking. If you want to save money head to the free lots in between Monterey and Bay Street at the height of the Dream Inn and Sea & Sand Inn.
At the wharf you will find several souvenir shops, fish restaurants and coffee shops. In the middle of the wharf at the left downstairs a bunch of sea lions is usually enjoying the sun, waiting for their audience.
If you want to buy surfing gear go to Cowell’s Surf Shop. There you also can book surf lessons, which I recommend to schedule at least one week in advance. Next door is Saint Kris, where you get nice Santa Cruz shirts and caps.
Detour to the city center:
The inner center and commercial strip of Santa Cruz is located at Pacific Avenue between Laurel and Water Street, including its side roads.
Amongst others shops like O’Neill, Urban Outfitters, independent boutiques and shoe stores and restaurants are located here.
One of my favorites is the Santa Cruz bookstore at the end of Pacific Ave, (coming from the ocean). This bookstore is not only displaying favorite books read in the US but Santa Cruzian favorites. The local selection will give you an idea about the town’s orientation compared to the common US mainstream.
Pacific Avenue is a nice hang out during the evening with many nice restaurants and bars in its vicinity if you don’t want to spend your money at one of the eateries at the beach or harbor.
If you cannot help visiting the boardwalk you will find several parking lots around the area, but you have to pay for parking.
The East Side:
Everyone else who wants to see even more from Santa Cruz’s amazing shoreline should continue on Beach Street. Pass the boardwalk until its end and follow the street to the left up to the traffic light (3rd Street/Riverside Avenue).
Turn right and cross the bridge and make an immediate right. This gets you to East Cliff Drive and away from the hustle and bustle.
Follow Murray Street, on which you will pass Seabright Brewery and Betty Burger (both nice eateries) and continue over the bridge.
At the end of the bridge turn right into Lake Avenue, which gets you to Santa Cruz Harbor.
Here you can book short sailing trips, e.g. with O’Neill (http://www.oneillyachtcharters.com)or a Whale Watching Tour (http://www.santacruzwhalewatching.com).
At the end of Lake Avenue you will hit a tiny rotary, which automatically sends you to the left (on your right is a parking lot).
If you are hungry or need a drink park at the lot and take a break at the Breakwater Grill. The grill is located above Crow’s Nest and has a nice patio that overlooks the harbor, lighthouse and shore. Moreover, the food is good and inexpensive. If you like tacos go to El Palomar instead or if you a more in a coffee mood choose Kind Grind.
If you are staying in Santa Cruz over night, the Breakwater Grill is the right location to enjoy the sunset. Next to the harbor is the Harbor Beach/Twin Lakes, which is usually crowded during the weekends. Seabright Beach on the opposite next to the lighthouse is the perfect place if you are looking for quietness.
From Memorial to Labor Day there is a free ferry connection between both harbor sides. Otherwise you have to return to Murray Street with your car and turn left into Seabright Ave to park above this more or less secluded beach or cross the harbor over the harbor bridge.
To the left at the rotary you are guided to an intersection. Make a right onto East Cliff Drive, which gets you along the shore. Behind the bend you are getting away from the shore but if you turn right behind the Sunny Cove Motel you are back on track.
You shouldn’t skip this turn to short cut to Capitola since you will miss a wonderful shoreline, empty beaches and another promenade.
At the corner of Coastview Drive and East Cliff Drive is the secluded Corcoran Lagoon, which is followed by Moran Lake and beach. Behind the eucalyptus forest you finally reach the less crowded beach trail along Pleasure Point with its many surf spots.
Compared to West Cliff Drive this promenade is much quieter and you will mainly meet locals on the street, no wonder, because this part is usually not included in tourist trails.
Along the trail you will find several benches from where you will have a wonderful views over Monterey Bay.
To your left in the far back you will see an abondend shipwreck – the concrete ship of Seacliff. During the end of World War II the US started building war vessels out of concrete since steel became rare and expensive. When this ship became useless to the military it was altered into a partyship. Over the years it lost his attractiveness and was abandoned and slowly erodes in the salt water.
On the opposite, if the view isn’t restricted by coastal fog you can see Monterey in the far with the mountain ranges above Carmel and the beginning of Big Sur.
At the end, East Cliff Drive merges into 41st Avenue. At the stop sign you have to decide if you continue straight ahead towards the intersection of 41st Ave and Portola Drive and its surf shops (Rip Curl, Billabong,…) or if you turn right into Opal Cliff Drive to pass fancy beach mansions.
It doesn’t matter which way you go for since you have to turn right onto Portola Drive both times to reach Capitola by the Sea anyways.
Behind the bend on Portola Drive you will hit parking lots. From the lots on the right you have a scenic view over Capitola Village. If you are here during the weekend, take every empty parking lot that is available since it is getting much more crowded the closer you get to the village center.
Allow at least 1-1.5 hours to explore Capitola. To enter the long pier below you either take the stairs behind the parking lot (the staircase is located in front of the house to your right) or walk down the street and turn right at the first possibility.
Coffee shops and restaurants are located along the Esplanade (first street to the right behind the bridge). Most of them have outside patios, which are facing the ocean or the cute Mexican style vacation rentals at the pier. At Capitola and Stockton Avenue you will find several beach shops and boutiques.
A nice lookout is located at Mr. Toots Coffeehouse. The coffee shop is a bit hidden on Esplanade behind Margaritaville restaurant. You can access it over the stairs next door. Mr. Toots has good coffee and snacks and most important a balcony overlooking the river, ocean, and pier. In addition it is facing the colorful vacation rentals on the opposite and is barely used by other guests.
If you want to combine this part of the tour with a long walk along the beach during sunset or on the next morning I highly recommend New Brighton State Beach. You have to pay for parking but in return you can walk for miles along the ocean. The trail starts at the park and guides you further to Seacliff (and it’s shipwreck) and Aptos up to Manresa State Beach. Usually this beach has a strong surf so don’t get to close to the water. This area is popular with seals, dolphins and anchovy swarms, so keep your eyes open and you will see some of the busy sealife at Monterey Bay.