12 Best Santa Cruz Hikes (From a Local Who Grew Up Hiking Them)

best santa cruz hikes

From redwoods to coastal views, these are the best Santa Cruz hikes from a local who grew up hiking them. 

There’s a lot to love about Santa Cruz but perhaps one of the biggest draws to this coastal town is just how much nature there is to explore within the county. 

As someone who grew up in Santa Cruz, I often spent weekends with my family either enjoying the Santa Cruz beaches or going for hikes along the coast or through redwood forests for the first 18 years of my life. 

Santa Cruz is where I found my initial love of hiking and where I’ve come back to time and again to hit more trails, still finding new ones to explore with each visit.  

The great thing about the hiking trails in Santa Cruz is how different they are from each other. You could be hiking along a windswept coastal trail one minute and then be in the midst of a redwood forest in just a 20-minute drive.

Since Santa Cruz County takes up a relatively small area, I’m always amazed by how diverse it is and how many different types of hikes you can find within its county lines. 

You can expect to find old-growth redwoods, enchanted forests, waterfalls, and some of my favorite scenic views on the California Coast. 

And in this post, you’ll discover all of those things and more. These are my picks for the best Santa Cruz hikes, including what to expect from each one and why each trail is well worth the trek. 

Note: this post contains affiliate links, which help run this site at no extra cost to you so I can keep providing free travel advice and tips. 

hiking in Santa Cruz, California

 

Indigenous Americans in Santa Cruz 

For 5,000 years before the arrival of Europeans, the Santa Cruz area (including all of the parks mentioned below) was home to the Ohlone people

Most of the local indigenous population was decimated either through genocide or disease once the Spanish came to California in the 1770s, as well as from subsequent explorers and pioneers after them.

 

Best Hiking Spots in Santa Cruz County 

Wilder Ranch State Park

Parking: Paid day-use parking inside the main entrance, $10 per vehicle 

Dog-friendly: No

Camping: No 

wilder ranch state park - hiking in Santa Cruz

As someone who’s partial to coastal hikes, Wilder Ranch State Park is probably my favorite place to hike in Santa Cruz. So if you’re short on time, this is where I’d recommend starting your hiking adventures in Santa Cruz County. 

Located next to Highway 1, this 7,000-acre park features an enchanted forest, stunning Monterey Bay views, coastal bluffs, trails that are good for mountain biking, and historical sights too. In total, there are 35 miles of trails to keep you busy.  

This is also a good spot to learn more about California’s ranching past. 

Once a dairy ranch, there are still a bunch of sights from the 1890s that you can visit at Wilder Ranch State Park, including a Victorian home, a Gothic Revival farmhouse, a water-powered machine shop, a rodeo arena, and more. 

All of the hikes below start from the main day-use parking area at Wilder Ranch off Highway 1. 

 

Recommended Hikes at Wilder Ranch State Park 

Old Cove Landing Trail

Length: 2.3 miles | Elevation Gain: 85 ft | Trail Guide

Features: Coastal bluffs, whale watching and bird watching opportunities, family-friendly, easy and flat trail, hidden coves  

My favorite hike at Wilder Ranch State Park and the best one to do if you’re looking for coastal views. The Old Cove Landing Trail takes you out to the bluffs filled with scenic ocean views and hidden coves below. 

This is a good trail to try and spot whales in the distance, especially in the winter. And it’s an easy one to add on to if you’re looking for a longer hike. 

You can make the Old Cove Landing Trail into a 5-mile hike if you continue walking to the Ohlone Bluff Trail and back, or you can make it into a 10-mile hike if you continue on the Ohlone Bluff Trail to Four Mile Beach before heading back. 

With its mostly flat and easy nature, this is an ideal kid-friendly hike or a good one to do if you’re simply more interested in good views instead of an intense workout. 

 

Enchanted Loop Trail 

Length: 5.1 miles | Elevation Gain: 918 ft | Trail Guide

Features: Redwoods, wild mushrooms, wildflowers in the spring  

If you’re more of a “hiking through the forest person,” the Enchanted Loop Trail is for you. You’ll go from ocean to forest and back and experience more of an elevation gain. 

Along this loop trail, you’ll come across a meadow, redwoods, and plenty of wild mushrooms. Also, this is a multi-use trail so be mindful of speeding mountain bikers coming from behind you. 

 

Wilder Ridge Trail

Length: 7.7 miles | Elevation Gain: 882 ft | Trail Guide

Features: Coastal views, grasslands, oak trees, redwoods, Douglas firs, potential wildlife sightings, wildflowers in the spring  

Another multi-use trail that’s popular with mountain bikers and hikers is the Wilder Ridge Trail.

This hike is a good one to see a little bit of everything at Wilder Ranch State Park – from Monterey Bay views to grasslands, oak trees, redwoods, and maybe even some wildlife spotting if you’re lucky. 

The only downside to the Wilder Ridge Trail is that some parts of the trail are overgrown and not always the prettiest, but I still think the variety of sights you get to see on other parts of the trail make it worth it to hike. 

Make sure to wear pants to avoid ticks and watch out for poison oak since most of the hike is along a narrow trail. 

 

The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park

Parking: Paid parking lots inside the park, $8 day-use fee per vehicle 

Dog-friendly: Dogs are only allowed on Aptos Creek Fire Road and the Porter Picnic Area, but aren’t allowed on most trails. 

Camping: No

The forest of nisene marks in aptos, california

Santa Cruz County is made up of a bunch of small cities and unincorporated communities that each have their unique personalities. 

And Aptos, where The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park is located, is a quiet tucked away gem that’s filled with thick forests and a slower pace. 

The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park is another favorite area to go hiking in Santa Cruz, especially for locals. 

The road to get into the park is full of potholes and doesn’t look like much, but once you hit the hiking trails, you’ll see why this is such a popular place to go hiking. 

With over 10,000 acres and 40 miles of hiking trails, this is the largest park to explore in Santa Cruz County and a good spot to walk amongst the redwoods and see waterfalls.  

 

Recommended Hikes at The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park

Old Growth Trail

Length: 1.3 miles | Elevation Gain: 269 ft | Trail Guide

Features: Old-growth redwoods, family-friendly, Aptos Creek, the Advocate Tree (this recently fell during a winter storm but it was once the oldest tree in the park), banana slugs

The best introduction to the park and its redwoods, the Old Growth Loop Trail at Nisene Marks State Park will take you through some of the last remaining old-growth redwoods in the park. 

This easy loop trail starts next to the main entrance kiosk and features a shaded and cool path with a crossing at Aptos Creek that will either be a test of your balance or your waterproof hiking shoes. 

There’s also a good chance you might come across some yellow banana slugs – I saw two last time I hiked this trail. 

The nice thing about the Old Growth Loop is that it offers a bunch of side trails off of it if you want to make it into a longer hike.

If you choose to make it a longer hike, don’t miss the Twisted Grove, which features funky-looking gnarled redwood trees. 

old growth loop trail at nisene marks state park

Old growth loop trail - aptos creek

 

Loma Prieta Grade Trail

Length: 5.9 miles | Elevation Gain: 278 ft | Trail Guide

Features: Historic sights, second-growth redwood forest, relatively flat

Starting from the Porter Picnic Area, this is one of the more historic trails at Nisene Marks that gives you a look into the park’s logging history. 

Along the way, you’ll find Hoffman’s Historic Site, which is the best preserved logging camp in the park, among other remnants from the past. And you’ll be walking the path that an old steam train used to run along. 

 

Bridge Creek Trail to Maple Falls

Length: 7.7 miles | Elevation Gain: 823 ft | Trail Guide

Features: Redwoods, waterfall, creek crossings   

If you’re looking for more of a challenging hike that leads to a beautiful waterfall, the Bridge Creek Trail to Maple Falls hike is a good option. 

This diverse hike takes you through a dense redwood forest, creek crossings, and a few bridges until you reach Maple Falls. 

Maple Falls is especially impressive after a solid rain (usually in the spring), but the trail can get muddy fast so make sure you wear waterproof hiking boots with good grip. 

It’s also a good idea to download the trail map ahead of time (or use a physical one) since cell service is spotty and signage isn’t always the best along this trail. 

For most of the year, you’ll want to park at George’s Picnic Area. However, during the winter this area is sometimes closed to cars. 

If that’s the case when you’re visiting, you’ll want to leave your car at the Steel Bridge Parking Area and plan to add on two miles to your hike.  

 

Epicenter to Five Finger Falls 

Length: 14.9 miles | Elevation Gain: 2,290 | Trail Guide

Features: Second-growth redwoods, waterfall, creek crossings, epicenter of the Loma Prieta Earthquake, challenging and a good workout 

If you really want to go big with your day hiking adventure at Nisene Marks, you should tackle the nearly 15-mile Epicenter to Five Finger Falls Trail. 

This is another waterfall hike that, as the name suggests, takes you through the epicenter of one of the biggest earthquakes to hit this part of California – the 6.9 Loma Prieta Earthquake that hit in 1989. 

The trail starts just past the entrance kiosk on Aptos Creek Road and ends at the falls before you head back the way you came. 

It’s best to hike this trail in the summer or fall since it can become very muddy and slippery during the wetter months, to a point where it can be dangerous to hike. 

 

DeLaveaga Park

Parking: Free parking lot inside either entrance

Dog-friendly: Yes

Camping: No 

top of the world viewpoint from the corona trail at Delaveaga Park

If you really want to explore a place where locals hike in Santa Cruz, look no further than DeLaveaga Park

This multi-use city park has everything from hiking trails to baseball courts, horseshoe stakes, picnic areas, playgrounds, bocce ball courts, an archery range, a golf course, and one of the best disc golf courses in the United States. 

Trails are used by both day hikers and mountain bikers and this is a very dog-friendly park so expect to come across quite a few pups if you go hiking here. 

Note: There are many signs at the entrance of trailheads that let people know this is also a mountain lion habitat. In all of the years I’ve hiked here, I’ve never seen a mountain lion. But it’s still good to be aware that you’re hiking through mountain lion territory and to keep dogs on a leash.

 

Recommended Hike at DeLaveaga Park 

La Corona Trail

Length: 3.4 miles | Elevation Gain: 475 ft | Trail Guide

Features: Redwoods, scenic lookout point, banana slugs, disc golf course, gradual inclines and declines 

La Corona Trail is the best hike at the park to give you a good overview of the beautiful landscape and flora and fauna that can be found at DeLaveaga Park. 

From the trailhead that starts near the main parking lot, you’ll gradually wind your way up through the redwood forest to what locals call the “Top of the World.” 

This is the scenic lookout point at the top of the hike that has a couple of benches and looks out over the disc golf course.

If you have time, you can even bring a couple of frisbees for disc golf since there are stairs down to the course from the viewpoint. 

Along the way, look out for banana slugs and enjoy the peaceful redwood forest. 

On the way down, you can come back the way you came or take the Branciforte Creek Trail to go near the water and make it a proper loop trail with a change of scenery. 

la corona trail - delaveaga park

top of the world viewpoint

 

West Cliff Drive

Parking: There’s free parking at any of the small lots or side streets along West Cliff Drive, you can choose to start at either the eastern or western side. 

Dog-friendly: Yes, plus Mitchell’s Cove is one of the best dog beaches in town (dogs can be off-leash before 10 am and after 4 pm).

Camping: No 

Length: 6 miles out-and-back | Elevation Gain: 68 ft | Trail Guide

Features: Monterey Bay views, hidden coves and beaches, a historic lighthouse, and a great place to watch the sunset 

west cliff drive walk

west cliff drive hike

Not really a “hike” so much as a beautiful coastal stroll, but walking along West Cliff Drive is something that any hiker should experience at least once in Santa Cruz. 

This 6-mile out-and-back walk offers some of the prettiest views in Santa Cruz County and even across the bay to Monterey on a clear day. 

You can also take in the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk with its historic Giant Dipper roller coaster from afar and, in the winter, you might even see some whales breaching in the distance on their annual pilgrimage through the Monterey Bay. 

Other sights along the West Cliff Drive that shouldn’t be missed include watching the surfers at Steamer Lane, visiting Lighthouse Point and the Surfing Museum, and checking out the hidden coves and beaches below the cliffs. 

This is my favorite place to watch the sunset in town so if you plan your walk for around that time, you’ll be rewarded with gorgeous cotton candy views as the sun goes down. Just make sure to bring a warm jacket! 

 

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park

Parking: There are paid parking lots inside the state park; day-use fees are $10 per vehicle.

Dog-friendly: Dogs are allowed at picnic areas and campsites and some fire roads, but not at any of the main hiking trails or other parts of the park.

Camping: Yes 

Henry Cowell State Park - old growth forest

If you’re looking to explore old-growth redwoods near Santa Cruz, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is one of the best places to visit. 

The park is known for its 4,650 acres of natural beauty in the Santa Cruz Mountains, especially its 40-acre grove of very old redwoods.

And its redwoods have played an important part in the park’s history too. Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park inspired some of the earliest redwood preservation efforts in California. 

This is why there are still old-growth trees standing at the park today – some of which are 1,500 years old!   

Besides redwoods, at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park you’ll find grasslands, rivers, sandhills, walk-in trees (like the Fremont Tree), a local swimming hole, old lime kilns, and even some views looking out over the Santa Cruz Mountains when you get up high enough. 

And once you’re done hiking, this is also the place to experience the historic Roaring Camp Railroad. 

If you’ve never traveled in an open-air narrow-gauge steam locomotive from 1890, you’re in for a treat. 

Taking a ride on a Roaring Camp train is also a great way to learn about the history of the park since there’s guided commentary from the conductors throughout the ride. 

 

Recommended Hikes at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park 

Redwood Grove Loop Trail

Length: 0.9 miles | Elevation Gain: 45 ft | Trail Guide

Features: Old-growth redwoods, family-friendly, accessible and flat 

A good intro trail to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, the Redwood Grove Loop Trail is a short, family-friendly and accessible day hike that takes you around the tallest and widest trees in the park – some of which are 17 ft in diameter and 285 ft tall!

The Redwood Grove Loop Trail trailhead is conveniently located near the main parking lot and nature center. 

 

Fall Creek Trail to Lime Kilns Trail

Length: 4.8 miles | Elevation Gain: 744 ft | Trail Guide

Features: Second-growth redwoods, lime kiln ruins, shady trail 

If you’re looking for a longer day hike at Henry Cowell that also has some historic features, the Fall Creek Trail to Lime Kilns Trail is a fun one to tackle. 

This hike takes you through second-growth redwoods, as well as madrone and tanoak trees until you get to the ruins of the 19th century lime kilns. 

With this hike, you can expect a cool trail (both in terms of temperature and how interesting it is), historical ruins, and a gradual incline and decline that isn’t too difficult.  

The trailhead starts off Felton Empire Road at the Fall Creek Unit of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. 

 

More Hikes in Santa Cruz to Tackle

There are a lot more hikes I could talk about near Santa Cruz, but here are a few more to add to your list if you’re looking for more recommendations! 

  • Pogonip trails (varies) – A very local place to hike that’s conveniently located near downtown Santa Cruz and UCSC.
  • Neary Lagoon Loop Trail (0.7 miles) – Peaceful wildlife refuge that offers a loop path with great bird watching opportunities.
  • Quail Hollow Sunset Trail at Quail Hollow Ranch (2.8 miles) – Near Santa Cruz City, usually not too crowded, scenic ranch and nature preserve with views of the valley. 

 

Note: As much as I would love to recommend hiking at Big Basin Redwoods State Park, especially the beautiful Berry Creek Falls Trail, the park is currently closed. And after the CZU Lightning Complex wildfires in 2020, it doesn’t look like Big Basin Redwoods State Park or its trails will be opening anytime soon. 

 

big basin redwoods history

 

Tips for Hiking in Santa Cruz

  • Bring layers, it’ll probably be chillier than you think – I always know when I travel to Santa Cruz with someone who’s not from there that they’ll comment on how much colder it is than they thought it would be. Santa Cruz gets cold, like San Francisco chilly, for a lot of the year. Bring layers and a warm hiking jacket for the trails. 

 

  • Look out for banana slugs – The mascot of UCSC, banana slugs are all over Santa Cruz, especially when it comes to redwood-lined trails that are damp and cool. Watch out for these bright yellow slugs on the trail, they’re a cool sight to see. 

 

  • Bring cash in small bills and a pen – Although manned park kiosks should accept credit cards these days, there’s always the chance you’ll arrive at a park without a ranger at the kiosk. Because of this, it’s always a good idea to bring small bills (of at least $10) and a pen so you can fill out your own permit for day-use parking.

 

  • Watch out for poison oak and ticks – There is a ton of poison oak along the trails in Santa Cruz County and ticks can be found in the area too. Wear long pants if you can and avoid touching any plants that you don’t know. 

 

banana slugs in the santa cruz redwoods

 

What to Pack for Hiking in Santa Cruz

 

Looking for more to do in town? Check out my post on 101 Things to do in Santa Cruz

 


 

More Northern California Travel Inspiration 

Wine Tasting in the Santa Cruz Mountains

The Best Hikes in the San Francisco Bay Area

35 Things to do in San Jose, California 

9 Best Places to See Redwoods Near San Francisco

Mimi McFadden
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2 Responses

  1. I have hiked Santa Cruz trails since the 1970s. I agreed with most of your article but take exception to your listing Its Beach (Lighthouse Field State Park) as a recommended dog beach. It is a State Park and leashes are required. Unfortunately irresponsible dog owners ignore the rules and make it an unplesant experience for families with small childeren or elderly. Please update your document and clarify that it is a leash required location.

    1. Hi Kenneth,

      Thank you for your comment and for catching that! I grew up knowing Its Beach as a popular dog beach and every time I’ve visited there have been dogs running around off-leash, it seems like locals have made their own rules for this particular beach. I can understand how this can be frustrating for others who don’t want dogs coming up to them at the beach, but luckily there are plenty of other coves and beaches around West Cliff that people can enjoy without dogs if they wish. I updated the post to only mention Mitchell’s Cove which allows dogs to be off-leash before 10 am and after 4 pm.

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