Car Free Journey

Car Free Journey: Santa Cruz, California

Written by Steve Atlas

Are you looking for a great beach, mountains, and lots of great outdoor attractions, with a walkable and attractive downtown area? Then Santa Cruz, California is a great car free getaway choice for your summer vacation. It’s also a good choice for visitors who don’t want to drive: the Pacific Coast Highway can get quite congested. If you leave your car at home (or at your hotel), the local bus system can get you nearly anywhere in Santa Cruz County that you want to go. If you like state parks, you can visit several of these using public transportation.

Say goodbye to your car (at least for this trip), and join me on a Car Free Journey to Santa Cruz.

Santa Cruz, California

What’s Special about Santa Cruz?

Santa Cruz is known for the beauty of its beaches along the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. On any given day, you will find many people biking or walking along both West Cliff Drive and East Cliff Drive which feature a mixed use path along the ocean cliffs. Bicyclists are enjoying some of the city’s world class mountain biking trails. Walkers and bike riders savor beautiful views along the walking and biking paths in Watsonville Sloughs. Commuters travel by bike across town to work or play. The City of Santa Cruz had the second highest rate of bike to work trips in the state of California from 2008-2012!

Downtown Santa Cruz is home to many cultural attractions, historic walkable neighborhoods, restaurants and places to stay.

From the downtown area, you can access the whole City within a reasonable walk, bike ride, or transit trip. Santa Cruz’s network of bike and pedestrian infrastructure connects locals and visitors to all the places where residents, live, work, and play. Santa Cruz has a culture of active living: 9.9% of people walk to work, 9.5% bicycle, and 5.4% take public transit.

In Santa Cruz, you can travel from the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary to the Redwoods without a car. Spend your morning mountain biking on one of the many great trails. End your afternoon strolling along West Cliff Drive..

A great way to access transportation options in Santa Cruz is to visit

Getting Here

Greyhound’s Santa Cruz bus terminal is located at the Pacific Avenue Metro Terminal: the hub of the Santa Cruz Metro bus system. Greyhound is the only intercity transportation that brings you into Santa Cruz.

If you are coming by Air or Train, San Jose is the best destination. From San Jose, Metro’s Highway 17 Express bus travels to San Cruz from the Diridon train station. For detailed information about how to get from Santa Cruz to either the San Jose rail station or San Jose International Airport, go to Here is a summary of how to get to Santa Cruz from San Jose Airport, and the Diridon train station in San Jose:



  • From any Terminal take the VTA #10 Eastbound Bus/ Airport Shuttle
    • The Shuttle is free and runs approximately every 15 minutes (allow approximately 10 minutes travel time) It will take you to the Santa Clara Light Rail station.
  • Cross over to the Southbound Light Rail track from the glass gazebo bus stop (allow approximately 5 minutes travel time)
  • Take the VTA Light Rail – Mountain View to Winchester ONLY!
    • This train will take you to the Diridon Station (allow approximately 20 minutes travel time)
  • Walk through the station building and take the Amtrak Highway 17 Express Southbound from San Jose to Santa Cruz METRO (allow approximately 60 minutes travel time)

(I checked with Santa Cruz Airport Flyer about its service to Santa Cruz. Unfortunately, none of the hotels it serves are in or within walking distance to downtown Santa Cruz or one of the nearby beaches.)

Welcome to Santa Cruz

A Progressive Community

Santa Cruz is the county seat and largest city of Santa Cruz County, California. In 2013, the U.S.Census Bureau estimated Santa Cruz’s population at 62,864. Santa Cruz is a center of the organic agriculture movement, and headquarters of California Certified Organic Farmers.

Santa Cruz is also known for its social activism and support of women’s issues. The Resource Center for Nonviolence, founded in 1976, is one of the oldest and most centrally located non-profit organizations committed to political and social activism in Santa Cruz County. In 1998, the Santa Cruz community declared itself a Nuclear-free zone. In 1992, local residents approved Measure A: allowing marijuana to be used for medicinal uses.

Notable feminist activists Nikki Craft and Ann Simonton, both Santa Cruz residents, formed the “Praying Mantis Brigade”. This collection of activists organized the “Myth California Pageant” in the 1980s protesting “the objectification of women and the glorification of the beauty myth.” Simonton also founded and still coordinates the non-profit group “Media Watch” which monitors and critiques media images of women and ethnic minorities.

A Great Place for a Vacation

Santa Cruz has 11 world-class surf breaks, including the point breaks over rock bottoms near Steamer Lane and Pleasure Point, which create some of the best surfing waves in the world. The Santa Cruz Surfing Museum is staffed by docents from the Santa Cruz Surfing Club who have surfed Santa Cruz waves since the 1930s. The Santa Cruz Wharf is known for fishing, viewing marine mammals and other recreation.

Local parks offer many opportunities for birding and butterfly watching, as well as outdoor sports such as  skateboarding, cycling, camping, hiking, and rock climbing. Santa Cruz Skate Park is free and open to the public seven days a week.

Explore downtown Santa Cruz. In addition to its storefronts and businesses, downtown is the place to enjoy performances by street performers, musicians, and artists. Pacific Avenue is a center for Santa Cruz’ artistic and cultural scene.

No visit to Santa Cruz is complete without a visit to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. The Boardwalk, California’s oldest amusement park (it celebrated its Centennial in 2007) is a designated State Historic Landmark. It is the home of to the iconic Giant Dipper roller coaster, which is currently the fifth oldest coaster in the United States (opening in 1924), and the Charles I. D. Looff Carousel that opened in 1911.

If you are a rail fan, enjoy an excursion on the Santa Cruz, Big Trees and Pacific Railway’s diesel-electric tourist trains between the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and Roaring Camp in nearby Felton. The train runs through Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. If time permits, take a walk along the park’s famous Redwood Grove walking trail. For more information about the Railway’s routes, schedules and costs, visit or call (831) 335-4484. (You can also take Metro Bus Route 35 to the Felton Faire station and walk to Roaring Camp. For more details, see below under excursions.)

Now, let’s find a place to stay during your visit here.

Where to Stay

Santa Cruz Hostel ( is within walking distance to METRO Pacific Station or take the Rt. 3, 19 or 20. Santa Cruz.

For visitors who don’t want to drive, the best areas to stay are Beach Hill, downtown Santa Cruz, and the beach area.

Maria Granados-Boyce: METRO’s Supervisor of Customer Service, offers these suggestions: “Ocean Street is the main road into Santa Cruz. Here, there are many hotels and motels. Some are within walking distance to the beach and downtown. Visitors staying in other areas can take Route 35 Boulder Creek, 71 Watsonville, 66 Capitola Mall or 68 Capitola Mall to downtown or beaches, based on where they are staying. Many hotels/motels at the beach are served by Route 3 Mission, 19 UCSC/Lower Bay and 20 UCSC Westside.”

Downtown or the Beach Area are the easiest places to be without a car. Hotels along the beach are also within a short walk of Pacific Station. These include:

Dream Inn;

Beach Street Inn & Suites:

Casablanca Inn;

Coastview Inn:

Carousel Beach Inn,

Howard Johnson Inn at the Santa Cruz Wharf:

Pacific Blue Inn:

West Cliff Inn:

Rio Vista Luxury Suites:

Seaway Inn:

Sea & Sand:

Comfort Inn Beach Boardwalk:

The beach area has shops and restaurants, the Santa Cruz Wharf, and Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, beach volleyball tournaments on the weekends, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary

Interpretative Center (free to visit), the Depot Park playground and BMX Bike Park, and the Beach Street Bikeway (cycletrack).

Closer to Downtown are two smaller B&B type of lodgings:

Both B&Bs are close to all the downtown amenities- cinema, restaurants, bars, nightlife.

The Santa Cruz Conference and Visitors Council suggests checking out the following four hotels near downtown Santa Cruz, all of which are in walkable areas:

There are also some hotel options on 41st Avenue that are walking distance to the famous surfing destination of Pleasure Point. For those interested in staying beachside, the City of Capitola features a downtown area right on the beach with many cottages and places to stay that are in walking distance to surf and sand along with many restaurants and stores.

 Getting Around

The Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transportation District (SCMTD), also known as METRO, operates local and regional buses and trolleys throughout Santa Cruz County. METRO also operates the Highway 17 Express between Santa Cruz and the Diridon Amtrak rail station in San Jose. For detailed information about fares and schedules, visit or call METRO customer service (831) 425-8600 between 7:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m.(Pacific Time) Monday-Friday.

All METRO buses are wheelchair accessible.

The Highway 17 Express bus one way fare is $5.00. A one-day unlimited ride pass (also includes local Santa Cruz Metro buses) is $10.00. On September 10, these fares will increase to $7.00 one way, and $14.00 for a one-day pass

The regular one way fare is $2.00. The discount fare (seniors 62 and over and persons with disabilities) is $1.00. A one-day unlimited ride pass is $6.00; the discount one-day pass is $3.00.

The Santa Cruz Trolley (, operating daily between May 23 and September 7, is a fun and inexpensive way to travel between downtown Santa Cruz and the beach area. The one way fare is only $.25. Catch the Trolley between 12 noon and 10:00 p.m. every day. Trolley riders can easily get to the Monterey Bay Exploration Center, the Santa Cruz wharf, Main Beach, the Boardwalk, and West Cliff Drive and still have time to shop and dine in downtown.

Taxis in Santa Cruz

The following site has reviews of Santa Cruz cab companies and Uber:

 Here is a list of cab companies listed on that Yelp site:

  • Deluxe Cab of Santa Cruz County: (831) 475-3232
  • Yellow Cab of Santa Cruz: (831) 423-1234
  • Go Green Taxi: (831) 246-1234
  • Cash Cab of Santa Cruz: (831) 334-1881.
  • Uber also serves Santa Cruz County.

Park and Ride Lots served by Metro

 If you are an area resident, or live within driving distance of Santa Cruz, consider driving to a Park and Ride lot, parking your car, and avoiding traffic by taking METRO.

METRO serves the following P&R lots:

  • Scotts Valley Transit Center: Routes 30, 35/35A, and the AMTRAK Highway 17 Express
  • Pasatiempo: Routes: Routes 30, 35/35A, and the AMTRAK Highway 17 Express
  • Soquel Drive/Paul Sweet Road: Routes 71, 91X and the AMTRAK Highway 17 Express (select trips only of the Highway 17 Express)
  • Resurrection Church: Routes 71, 91X

 If you need to park downtown, use one of the City lots or garages and park for just $5 per day.

What to Do

The best single online resource is The site lists attractions, parks, hiking trails, restaurants, cultural attractions, entertainment, and other ideas to help you enjoy your visit here.

The Santa Cruz Convention and Visitors Council recommends the following attractions:

 Do you have a special interest? The Santa Cruz Convention and Visitors Council offers these suggestions:

For water lovers: Santa Cruz Harbor, Santa Cruz Wharf, Surfing Lessons on Cowell’s Beach, plus these web sites:,

Arts and Culture: Downtown Santa Cruz art museums, The Tannery Arts Center, plus the following web site:

State Parks and Beaches:,

You can use METRO to get to several attractions and communities: Maria Granados-Boyce suggests how to use METRO to reach specific destinations within Santa Cruz:

  • The Beach, Wharf and Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk from Pacific Station: Route 3
  • Santa Cruz Harbor, Twin Lakes State Beach, and Seabright Neighborhood: Route 68
  • University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), Pogonip city park, and the upper Wilder Ranch State Park: Routes 10, 12, 15, 16, 19, 20. Routes 12 and 15 only run during the school term (Sept-June).
  • Eastside Business District– good shops and restaurants: Route 69A/W
  • Wilder Ranch State Park: Route 20. From the Natural Bridges stop, it’s a 5-10 minute walk to the park.
  • Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, Big Basin Redwoods State Park, Felton,
  • Boulder Creek, Fall Creek, and more rural mountain areas: Route 35/35A
  • Nicene Marks State Park: Route 71 to the Soquel Drive/State Park stop

Let’s Take a Walk

West Cliff Drive is a wonderful place for walkers, bicyclists, and even persons with disabilities to explore. This 2.5 mile multiuse path along the ocean passes the Santa Cruz lighthouse, world renowned surfing locations, beautiful open space at Lighthouse Field and Natural Bridges and interesting architecture of the surrounding homes.

Jackie Oda, manager of the West Cliff Inn, has lived in this area for about five years. She offers these tips: “West Cliff Drive is one of my favorite places to go in Santa Cruz. Of course, you have the popular Boardwalk and wharf to check out, but there is so much more to this road! West Cliff Dr. has a wonderful and scenic walking and bike path that stretches a little over 2.5 mi. long. The path sits on top of bluffs overlooking the Monterey Bay. There are many benches and stopping points along the path where you can often see marine wildlife such as sea otters, sea lions, dolphins, and whales.  Check out the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum at Lighthouse Point Park and visit one of my favorite beaches in town at Natural Bridge’s state Beach.” (If you love this area and want to stay close by, check out the West Cliff Inn, located right on West Cliff Drive: or call (831)457-2200.)

Emily Glanville, Program Specialist at the Sustainable Transportation Group’s Ecology Action, tells us that some of her favorite walks are in three State Parks (all can be reached by METRO—see above for details).: Wilder Ranch State Park, Nisene Marks State Park, and Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. For more details about these walks, visit:

If you don’t want as adventurous a hike, an alternative is a guided tour of one or more historic neighborhoods. For details, go to

Guided Tours

Sometimes, a guided tour is the best way to experience attractions in an area. Segway Santa Cruz Tours offers tours of the Santa Cruz Lighthouse, and West Cliff Drive and the Santa Cruz Wharf. For details, visit: or call (831) 466-0206.

If you love the water, consider exploring the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary from a kayak. with Venture Quest Kayak Tours. For details, visit or call (831) 427-2267.

It’s Time to Rent a Bicycle and Explore Local Biking Trails!

Amelia Collen: Director of Bike Santa Cruz County gives this advice to visiting bicyclists: “Santa Cruz is a great place to see from a bike or on foot. The Downtown and beach are within walking distance, as are the Levee Paths along the San Lorenzo River and the Seabright neighborhood. A short bike ride will get you to the Westside’s breweries, wineries, bakeries and restaurants, food or a concert in Midtown, or to Pleasure Point, a famous surf spot with a scenic ocean-view biking and walking path.

“Be warned though – bike theft is common in Santa Cruz. Keep bikes in a safe place overnight, and use a sturdy U-lock instead of a cable lock, which is easy to snip.”

“Santa Cruz is home to some great bike paths, notably on West Cliff and East Cliff Drive, along the San Lorenzo River and to Wilder Ranch State Park. You can also rent a mountain bike and enjoy Santa Cruz’s world-class trails. Don’t miss the Emma McCrary Trail in the Pogonip Forest and the bluff trails at Wilder Ranch. Be sure to download a copy of the Santa Cruz County bike map at:”

The following bike shops provide bike rentals:

  • Pacific Avenue Cycles (closest to downtown, maybe a 5 minute walk from downtown towards the Boardwalk and SC Wharf area)
  • Bicycle Trip at 1001 Soquel Ave (midtown)
  • Family Cycling Center at 914 41st Ave—on Eastside of town near Pleasure Point and East Cliff Drive
  • Epicenter Cycling at 1730 Mission St and Another Bike Shop at 2361 Mission St (both on the Westside of Santa Cruz near the University

Emily Glanville shares these tips for mountain bikers and bicyclists who want in town biking (even though she says these are primarily for commuting, visiting bicyclists can also enjoy many of these rides):

For Mountain Bikers: “There are many legal, mountain biking trails and options for those looking for an off road cycling adventure. There are trails in the following locations: Big Basin State Park, Castle Rock State Park, DeLaveaga Park, Henry Cowell State Park, Pogonip Park, Soquel Demonstration State Forest, The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park, UCSC upper campus, and Wilder Ranch State Park. You can find details on the Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz County website:”

Around Town Bike Commuting: Glanville’s favorite in-town trails to bike on while commuting to work or across town on an errand include the Arana Gulch Multi-Use Trail that is located in a greenspace on the north end of the Santa Cruz harbor. As well as West Cliff path which follows the cliffs with a multi-use path from just above the Santa Cruz Wharf all the way to Natural Bridges State Beach and East Cliff path. The East Cliff path follows the cliffs from 30th Ave to Pleasure Point area at 41st. From there, it is an easy neighborhood bike ride to Capitola Village.

Claire Fleisler: a Transportation Planner for the City of Santa Cruz, tells us, “The Santa Cruz County Cycling Club ( leads group rides several times per week. Check out their website prior to arrival to find a ride that would work for you.

“I would recommend cycling West Cliff Drive, a 2.5 mile multiuse path along the ocean. West Cliff passes the Santa Cruz lighthouse, world renowned surfing locations, beautiful open space at Lighthouse Field and Natural Bridges and interesting architecture of the surrounding homes.

“Another good ride is along the San Lorenzo Riverway, a 5-mile multi-use path. This facility is a north-south spine and a completely separated facility. This path travels along the San Lorenzo River, past San Lorenzo Park (playground, duck pond, lawn bowling), the Boardwalk, and along downtown. This path has easy access to neighborhoods.”

Are You Hungry?

The Santa Cruz Convention and Visitors Council suggests the following downtown restaurants:

 Emily Glanville’s favorite places to eat include:

  • The Picnic Basket:, on Beach St near the Santa Cruz Wharf and Beach Boardwalk. They feature delicious sandwiches, salads and more with food delivered straight from local farmers, foragers and artisans and they feature their sister store, Since their sister store: The Penny Ice Creamery, is nearby, you can grab an ice cream cone after lunch.
  • The Food Lounge: At this fun place, in downtown Santa Cruz,you can find pop-up dinners, guest chefs, seasonal and themed meals and much more!
  • Santa Cruz Mountain Brewery: For those looking for a nice cold beverage within biking or walking distance from beautiful West Cliff, the Santa Cruz Mountain Brewery offers delicious locally brewed beers, ciders and tasty treats.

Claire Fleisler gives this advice: “Walking along Pacific Avenue, the main downtown street, offers plentiful dining options. Try Assembly ( for dinner, Zachary’s ( for breakfast, the 515 ( for drinks, and Pacific Cookie Company ( for delicious cookies.”

Excursions by Transit

It’s amazing how many interesting excursions you can enjoy without needing to drive. Maria Granados-Boyce: METRO’s Supervisor of Customer Service, recommends several possible transit excursions. All include directions from downtown.

Soquel  Village: Are you looking for antiques? This is the place! They also have an old quaint library, new park, and 2 micro breweries! Route 71 Watsonville, 69A Watsonville, 69W Cabrillo

Aptos: This small downtown community is home to a Tapas & Wine bar, a few restaurants, and several boutique shopping stores. Route 71 Watsonville

Watsonville is known for its long agricultural history, downtown plaza, Mexican restaurants, and farmers market. Routes, 71 Watsonville, 69A Watsonville, 69WCabrillo, or 91X Watsonville.

Scotts Valley: This gateway to the Santa Cruz mountain communities has good shopping and a movie theater. Route 35 Boulder Creek

Felton & Boulder Creek Mountain communities, Felton has a large family park, with an old historical covered bridge. Roaring Camp Train is within walking distance as is the entrance to Henry Cowell State Park. Don Quixote’s is a venue for all kinds of musical performances. The new Cremer Restaurant opened and is a delight! Housed in a refurbished old historical house.

Several mountain communities lie between Felton and Boulder Creek, all have their own mountain charm.  Looking to picnic along the river? Grab a lunch from the wonderful selections at the Ben Lomond market in downtown Ben Lomond and enjoy! The larger town of Boulder Creek offers a variety of shops, restaurants and mountain charm.

These communities are all accessible by taking the Route 35 Boulder Creek from Downtown Santa Cruz. Buses run often and late into the evenings, weekdays and weekends.

At the beginning of this column, we mentioned the Santa Cruz, Big Trees and Pacific Railway’s diesel-electric tourist trains between the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and Roaring Camp in nearby Felton. The Railway also has a steam route that operates completely within Roaring Camp. You can enjoy this train ride, relive the 1880s as you walk around the town of Roaring Camp, and even enjoy a walk along the famous Redwoods Grove Trail within Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.

Take METRO’s 35 bus to Felton Faire. From there, it is about a 20 minute walk to Roaring Camp. Maria Granados-Boyce gives these directions for walking there: “Cross Graham Hill Road .Walk to the left, facing the incoming traffic. Be careful, as there are no sidewalks here. After approximately two blocks, you will see the entrance to Roaring Camp on the right. As you walk over a covered bridge, you will see several small shops as you enter the town (a re-creation of a 1880s town). Here, you can buy train tickets, and enjoy a one-mile loop walk along the Redwoods Grove Trail. (If you get lost, or need more information, call Roaring Camp at (831) 335-4484.) to get to the Redwoods Gove Trail, walk to the train station in Roaring Camp. Directly across from the station is the entrance to Henry Cowell State Park. Cross the tracks and walk to the fence. Then, you will be in the parking lot of Henry Cowell State Park’s Redwood Grove Trail. This one-mile loop trail is wheelchair accessible, so it can be enjoyed by all visitors.”

 Davenport is a very small and interesting historical whaling community. The town has good restaurants, bakery, old historical buildings, jail, and across Hwy 1 to beautiful north coast beaches. Great way to spend a day exploring. Route 40 Davenport/North Coast Beaches or Route 42 Davenport.

Natural Bridges: Santa Cruz Metro’s Route 3 will take you to one of Santa Cruz’s best kept treasures: Natural Bridges State Park. Route 3 begins running at 6:50 am and makes its last run at 5:50 pm.

Santa Cruz Wharf and Beach Boardwalk: For a scenic trip to the world famous Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk or a seafood dinner on the Santa Cruz Wharf, take Santa Cruz Metro route 3 or 19. Both the Wharf and Boardwalk are about a 15 minute walk from Pacific Station.

Capitola Village: For a trip to Capitola’s picturesque wharf and seaside shopping area, hop on Route 66, 68, 69A, or 69W at the Santa Cruz Metro Center. Transfer to Route 55 at the Capitola Mall.

Watsonville Wetland Trails: Gain easy access to this 800 acre freshwater wetland and great birding location by taking Santa Cruz Metro’s route 71. Four miles of paved trails and 29 trail entrances in Watsonville neighborhoods offer opportunities to jog, walk or bicycle.

Big Basin/Waddell Creek: A great weekend adventure is the Skyline to the Sea Trail to Waddell Beach. Take Santa Cruz Metro Route 35A to Big Basin State Park arriving at park headquarters at 9:45am. Santa Cruz Metro’s Route 40 bus departs Waddell Beach for the return trip to Santa Cruz at 5:15pm on weekends. This service does not operate during the winter: mid-December to mid-March.

It’s Time to Leave—and there is so much more to do and see!

There is so much to do—especially if you love the beach and the outdoors. Unfortunately, our car free journey to Santa Cruz is drawing to an end. It’s time to return home. It’s hard to see and experience all that’s special about Santa Cruz on one visit. Come back again to discover even more that is special about Santa Cruz.

For More Information

For information about what to do and where to stay in Santa Cruz:

Santa Cruz County Conference & Visitors Council: Tel: 831.425.1234, or call toll free (800) 833.3494,

For information about public transportation in Santa Cruz: Visit  orcall Santa Cruz METRO Customer Service (831) 425 – 8600, Monday-Friday:  7:00am – 6:00pm

For a comprehensive list of transportation options in Santa Cruz, visit

Steve Atlas welcomes your comments and suggestions for places and vacation destinations you would like to be featured in an upcoming Car Free Journey column. E-mail

About the author

Steve Atlas

Steve Atlas, author of two published books about parenting, has written newspaper columns and magazine articles about travel, career change, home-based business, parenting, and sales skills. Steve's column, “Single Parent Hotline,” was a weekly feature of Gannett News Service for several years. He has also been a contributing editor to Selling Power magazine. Currently Steve’s primary interest is reducing dependency on private automobiles. In addition to being a public transit advocate and author (since 2008) of Car Free Journey, Steve’s e-book: "Car Free at the Beach", and several reports he has written about Car Free Living can be viewed at