When my friend and I were entertaining doing a day trip down to Santa Cruz, we had the following criteria that we wanted to include: a hike, a deliciously rewarding coffee, and some beach time. I don’t want to toot my own horn but, I came up with the below itinerary and it proved to be the perfect mix of outdoor activity and leisurely hang time (TOOT TOOT!). As a side note, this trip isn’t particularly accessible without a car but we had so much fun we wanted to share it anyway.
A Day Hiking & Exploring Santa Cruz | Itinerary:
- Hike Land of Medicine Buddha (Map)
- Santa Cruz coffee pitstop at Verve (Map)
- Lunch at The Picnic Basket & beach hang time (Map)
- West Cliff Drive (Map)
- Neary Lagoon (Map)
- Drive Highway 1 at sunset
Santa Cruz is only 75 miles south of San Francisco. It takes an hour and a half and makes for a super easy day trip. Highway 1 is a slightly longer route, but unless you have something against beautiful vistas, pie stands, and farms allowing you to pick your own fruit, then I suggest Highway 1. Afterall, it’s not about the destination — it’s about the journey, amirite?!
We left San Francisco around 9 am and drove straight down to Land of Medicine Buddha (or LMB, as I will refer to it as). LMB is an active Buddhist community, a retreat, and a meditation center. It’s everything you would expect of the aforementioned: beautiful, quiet, and serene. The center borders Nisene Marks State Park (i.e. Redwoods!) so they have their own hikes, as well as off-shoots into the park (we did a combo of both). The LMB’s site says, verbatim, “You don’t need to be Buddhist to come for a visit…everyone is welcome” — isn’t that nice? So nice.
Pop “Land of Medicine Buddha” in your GPS – it’s easy to find. Pass the center entrance on the right. Just past, you will see a small schoolhouse on the right and a few parking spots immediately opposite on your left. I’ve lucked out both times I have visited here and been able to park there. (Note: when you enter, there will be a sign for a small donation of $5 to help support the Center. If no one is at the gate — no one has been there when I have come through — you can pop over to the Center reception and donate there. Also, expect to have poor/no cell reception once there.)
There is a wide dirt trail up on the left which leads to this 6 mile hike. And here are some killer details on the trail itself. The trail is wide and well kept. You will spend the first half of the hike on a flat to incline (don’t worry – that means the back half of the hike is mostly decline!). My friend and I actually meandered off into the Nisene Marks State Park. There are a few opportunities to do so, so we chanced it – those redwoods are just too enticing! I’m not including a map of that bit because we were simply ‘adventuring’ and after about an hour we came back the same way and hopped back on the loop. Point is, you have options.
Neato tidbits to see/seek out while you are there:
Great Prayer Wheel, a Buddha, and a gong.
Do your best not to step on or kill any bugs or slugs while you are doing this trail. Yuck bugs are gross, but it IS a Buddhist center after all.
We walk back to the car noshing on Clif Bars as it’s around lunchtime at this point. Before anything else though, we need coffee. We drive back towards Santa Cruz (about 7 miles), park here, and grab coffee at Verve. Verve was started by two West coasters and now has coffee shops internationally, but it’s home and origin is Santa Cruz. While we visited the Pacific Ave. location, the original shop is at 41st and Portola. Our goal was to end up near the Boardwalk, so we stuck with the Pacific location. With coffees in hand, I dragged my friend to the shop Stripe, a clothing and home goods boutique. It’s on Walnut, right off Pacific Ave and I go there every time I’m in or near Santa Cruz. I found out about this store many moons ago sitting around a campfire in Big Sur from some friendly camp neighbors. Believe me when I say, this shop is the coolest (they opened a Stripe Men next door a few years ago…it’s just as cool).
We had a few places earmarked for some lunch but decide on The Picnic Basket (other solid options are the Surfrider Cafe and Sea Breeze Cafe). We chose it for being situated near the boardwalk and right across from the beach. A quick note about the boardwalk area: All of the parking is metered so you will need either change or the parking app (it’s different from the San Francisco one, unfortunately). There is a parking lot directly across from the boardwalk (on Beach St. just past Cliff St.) that will cost you a flat fee of $12. There is also a change machine here, if you decide to go the meter route.
The Picnic Basket has outdoor seating that faces out over the beach so you can get your people watching on. We opted for sandwiches and my friend followed hers with some ice cream. I immediately regretted not joining her on that decision. Once we were refueled, we headed to the beach across the street. There were plenty of people out but the beach is big and it felt spacious and open. Kick off those shoes and get some of that warm sand between your toes. There is no feeling as good.
My friend had not been to Santa Cruz before, so next stop was West Cliff Drive. There is a parking lot just before the Surfer’s museum that’s free. It’s the perfect place to park and go for a walk along West Cliff. From here, you can watch the surfers with ease, head down to the dog beach below, or just take in the epic views. This is a must-see stop in Santa Cruz, if you have never been.
We contemplated staying here for sunset because it’s just so lovely, but instead decided to add one final item onto our day trip: Neary Lagoon. The Lagoon is a small, peaceful park and wildlife refuge nestled behind a water treatment plant and neighboring homes. I’m not sure I would go out of my way for a visit, but it sits squarely between West Cliff Drive and Highway 1, so why not?
We parked on California St, just past the entrance for the Water Treatment Plant which is where you enter the Lagoon. It absolutely looks like you are going the wrong way, but just follow the path passed the playground, tennis courts, and water treatment plant and you will, in fact, end up at Neary Lagoon. It’s home to a variety of birds and we lucked out and saw a couple of ducklings hiding among the long grass on the floating boardwalk. It’s a cool little sanctuary. I recommend a late afternoon visit – the lighting there was just perfect.
That’s a wrap! I find new things to do every time I visit the Santa Cruz area and hope this will give you some guidance on your next trip. Have fun exploring and see you out there!
Photos: All photos are my own.