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9 Santa Cruz Parks and Natural Attractions You Should Visit

9 Santa Cruz Parks and Natural Attractions You Should Visit

Head over to beautiful Santa Cruz and check out the natural attractions and parks in the area.


6 min read

August 24, 2022

Amy Jeske is a friendly and reliable realtor serving all of Santa Cruz County. She’s also a member of the Recommended Businesses Program.

Most people know Santa Cruz to be the city of surfing with breathtaking beaches, but this Central Coast city has so many secrets hidden under its sleeve for those curious enough to look. Raw, natural beauty is not hard to come by in California, but the County of Santa Cruz offers so much of it, and then some more. If you’re looking for a fresh getaway, Santa Cruz parks and natural attractions await!

1. Nisene Marks State Park

Discover the wonders of Nisene Marks State Park.

Location: Aptos Creek Road
Hours: 8am - 7am
Entrance fee: $8 vehicle parking, $50 bus parking

Santa Cruz parks are an amazing place to escape to for the weekend, filled with untamed wilderness and beautiful scenery. Nisene Marks State Park is no exception, as the densely packed forest of second and third growth Redwoods is quite the sight to see. A bittersweet fact is that this magnificent forest was almost clear-cut in a logging frenzy from 1883 to 1923, but began healing itself as soon as the loggers left Aptos Canyon.

Seeing this forest in its full glory nowadays is a true wonder, and Nisene Marks State Park has now become a symbol of forest regeneration. 

This Santa Cruz park is home to a plethora of activities like hiking, picnicking, and biking. Hikers will be able to spot logging sites stopped in time, a “what could have been” if people kept going.

2. Henry Cowell Park

Seeing ancient Redwoods up close is something that not many people have had the chance to experience.

Location: Santa Cruz Mountains
Hours: Sunrise to sunset
Entrance fee: $10

With more than 4,650 acres of forested land, Henry Cowell Park is where self-reflection and inner peace are guaranteed. This Santa Cruz park also attracts many nature enthusiasts and travelers from across the world for its beautiful scenery and historical significance. There are many things to experience here, such as admiring the old-growth Redwood trees, hiking, fishing, and even camping. What’s so special about these Redwood trees in particular is that they are what inspired California’s earliest redwood preservation efforts. The oldest one of them, at 277 feet tall, is estimated to be around 1,500 years old!

Henry Cowell park is also full of diverse preserved habitats, grasslands, sandhills, and rivers. A trip here will surely make your day.

3. Wilder Ranch State Park 

Location: 1401 Coast Rd
Hours: 8am - 8:30am
Entrance fee: $10

Wilder Ranch State Park is a hiker’s dream, covering approximately 7000 acres and with 34 miles of hiking opportunities. From the crest of the Ben Lomond Mountain all the way down to the seashore lie ancient marks in the form of wave-cut terraces. Most of the hiking trails are also riddled with bits and pieces of the past, mostly relating to California's early ranching history from almost a century ago. 

There are a few restored structures visitors can admire, much like the 1897 Victorian home and the 1859 Gothic revival farmhouse. If any history lovers are ever wondering what to do in Santa Cruz, visiting this incredible park is definitely an activity right up their alley.

4. Land of the Medicine Buddha 

Location: 5800 Prescott Rd, Soquel
Hours: 9am - 2pm
Entrance fee: None, free parking

For those of you seeking the absolute quietude of the forest, with nothing and no one to interrupt it, you have come to the right place. While not a recreational area, the Land of the Medicine Buddha is where you will go on some of the best hiking trails in your life. Visitors are encouraged to keep their voices low so as not to disrupt the silence and peace of the area - it is first and foremost used as a meditation and retreat facility.

The Long Loop is considered to be a moderately challenging hiking trail. This serene hike will definitely be a unique experience for firstcomers, as they let nothing but the prayer flags lead the way. Land of the Medicine Buddha is definitely somewhere you should if you're looking to find some balance within yourself.

5. Roaring Camp Railroads 

What’s more magical than a train ride through a forest of breathtaking Redwoods?

Location: 5401 Graham Hill Road, Felton
Hours: 9am - 5pm
Entrance fee: Starting from $40 (train rides)

Visiting the Roaring Camp Railroads is one of the best things to do in Santa Cruz. Discover the beauty of this narrow-gauge tourist railroad that emassed only three feet in width, starting from Roaring Camp Depot in Felton and ending all the way up at the top of Bear Mountain. There are two trains you can go on, and each one of them has its own charm to it. The Redwood Forest Steam Train will take you on a ride through the redwoods, giving you a taste of both historical sites and natural wonders. 

The Santa Cruz Beach Train will take you through the Redwood forests in Henry Cowell State Park, which is a nice new perspective from which to see the park if you have already been there.

6. Natural Bridges State Park 

Looking for some whale watching adventures? Natural Bridges State Park’s beaches have got you covered.

Location: 2531 W Cliff Drive
Hours: 8am - 8pm
Entrance fee: $10 for parking

Natural Bridges State Park in Santa Cruz, California, is a remarkable spot for nature lovers and wildlife enthusiasts. The beach within the park provides a prime spot for observing migrating whales, shorebirds, seals, and otters. As you wander along the beach, you'll encounter fascinating tidepools brimming with marine life. These natural pools offer a window into the ocean's shallow ecosystems, where you can spot sea stars, shore crabs, sea anemones, and other marine creatures, especially during low tide when they become most visible.

The Visitor Center will provide you with maps to the tidepools, and they can give out directions if you ever feel lost.

7. Monarch Butterfly Preserve

Discover the beautiful Monarch Butterflies at one of the best preserves in the region.

Location: Natural Bridges State Park
Hours: 8am - 8pm
Entrance fee: $10

As mentioned before, Santa Cruz is home to various types of wildlife, big and small. Aside from catching spectacular views of migrating whales, some Santa Cruz attractions also include Monarch Butterfly viewing. Every fall and winter these butterflies return to the eucalyptus grove, which is the only State Monarch Preserve in all of California. The location of this specific eucalyptus grove provides them with shelter against the wind, enough sunlight to fend for the cold, and an abundant source of food. 

Come to the Monarch Butterfly Preserve to get a closer look at these amazing migratory Monarch butterflies. 

8. Pogonip 

Hike within the awestriking trails of Pogonip.

Location: 333 Golf Club Dr.
Hours: Sunrise till 7pm through the summer season, sunrise till 4pm through the winter season
Entrance fee: Free

This scenic open trail holds both natural and human history in its tracks. Featuring eight miles of stunning hiking trails open to bikers and equestrians, Pogonip is an easy pick among outdoor adventure seekers. The multi-use trail offers a connection between Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park and the upper UCSC Campus, something to keep in mind if you are a student here. This breathtaking retreat has shown its resilience and stubbornness, as even after years of human influence it has managed to preserve some of its natural beauty, although far from what it once used to be. 

To get to Pogonip, there is no on-site parking, but there are several entrances visitors can use.

9. Arana Gulch 

Location: Arana Gulch Trail
Hours: One hour before sunrise to one hour after sunset
Entrance fee: Free of charge

Arana Gulch is a beautiful creek and landform forming the southeastern border of Santa Cruz. There is a multitude of things one can see and do at Arana Gulch, one of the most popular ones being hiking on the primary Arana Gulch trail. On your hikes, you will be able to spot valuable habitats which include central coast riparian scrub, wetlands, and coastal terrace prairie. This is also where you will find the tar plant, an endangered species that only exists in a few sites within the County of Santa Cruz.

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