Hiking trails, wondrous wildlife, and massive sequoias are the big draws in this drive from Santa Cruz to Sequoia National Park.
At its heart, Santa Cruz is a surf town. The sport was originally introduced to California here, and surfers know Steamer Lane is the place to be. Around town, one can still feel the influence of late resident Jack O’Neill, the legendary surfer and wetsuit pioneer. Shop at any of the three O’Neill Surf Shops in the area—one is just steps from Cowell Beach.
At the colorful Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, located beachside, rides, games, and music delight visitors. This popular destination is a summertime ritual for countless families, a wonderful way to relax and play just like the smiling locals. While there are many attractions at the boardwalk, the Giant Dipper stands out. The wooden coaster opened in 1924 and has been generating screams and squeals for decades. The boardwalk also features the 125-foot-high Double Shot tower for adrenaline lovers, and little ones will love the painstakingly restored 1911 Looff carousel.
Nine miles south of Santa Cruz, the village of Aptos is home to The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park, where hiking and biking trails meander through second-growth redwood and Douglas fir forest. Take an easy stroll along Aptos Creek or, in the rainy season, get your feet wet as you cross multiple streams to Maple Falls. When you’re ready to leave these shady groves and soak up some sun, Sunset State Beach lies 10 miles south, surrounded by acres of agricultural fields. Its three-mile expanse of soft sand and dunes invites surfers, anglers, and beach-strollers.
Midway between Santa Cruz and Monterey, Highway 1 skirts the bayside hamlet of Moss Landing, a busy fishing harbor surrounded by homespun art galleries and seafood restaurants. Across the highway, a massive steam power plant towers over the waterways and estuaries of Elkhorn Slough, the largest tract of tidal salt marsh outside of San Francisco. An incredible wildlife show takes place here—this is California’s most reliable spot to observe sea otters feeding, sleeping, frolicking, and caring for their young. Walk around Moss Landing Harbor and you may see the furry creatures popping up between the fishing boats. Park your car in the main lot at Moss Landing State Beach (off Jetty Road), walk toward its protected cove, and you’ll likely see dozens of them, particularly groups of bachelor otters huddled together in "rafts." The otters attract a lot of attention, but there’s much bigger wildlife to watch: Sanctuary Cruises offers trips to see gray whales and orcas in winter and spring, and humpbacks and blue whales in summer.
Spend the night at Hacienda de Léal near the town’s graceful adobe mission.
What started as a humble cherry stand in 1908 is now a massive roadside attraction, welcoming more than 3 million visitors each year. Located 40 miles northeast of Monterey, Casa de Fruta in Hollister features a 10,000-square-foot market, 24-hour restaurant, sweetshop, RV park, 14-room inn, and playground. The market sells road-trip-friendly dried fruit, nuts, wine, and fresh produce from all over the state—visitors can try strawberries from Watsonville, pistachios from Fresno, garlic from Gilroy, and more. The family’s wine is offered in the traditional white, red, and blush, but visitors most often leave with a bottle of Casa de Fruta’s signature pomegranate wine.
Home of cliffs and crags formed by an ancient volcano, Pinnacles National Park attracts rock climbers, hikers, birders, and wildflower fans to a playground of burnished gold boulders and spires. Eighty percent of the park is wilderness, which can only be explored on foot. Turn on your headlamp or flashlight to light your way through Bear Gulch’s tunnel-like talus caves. You’ll squeeze through clefts in the rock and twist through narrow passageways, then pop out in the daylight. Or traipse over and around the High Peaks, a maze-like cluster of boulders, pinnacles, and spires. From the trail’s high point, you might spot magnificent California condors flying overhead, their wingspans stretching up to 10 feet.
Sequoia National Park’s Ash Mountain entrance, located in the small town of Three Rivers, offers a quick-and-curvy route to the massive sequoias of Giant Forest. Navigate the General Highway’s 130 curves and 12 switchbacks and you’ll be on the fast-track to the General Sherman Tree, the world’s largest living tree by volume. Once there, get out and walk—it’s the only way to fathom the sequoias’ sheer size and regal beauty. Salute the General Sherman, then move on to the quieter Congress Trail, where hundreds more gargantuan trees grow. After you’ve been thoroughly astonished by these ancient giants, take a heart-pumping climb up Moro Rock’s 360 stairsteps. Even young kids can make it to the top of this bald granite precipice with a sweeping vista of the saw-toothed Great Western Divide. For dinner, head to the park’s Wuksachi Lodge. In The Peaks’ glass-walled dining room, every table overlooks a forest of firs and the Silliman Crest.