A road trip of sun, surf, suds - and Sasquatch - in Santa Cruz

Editor's Note: The Bee's Sam McManis has reasons for writing about road trips to Santa Cruz as well as why it's worth heading out to Hetch Hetchy.

So many things to so many people, Santa Cruz is one of those idyllic coastal cities you daydream about inhabiting; not living there so much as melding into the vibe.

The only problem, as folk singer Todd Snider lamented in a ditty I heard on local radio station KPIG, "I don't make enough to live there/But if I ever do/I'm going out to Santa Cruz."

But in which Santa Cruz would you care to partake? There's the oh-so-tranquilo, wetsuit-clad beach culture; the flannel-shirt wearing, Choco sandals-sporting back mountain types; the arm-sleeve tattooed and ironic beard-sporting hipsters downtown; or the kids at heart who just want to go one more time – please, ma, just once more – on the classic Giant Dipper roller coaster.

You'll have plenty of time to mull your own private Santa Cruz during the 150-mile schlep from Sacramento, especially during the always-hideous traffic on the Sunol Grade between Pleasanton and Fremont.

But to take your mind off the drive, take advantage of various stops along the way, especially in the mountainous regions to be wended through before the sparkling blue of the Pacific beckons.

You'll gawk at big trees, travel back in history and deep into the woods via steam engine, sample locally brewed ales in a roadside dive (and we mean dive in the best sense) and maybe even run into Big Foot - or at least a dude who swears he's seen him lurking about.

But you won't find Sasquatch living in Santa Cruz; he can't afford the home prices.

On the way

Tech Museum of Innovation (San Jose)

If your mind hasn't been dulled by the long slog down Interstate 680 through the post-apocalyptic suburban landscape of Contra Costa and Alameda counties, you'll need a break. (If you want to stop earlier, and have antsy kids, the Jelly Belly Factory in Fairfield has fun tours, as does the Lindsay Wildlife Museum in Walnut Creek – both close to the freeway.)

Besides, a stop at the geekiest (and we mean that in the best sense) museum in the state will make you realize why all the tech mega-millionaires from Silicon Valley can afford to keep a nice little 4,000-square-foot second-home bungalow in Santa Cruz.

Fair warning: You might spend so much time exploring all things techie that it'll seriously cut into your trip. But it is possible to take only a few bites (bytes?) out of the two-story, gadget-packed museum and still make time to the mountains by lunch.

I preferred the upstairs galleries, where it's more hands-on and visual. A middle-school group from the Peninsula had commandeered the "Reface" display, where you stare into an eye and the face-tracking software blends (distorts, really) your ugly mug with those who have come before.

"The kids seems to really like it, but it's a little overwhelming," said Peter Brown, leading a middle- school group from Menlo Park. " They'll definitely want to come back and (see) it again."

Directions: Miles from Sacramento: 123. 201 S. Market St., San Jose. Take I-80 west to I-680 over the Benicia Bridge. Take 680 to I-280, take Exit 3A for CA-87 North. Follow signs to Santa Clara Avenue and turn right. Make another right on Almaden, then a left on San Fernando, then a right on Market Street. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Cost: $15.

Roaring Camp Railroads (Felton)

Kids love steam trains, the rumble of the steel wheels, the billows of steam rising, the romance of the wizened engineer calling "All aboard," the almost placental rocking of the cars in motion.

We're talking kids like septuagenarian Frank Servient, of Lincoln, who never misses a chance to make it to Felton to ride the steam train around the redwoods for an hour and a half or, on weekends and during the summer, take a larger locomotive into Santa Cruz.

"The rail used to be the luxury way to get around," he said. "It built the state. The ride here is fascinating. You get to see the big trees and see the remains of a trestle that burned in the '80s."

Even those not under the spell of locomotives can appreciate the views of the redwoods and pines along Bear Mountain, though in spring it's still advisable to take a fleece jacket because it can get a bit chilly.

The narrow-track train is open-air, though there is a canopy that helps when it rains. Even on days when the train is running late, there's plenty to distract you while waiting.

Roaring Camp is nothing if not period-authentic. There's a covered bridge, a duck-laden pond, an old schoolhouse and blacksmith shop, the rusting remnants of an old boiler and saw mill equipment and a boxcar theater. Old timey banjo music plays while you wait. But the star here is the train.

Directions: Miles from San Jose: 32. 5401 Graham Hill Road, Felton. Take I-280 to Highway 17. Take Exit 3 at Scotts Valley. Follow Mount Hermon Road for 3.5 miles to the town of Felton. Turn left onto Graham Hill Road and go a half mile to to the entrance to Roaring Camp. Hours: Check website. Parking: $8. Tickets: $26 adults, $19 children.

Henry Cowell State Park Redwood Grove Loop Trail (Felton)

This is not a hike, OK. It's more of a stroll (and we mean that in the best sense) along a 0.8 of a mile paved, flat loop. But what a stroll it is.

In this state-preserved, 40-acre grove, you'll spend so much time looking up that you might sprain your neck. Some of the trees have grown to 300 feet and could live 2,000 years – provided global warming doesn't sap their strength and take away the damp, mossy coastal conditions that enable the trees to thrive.

They aren't all redwoods, by the way. Do not forget the tall, stately Douglas fir. Sure, they don't have the handsome red-hued bark, but the Douglas' cone shape has its own aesthetic appeal.

A handy visitor's guide give visitors numbered details on various trees, including the aptly named "The Giant," a redwood measuring 270 feet and 17 feet in width. There's also the "Fremont Tree," which has a burned-out hollowed base that Gen. John Frémont, one of California's first senators, slept in. Not really, but Frémont encouraged the tall tale.

For true hikers, there are 20 miles of trails that snake around Cowell Park. You can do a nice, relatively easy 4.8-mile jaunt starting at the apex of the Redwood Grove Loop, where you slip through a gated gap into the trees and follow a path to Pipeline Road.

You go left near the San Lorenzo River on the River Trail, then make a left onto the Eagle Creek Trail. You'll hit some climbing here, maybe 300 feet. Once you hit the Pine Trail, you'll notice the soil gets white and sandy, and you'll see scores of Ponderosa pines, something you'd miss on the paved trail.

After reaching an observation deck, turn right onto the Ridge Fire Road and re-connect with Pipeline Road to head back.

Directions: Conveniently, the start of the Redwood Grove Trail is just across the railroad tracks from Roaring Camp. You can walk there. But if you'd rather park at the trailhead, take Graham Road in Felton and make a left onto Highway 9. Go a half a mile to the signed park entrance. Parking is $6.

Bigfoot Discovery Museum (Felton)

Wait, isn't there already a Bigfoot museum in Willow Creek, near Humboldt?

Well, yes, but Bigfoot is such a larger-than-life figure that the smelly beast (and we mean that in the most respectful sense) often makes it down to the mountains here, as well.

At least, that's what Michael Rugg told us. Rugg is the proprietor, curator and chief investigator of the museum and all things Bigfoot related in these parts. A refugee from Silicon Valley's tech sector, he said he opened the small but artifact-heavy museum eight years ago. It has become a consuming passion.

"I go to bed thinking Bigfoot, wake up thinking Bigfoot and as a professional Bigfoot thinker, I spend a lot of my day considering the phenomenon," he explained.

Rugg is still working on his Bigfoot magnum opus, the definitive history of Sasquatch in the Santa Cruz mountains. "I've got over 150 case studies from people who'd had spottings here," he said, pointing to a map on the back wall, where pins are pressed into the sighting areas.

Rugg admitted he can't verify all 150 sightings. Might, he is asked, some of them been caused by, you know, consumption of a certain herb?

"More like hops and 'shrooms in this part of town," he said, laughing. But Rugg turned serious. He pulled out a tooth he found that he said belongs to Big Foot.

Actually, it's only part of the tooth; a chunk of it is undergoing DNA testing. Still, it's a big and massive incisor.

One thing for certain: Bigfoot needed to floss more.

Directions: From the intersection of Graham Hill Road and Highway 9, take Highway 9 left for three-quarters of a mile. Hours: 11 to 6 p.m., daily except Tuesdays. Cost: Free.

Boulder Creek Brewery (Boulder Creek)

Yes, you'll be backtracking, going about seven miles away from Santa Cruz for lunch, but once you've tasted the craft beers on tap, you'll wonder what's the rush. And you might even see Bigfoot if you imbibe more than one of the pale or dark ales brewed on the premises.

Boulder Creek is a funky little town that brackets Big Basin Redwood State Park to the west and Cowell State Park to the south. This spot was voted by readers of the Santa Cruz Weekly as both "Best Burger" and "Best Working Man's Bar."

There are so many local handcrafted beers on the board, you're almost paralyzed by choice. During my stop, I asked the kindly server what she recommends. She said "Lomond Street Pale Ale."

I wondered where Lomond Street was and the waitress, as if reading my mind, pointed out the window to a steep, short road heading off Highway 9 to the woods. "That's Lomond Street," she said.

No matter how brisk the lunch business, no one is rushed at the brewery. In fact, each table is stocked with Trivial Pursuit cards to while away the time. (Question: "What car was Sonny Corleone driving when he was assassinated in 'The Godfather'?" Answer: "1941 Lincoln Continental.")

Directions: Miles from Felton: 7.5. From Bigfoot Museum, drive north to Boulder Creek and the restaurant.


The Mystery Spot

As introductions to the wackiness of Santa Cruz goes, you could do worse than starting at the über-touristic "The Mystery Spot," located on a steep hillside a mile or so past the housing tracks.

You may have seen the yellow bumper stickers affixed to cars and wondered what the mystery is. It's basically an example of optical illusion and "gravity defiance" writ large. Well, sort of large. The entire half-hour tour consists of walking through two vertiginous cabins in which nothing seems level – or on the level.

The land tilts anywhere from 3 to 17 degrees, making for some great photo ops. The Mystery Spot once was featured on the cover of Life magazine and, as pun-afflicted tour guide Thomas Bossenger notes about the woman leaning in the cover photo, "The funny thing is her name is Eileen. That's my best joke, folks. It's a $5 tour, you get $5 jokes."

Bossenger proved quite entertaining in showing the dozen visitors that even though a board appears as if it tilts upward, it's actually tilting downward.

Do note that there is some climbing involved to get to the leaning cabins. But, as Bossenger says, "You may experience dizziness, vertigo, uncontrollable laughter or extreme hunger. These things happen in Santa Cruz."

Directions: 465 Mystery Spot Road, Santa Cruz. From downtown Santa Cruz, take Front Street to River Street, turn right on Water Street, then left on Market Street. Take Market for 1 mile until it turns into Branciforte. Follow that 1.8 miles to Mystery Spot Road. Turn left. Cost: $5.

Dream Inn

Scores of roadside motels and bed and breakfasts dot the avenues of Santa Cruz. Most are overpriced and crowded and either too close or too far away from the screaming, teeming masses at the Boardwalk.

Let's say, however, you've come into an inheritance and can splurge on accommodations. The place to stay is the Dream Inn, which sounds cheesy, but actually is part of the high-end Joie de Vivre hotel chain.

The rooms are nice and spacious and favor a modernistic, primary-color design. For less than $300 a night, you can stay in an oceanside/poolside room with an expansive tiled balcony that affords clear views of the beach volleyball games, the surfers and your kids frolicking on the beach.

The Dream Inn plays up its status as Santa Cruz's only "beachfront hotel," but strangely, I saw few guests affording themselves of the beach on a near 70-degree sunny afternoon. Instead, they repaired poolside, slathered with sunblock and their electronic devices and ordering adult beverages from the tray-toting pool boys.

One advantage of the hotel's location is that it's walking distance from Steamer's Lane, the cliff overlooking the prime surfing break, which also houses the Surf Museum inside the lighthouse. It's also a five-minute walk down the cliff to the Boardwalk and the wharf. Only a masochist who loves traffic snarls would make that drive.

Directions: 175 W. Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz. From the west end of Pacific Avenue downtown, make a right on the third exit of the roundabout onto West Cliff Drive. The hotel and parking ($24 a night) is on the left.

Santa Cruz Surfing Museum

Dude, I know it's a small museum. After all, it's housed in a former lighthouse, where space is at a minimum. But it's, like, totally worth the trip – and not just because you'll find yourself talking in faux-Jeff Spicoli surfing jargon.

The place is big enough to fit the 9.6 foot longboard used by the legendary Duke Kahanamoku as well as other vintage redwood-and-pine boards from the 1930s. There's a decade-by-decade history of the Santa Cruz Surf Riders, a club for generation of cool kids. They've even salvaged a modern board with a large chunk bitten off by a hungry shark in 1991 up the road in Davenport.

That's next to a photo of the surfer, Eric Larson, in the hospital after 400 stitches were put in both arms and his left leg. Gnarly.

The funny thing about the museum is that so many people spend so much time inside, when they can take a few steps to the metal railing on the cliff overlooking Steamer Lane, here you can catch today's surfers carrying on the tradition.

Many photographers, such as Stuart Peterson, routinely make the pilgrimage. "This is the spot for short boards," he said.

Directions: 701 W. Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz. From the Dream Inn Hotel, walk along the metal railing overlooking the ocean for a quarter mile. The lighthouse is directly in front. There also is parking available.

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

Yes, we're making you go to the boardwalk. I believe there's a city ordinance mandating at least a token visit.

We know it's loud and overcrowded and replete with epileptic flashing lights in the "casino arcade" and chock full of fatty foods and rip-off games (milk bottle toss, break a plate, knockdown a clown). But there also are so many rides that will appeal to kids regardless of their chronological age.

The most famous ride is, of course, the Giant Dipper, the classic wooden roller coaster that opened in 1924. The city boasts that 50 million people have ridden the clattering red and white thrill ride - not all on the day I was there, but the line was long.

"This is just a total giggle fest," said native Santa Cruzan Kelly Fitzgerald. "I've been coming since I was a kid, so it's not quite as scary as then, but it's still way fun."

Her companion Krista Wolfe emerged from the ride looking a tad dazed and pale. Asked of her experience, she gave a wan smile and pointed to Fitzgerald. "She summed it up," Wolfe said.

The other top ride is the more modern Double Shot, in which riders are strapped into shoulder harnesses and chairs along a 125-foot tower and are propelled upward and then downward, five times in all, at rapid rates of speed.

Rider Salvador Godinez, of Redwood City, said, "It feels like your stomach's gonna come out of your throat. But I like that."

Directions: 400 Beach St., Santa Cruz. Parking: $12. Ticket options: 50-ticket "value strip" featuring unlimited rides and two entrances to attractions: $38.95. All-day rides: $31.95. Pacific Avenue (downtown Santa Cruz)

This is the prime downtown walking, shopping and dining area of the town. Once, it also used to be a prime spot for counter- culture-slash-homeless types, strumming guitars and banging on bongos and asking for, uh, donations.

But a strange thing has happened in the past few years. The panhandling is nearly nonexistent now, thanks to increased enforcement by the police, after pressure from local businesses. In six hours, only one soul hit me up and, yeah, I forked over a buck.

Pacific Avenue now is a partially funky, partially corporate stretch of boulevard, but still worth a visit. You have the influx of chain stores (Gap, Forever 21) but also "enlightened retail" such as Eco Goods, where you can buy a single pair of underwear (hemp, bamboo, organic cotton and recycled polyester) for $29.95.

Some of the city's best dining options can be found in this area as well. Betty's Eat Inn is a hipster burger joint that was voted best in town by the local alt weekly, and it lives up to the hype, especially the Gobbler, the fattest turkey burger you'll ever eat.

Judging by reviews and crowds, the Walnut Cafe is the top breakfast spot, with omelettes as big as footballs.

Want happy hour drinks and appetizers? Saunter over to Hula's Island Grille and Tiki Bar, where the crispy coconut shrimp rolls go great with the blood orange martinis or something called "The Pain Killer," featuring rum (and lots of it).

If you're after seafood, scurry back to the wharf to Riva Fish House. Pricey but worth it, and you can walk back to the Dream Inn.


On this trip, you'll be battling Bay Area traffic, taking I-80 from Sacramento to I-680 into the heart of the East Bay, over the Sunol Grade and into San Jose. After leaving San Jose (I-680 turns into I-280), you'll merge onto Highway 17 heading into the foothills, take Mount Hermon Road to get to Felton, then back to Highway 17 to Highway 1 into downtown Santa Cruz.

Call The Bee's Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Twitter: @SamMcManis

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