Climbing & Hiking Trails - 16 min read

Top 20 Santa Cruz Hiking Trails (Traditional & Relaxing!)

Ashley Brown

Ashley Brown, Updated September 27, 2022

Disclosure: Town & Tourist may receive a commission for purchases made through links in this article, at no additional cost to you.

Santa Cruz is one of the most well-known tourist attractions, and it is all for a good reason. It is filled with beautiful sandy beaches, great surfing areas, organic farms, and redwood-covered mountains. Santa Cruz is perfect for those who want to go to California but are not quite sure where.

While Santa Cruz is quite popular, many people only associate it with beaches and surfing. However, Santa Cruz has much more to offer. It has so many beautiful and jaw-dropping hiking views that there will be something here for everyone to admire. Whether you are looking for a hike with forests, meadows, waterfalls, or beaches, there is something for you.

Santa Cruz has an abundance of diverse and vast terrains to explore. Each hike will leave you feeling awestruck. With more than 50 scenic trails in the Santa Cruz area, there will be a trail for even the hardest-to-please people to enjoy. Whether you are a seasoned hiker or a beginner, there will be a trail for you.

1. Monarch Trail, Natural Bridges State Beach

Credit: Jade Belzberg / Flickr

The Monarch Trail is perfect for those looking for a family-friendly trail as it is short and easy. Even though dogs are not allowed on this trail, it will still be worth visiting. The trail takes you through a eucalyptus forest with partial dirt and a wooden pathway where you can observe monarch butterflies. It will also provide much-needed shade after you have been in the sun all day.

October through November is when the monarch butterflies will be more prevalent. Thus, visiting in October through November is definitely recommended! But, they will typically stay until mid to late January.

Monarchs love going to Santa Cruz specifically, as Natural Bridges are located in a canyon to provide them shelter from the wind. You will definitely want to bring some binoculars on this trip to see all of them!

Make a note that a monarch’s minimum temperature to fly is 55 degrees Fahrenheit. When the temperature is below that, the monarch butterflies will be in clusters. This is not ideal, but it can still be worthwhile to see. You will also be able to see them hanging off of leaves from the eucalyptus trees.

Difficulty: Easy
Distance: 0.6 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 22 feet

2. Redwood Grove Loop Trail

Credit: Ken Lund / Flickr

The Redwood Grove Loop Trail is one of the most popular trails in Santa Cruz. This is because it has the tallest measured tree in the park and two of the widest trees, known as the Mother, Father, and Santa Clara Trees.

There are so many mountains, canyon forests, and meadowlands that you may see along the San Lorenzo River. You will never get bored on this trail! Unfortunately you will have to leave your pups at home. Redwood Grove Loop Trail does not allow dogs on the trail.

For those looking for a trail that is wheelchair accessible, this will be it. The entire course is in the gentle grade category at 5% or less. But, you may need all-terrain tires or motorized equipment in unpaved areas.

The Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park charges a fee to park at the campground and day-use areas. But, It will also depend on whether you are walking, biking, or if you have an automobile.

Difficulty: Easy
Distance: 0.9 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 45 feet

3. Old Cove Landing Trail

Credit: Srishti Sethi

Perfect for those who have a lot on their mind or just want to take some time to themselves, this trail follows the Pacific Ocean north of Santa Cruz. You will also be able to hear the crashing waves and enjoy a beautiful view from above. You will want to visit this trail in the winter and spring as the ocean views will be more clear.

Visiting on the weekday will be much better as it can get pretty busy on the weekends. You could also tour the grounds of a farm replete with antique cars and farming machinery. It will be perfect for those who love late 19th and early 20th-century history!

There is so much wildlife to see as well. Some wildlife you will be able to observe are geese, sea lions, pelicans, gulls, and many other waterfowl. For those seeking to catch sight of whales, the best time to visit Old Cove Landing Trail is December through April.

Difficulty: Easy
Distance: 2.4 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 101 feet

4. Fall Creek and Lost Empire Trail Loop

Credit: Ken Lund / Flickr

The Fall Creek and Lost Empire Trail Loop are one of the most peaceful and serene trails that you can go on. You will follow Fall Creek up the drainage while exploring the nature surrounding Henry Cowell Redwood State Park.

Hikers may also need to do some off-trail scrambling near the Erosion waypoint. This route is typically considered more challenging. So, those looking for hikes with young children may want to pass this one up.

Most of the trail follows old wagon and logging roads that once led to busy industrial sites. Additionally, the limestone deposit developed in the early 1870s which is an interesting piece of history about South Fall Creek. 

Difficulty: Challenging
Distance: 9.4 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 2,191 feet

5. Epicenter to Five Finger Falls

Credit: Sandip Bhattacharya / Flickr

The Five Finger Falls trail is a beautiful area for those wanting to backpack, bird watch, camp, and hike. There are stunning views with a river, waterfall, and an abundance of wildlife to observe.

It is also one of the more prominent waterfalls that are located in the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park. Be careful, part of this trail was closed due to a landslide. Additionally, reviewers have said you will also need to be very cautious of mountain lions or bobcats.

Difficulty: Challenging
Distance: 14.9 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 2,290 feet

6. Pogonip Creek Nature Loop

Credit: mef1906 / Flickr

The Pogonip Creek Nature Loop is a beautiful 640-acre trail that offers open meadows, woodlands, and creeks. It is a multi-use trail, so be on the lookout for bicyclists and equestrians. For those looking for an extra hike, this trail also connects Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, Pogonip, and UC Santa Cruz campus lands.

Most of the woodlands at Pogonip are oak, madrone, bay, conifers, redwood, and Douglas fir. The Main Meadow has many non-native grassland species, while prairie habitats appear in the northern areas.

There is so much wildlife to see at Pogonip; you will want to keep your eyes open! You will spot black-tailed deer, California ground squirrels, black-tail jackrabbits, coyotes, foxes and bobcats! These wildlife species are not all Pogonip has to offer; There are also various species of birds and amphibians that you may catch sight of.

Difficulty: Moderate
Distance: 1.6 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 226 feet

7. Aptos Creek Fire Road

Credit: Sandip Bhattacharya / Flickr

With lots of forest and shade, the Aptos Creek Fire Road will be excellent for those looking to get out of the sun! Additionally, the trail is paved and there are some benches that you may rest on

While making your way along the trail, you will come across some bridges and a wide variety of plants and wildlife. Many wildflowers can be seen here, so it is best to visit in the spring months

This trail is open year-round, so no matter when your visit is to Santa Cruz, you can check this hike out! It is also popular with mountain biking, so watch out for any bikers.

Difficulty: Moderate
Distance: 25.8 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 3,523 feet

8. Cape Horn Loop

Credit: Ken Lund / Flickr

Cape Horn Loop is a lovely hike for those looking for a short, out-and-back trail. It is a gorgeous trail for a family-friendly hike alongside a creek. You will want to visit this trail from April through September as there are many beautiful wildflowers to see. Additionally, this trail also has many redwoods, ferns, and birds to observe.

If you are looking for a more quiet and reserved area to hike, this trail may not be for you. This is because it can get quite crowded with hikers. Unfortunately, Cape Horn Loop does not allow dogs on the course. Therefore, you will have to leave your pups at home.

This trail is located in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, which charges a fee to park at the day-use and campground. However, this depends on how you enter, whether by bike, foot, vehicle, or horse.

Difficulty: Moderate
Distance: 3.5 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 692 feet

9. Quail Hollow Sunset Trail

Credit: Lyn Gateley / Flickr

The Quail Hollow Sunset Trail is perfect for those wanting to see a wide variety of nature with stunning views.  You can observe the Zayante Valley, dwarf redwoods, Quail Hollow Ranch, and local quarries. There is also an abundance of wildlife and wildflowers, along with ocean and valley views! 

The best times to explore the Quail Hollow Sunset Trail are from March through November. If you are looking to go off-trail, it is necessary to have caution as there is poison oak. On this trail, the summer temperature can reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Therefore, if you are visiting in the summer, bring plenty of water and sunscreen.

Difficulty: Moderate
Distance: 2.8 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 564 feet

10. Natural Bridges to Lighthouse Field Loop

Credit: sk / Flickr

The Natural Bridges to Lighthouse Field Loop will take you on a beautiful hike filled with amazing sights to see. Along with sizeable coastal scrub meadows, you can explore tide pools and beach habitats at the Natural Bridges State Park. In the spring, these meadows will be filled with native wildflowers.

Those exploring the meadows will have a beautiful view of Moore Creek as it flows through the fields, forming wetlands in the sand. With the ability to later explore and see the lighthouse.

This hike is kid-friendly and stroller friendly. As for dogs, they are only allowed on paved areas on a leash at all times. Accessing the route along West Cliff Drive with your dog may also be difficult unless you access it from another parking area.

Difficulty: Easy
Distance: 4.8 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 121 feet

11. Wilder Ridge Trail

Credit: Greg Balzer / Flickr

This trail offers you many beautiful views. There will be some short and steep sections throughout the course, but it is definitely worth it. Once you reach the halfway mark of this trail, there will be a stunning view overlooking the ocean and the climb.

This trail is used by mountain bikers, hikers, and those who like peaceful morning walks. Therefore, you may want to go on this trail in the early morning when there will be fewer people. It is also open year-round.

Something to note about this trail is that in some areas, it may be overgrown and surrounded by many tall blades of grass. Reviews suggest watching out for poison oak as you make your way across the trail. Additionally, they recommend bringing a hat and sunscreen as there is little shade.

Difficulty: Moderate
Distance: 7.7 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 882 feet

12. Emma McCrary Trail to U-Con Trail

Credit: Ryan Hardin / AllTrails

The Emma McCrary Trail is a beautiful trail built by volunteers and spearheaded by mountain bikers. It is perfect for those who are experienced in hiking but also looking for a place that offers beauty and serenity. Also, there is plenty of shade as it is filled with many redwood trees.

Although this trail is famous for mountain biking, you can still enjoy a hiking trip here. As for those looking for a little extra to this trail, you may climb further as well. The best time to visit would be from March through September. And, You may also bring your furry friend on this trail, but they will need to be on a leash.

Difficulty: Moderate
Distance: 5.7 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 882 feet

13. Saratoga Gap Ridge Loop Trail

Credit: Sandip Bhattacharya / Flickr

The Saratoga Gap Ridge Loop Trail is perfect for those who love scenic areas. With a waterfall, amazing views of the Santa Cruz Mountains, and tufa formations, this trail will check off all your wants in a hike.

The beginning of the trail will take you downhill through the tan-oak forest until it crosses the creek. There will be an intersection with Goat Rock Trail at the stream until you are at the waterfall.

After you have seen the waterfall, the trail will continue until you can view the green San Lorenzo River Basin. At the basin, you will want to keep an eye out for any hawks, as they are often seen circling below. Reviews state that further along the trail, it will become quite rocky. You will want to wear some good shoes so you can easily keep your footing for the duration of your hike.

Difficulty: Moderate
Distance: 9.8 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 1,784 feet

14. Old Growth Loop Trail

Credit: etaylorg / Flickr

The Old Growth Loop Trail is located in the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park. It consists of a steep-walled side canyon leading to a remote waterfall. In the southern part will be a patch of old-growth redwood trees. This little patch of the property was known as Marcel’s Forest and was only added to the park in 1997.

While this trail is easy and perfect for beginners, even experienced hikers will not want to miss this one. There are so many redwood trees to be seen that are dated thousands of years old! It should be noted that there is a seasonal bridge along this trail which can only be accessed from May through October.

There are also many more trails along the way that you can choose from if you are looking for some additional scenery. But, You will also need to be careful of poison oak on your journey.

Difficulty: Easy
Distance: 1.3 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 269 feet

15. West Cliff Drive

Credit: Richard Masoner / Flickr

This walking and biking path along the Pacific Ocean will give you spectacular views of Monterey Bay. If you want to hike with your family or dog, this is a great trail to do so. It is paved and easily accessible. This trail is also wheelchair friendly. It is a gentle grade of 5% or less, with bathrooms that are also wheelchair-accessible close to the lighthouse and Cowell Beach.

There will be so much for you to see and do while on this trail; you could stay there all day and never get bored! You can surf, cycle, fly a kite or fish. There are also many chances to see sea otters, whales, dolphins, seals, pelicans and crabs!

Steamer Lane is a popular surfing spot for year-round competitions. Those wanting to see sea lions will want to leave Cowell Beach until you pass Steamer Lane. The sea lions should be on the other side.

Difficulty: Easy
Distance: 4.0 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 68 feet

16. Englesman Loop Trail

Credit: Martin Jambon / Flickr

With meadows of lupine and wildflowers all over, the Englesman Loop Trail is extraordinary. This trail has so much to offer as it will give you a beautiful view of the beach from the hill.

You can enjoy this trail year-round, so no matter what time of the year you go, you can experience this spectacular trail. However, unfortunately, dogs are not allowed on this trail. This trail has gradual inclines and declines, but the ocean view will be worth it.

Difficulty: Moderate
Distance: 4.5 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 524 feet

17. Four Mile Beach Trail

Credit: Grey3k

This trail will get crowded due to all the hiking, trail running, and walking, but it will still be a beautiful sight. The Four Mile Beach Trail is open year-round but is incredibly amazing to visit in the morning. While it is not a very long and challenging walk, it is still worth visiting. Many reviewers have gone on this hike as a short-end trip to their other hike.

If you are looking for a more secluded hike, continuing along the bluff to Three Mile Beach and Strawberry Beach is recommended. However, these beaches are not family-friendly due to their rocky nature.

Difficulty: Easy
Distance: 1.2 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 85 feet

18. Enchanted Trail Loop

Credit: Alejandro Rdguez / Flickr

The Enchanted Trail Loop is a fun trail with stunning views. The most spectacular views are seen from the canyon floor. However, at the top of this trail, you will also be able to view the ocean.

It first starts at the intersection with Baldwin Loop until it reaches a meadow. Once at the meadow, the trail will be secluded under shade by the redwood trees. Following this path, you will find some zig zags until you go through a rocky section. After the somewhat challenging and rough areas, you will finally arrive at the canyon floor.

Difficulty: Moderate
Distance: 5.1 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 918 feet

19. Wilder Ranch Singletrack Trail

Credit: fogcat5 / Flickr

The Wilder Ranch Singletrack Trail is popular with mountain biking, trail running, and hiking with beautiful forest views. There is not much shade on this trail, so you will want to bring a hat, lots of water, and sunscreen.

The trail can get very narrow at times, so it is best to be cautious. Another necessary caution is to cover up properly to avoid any chances of coming in contact with poison oak.

Difficulty: Challenging
Distance: 13.1 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 1,840 feet

20. Maple Falls Trail

Credit: young shanahan / Flickr

The Maple Falls Trail is perfect for those who want to leave the city’s bustling life. This trail is also open year-round! It consists of a second and third-growth redwood forest that rises from near sea level to steep coastal mountains. This trail starts off easy, but you should not get ahead of yourself; this trail quickly becomes moderately challenging throughout its duration

Maple falls trail is not short on views that are worth seeing. There are canyons, bridges, river crossings, and a stunning waterfall at the end. Some helpful reminders if you decide to make this your next hike is to bring plenty of water and some good hiking shoes. 

Difficulty: Moderate
Distance: 10.1 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 872 feet

Recommended for you

Travel smarter

Join the thousands of travel enthusiasts who are part of our T&T community.