5 Great State Parks Near Santa Cruz
The central coasts of California boast some of the country’s most diverse, species-rich, and dramatic scenery. It’s all found and protected here in our state parks. You’ll explore the scenic coastline, walk among the redwoods, and enjoy lovely beaches with beautiful natural rock formations— sometimes all in a single day. Then, you’ll head back to your comfortable vacation rental in the heart of Santa Cruz to refresh and recharge before the next outdoor adventure.
Some of the oldest state parks reside here among redwood behemoths and a harsh yet stunning coastline that snakes you along the edges of the Pacific. All of this is at your fingertips. So grab your hiking boots and some trail mix; it’s time to explore the best California state parks near Santa Cruz!
1. Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
- Visitor Center Address: Redwood Grove Loop Trail, Felton, CA
- Distance from Santa Cruz: 20 minutes
- Highlights: Old Growth forests, hiking, biking, horseback riding, fishing, wildlife
Enjoy feeling tiny among giants in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. If you can’t imagine tree trunks as thick as your car and taller than a skyscraper, a zippy 20-minute drive from Santa Cruz will show you exactly what big trees are all about.
The park will have you wandering through the Avenues of the Sequoia and straining your neck among the largest trees in the world. Henry Cowell, just outside Felton, preserves a 40-acre old-growth redwood grove, is home to the Roaring Camp Railroad, and offers lots of hiking, biking, and dog-friendly areas.
Forests of such massive scale can play tricks on the mind. Be sure to check out the Mystery Spot for nature-defying illusions, or keep the legend alive and set out to find the elusive furry relative of Sasquatch at the Big Foot Museum.
A few miles north is the Fall Creek Unit– a second-growth redwood forest with a fern-covered creek canyon worth a visit. Here, you’ll find the Santa Cruz Sandhills habitat – a rare ancient marine deposit home to endangered animals and plants situated in a mixed evergreen forest.
2. Big Basin Redwoods State Park
- Directions: Take exit 236 Big Basin Highway off of Highway 9 at Waterman Gap
- Distance from Santa Cruz: 45 minutes
- Highlights: Hiking, biking, oldest-growth forest, wildlife, guided tours, surfing
This is where giants meet the sea. Sequoia sempervirens, locally known as Coastal Redwoods, are one of the most jaw-dropping trees imaginable. Once stretching from Canada to Mexico, these massive trees are found nowhere else today than in California.
Big Basin State Park is a unique region of the central California coast near the San Lorenzo River. It gives visitors a full immersion into the groves of behemoth redwood trees.
Established in 1902, this park is the oldest in California and protects the largest continuous stretch of ancient Redwoods coast south of San Francisco, as well as 88 miles of hiking trails and 18,000 acres of old-growth and recovering redwood forest.
Like Redwoods National Park in northern California, this Santa Cruz district park holds trees as tall as the Statue of Liberty, some more than 2,000 years old! Predating even the ancient Romans.
Some of the park trails link Big Basin State Park to Castle Rock State Park and the eastern reaches of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The popular 30-mile Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail threads its way through waterfalls and old-growth forests along creeks and wanders among the ferns and enchanting forest trails, ending at Rancho del Oso. This coastal section of the park lets you access Waddell Beach, another park highlight.
Remember to pack it in, pack it out, and never go off-trail or disturb the flora or fauna in any way during your visit.
3. Wilder Ranch State Park
- Address: 1401 Coast Rd, Santa Cruz, CA
- Distance from Santa Cruz: 15 minutes
- Highlights: Historical sites, interpretive exhibits, beach area, guided tours, hiking, biking, coastal vistas, picnic areas, day-use only
Once you’ve gotten your fill of the ancient giants, it’s time to give your neck a break and swing by the dairy farm turned state park, Wilder Ranch State Park. This is the park for views and scenic vistas.
Only 15 minutes from the Santa Cruz Wharf, you’ll find yourself winding along the crashing waves and dramatic limestone cliffs overlooking the Pacific. The highlight of this park is Natural Bridges State Beach, where you can wander the sand and search among the tide pools for stranded sea life at low tide.
Hiking in this small state park is also a must. The popular trails stretch for miles along the rugged coastline dotted with seal colonies and surf spots. This area is also stunning for sunset and has trails that guide you to the lighthouse viewpoint and off-the-beaten-path beaches.
If you’re feeling up to it, the 9.3-mile Engelsman and Enchanted Loop will leave you speechless. But do keep in mind dogs are not allowed on any of the park’s 35 miles of hiking trails.
4. Castle Rock State Park
- Address: 15451 CA-35, Los Gatos, CA
- Distance from Santa Cruz: 41 minutes
- Highlights: Hiking, backpacking, rock climbing, bouldering, cultural exhibits, wildlife
Covering over 5,000 acres and stretching across the Santa Cruz mountains into San Mateo, Castle Rock has one of the more unique ecosystems in California. That’s what makes the park so very interesting.
High-altitude redwoods, knob-cone pines, weather-sculpted sandstone, and inspiring vistas make this place a treat to visit, as well as an Eden for rock climbers from around the world.
Popular moderately difficult trails like Goat Rock Overlook, Saratoga Gap, and Castle Rock Falls will keep your thighs burning while offering amazing views of the layers of lush mountains and hills. This quick day-trip park can easily be combined with a visit to Big Basin Redwoods State Park.
5. Forest of Nisene Marks State Park
- Address: Aptos Creek Rd, Aptos, CA
- Distance from Santa Cruz: 25 minutes
- Highlights: Hiking, picnics, interpretive exhibits, old growth, less crowds
Would you believe that only minutes outside of the city of Aptos, California, is an area of 10,000 acres of protected old-growth forest? Well, that’s Nisene Marks State Park.
The park’s strange name derived from Nisene Marks, a nature-loving mother of a Salinas farm family who purchased the land in the 1950s. She and her family have worked to protect the land, donating nearly 10,000 acres to the state in 1963 with the provision that the land never be developed.
Redwoods cover four-fifths of the entire area, and the park now contains over 40 miles of hiking trails. Keep an eye out for the famous banana slug or salamanders that tend to hide in the dense, wet undergrowth. You’ll also be able to avoid the crowds here as this park is less visited than Big Basin or Henry Cowell.
Sleep in Comfort While You Explore Our Parks!
Central California’s coast has no shortage of diverse state parks that offer dramatic landscapes of epic scale and cover everyone’s recreational preferences. But you’ll need the perfect vacation rental between the massive redwoods, Sealion-covered beaches, and jagged coastlines.
Beachnest has cozy vacation homes all over the Santa Cruz area, from the seaside to downtown neighborhoods. Find the home that fits your vacation style, and come enjoy all Santa Cruz state parks have to offer!