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More About Santa Cruz County
There are four incorporated cities in the County. The largest is the City of Santa Cruz, with a population of 59,946. Watsonville has a population of 51,199, Scotts Valley has 11,580, and Capitola has 9,918.
Santa Cruz County is the Gateway to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, has 29 miles of coastline and includes numerous state parks and beaches. Its quaint shops and restaurants, coupled with a multitude of cultural and recreational activities, including sailing, fishing, golfing, surfing, kayaking, hiking, and biking, provide a wealth of leisure activities. The State of California owns and maintains 42,334 acres of parks in the coastal and mountainous areas of the County. The County maintains an additional 1,593 acres of parks, not including the numerous parks also found within the cities. Cultural amenities include the Santa Cruz County Symphony, the Cabrillo Music Festival, Shakespeare Santa Cruz, the McPherson Museum of Art and History, the University of California Performing Arts Center, and the Henry J. Mello Performing Arts Center.
The County’s strong local economy is anchored by technology, agriculture, and tourism. The school system includes Cabrillo Community College and the University of California, Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz also hosts the Long Marine Laboratory, the Lick Observatory, the National Marine Fisheries service, and the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center.
The County is served by the San Jose International Airport, the San Francisco International Airport, Oakland International Airport, Monterey Peninsula Airport, and the Watsonville Municipal Airport. Rail access is provided by Union Pacific Railroad, with a railhead at Watsonville Junction.
As of 2018, the County has per capita personal income of $34,732, median income of $70,088, and a median value for owner-occupied housing of approximately $800,000. The County Government has a workforce of 2,470 employees in 20 agencies and departments, and an annual budget of approximately $777 million.
These wonderful attributes combined make Santa Cruz County one of California’s most desirable areas to live.
According to extensive archaeological research, Santa Cruz County welcomed its first visitors about 12,000 years ago. Since then, people ranging from the Ohlone Indians to Gold Rush settlers and now including you, have come and discovered that the beaches are just the beginning of what Santa Cruz County has to offer. The community's architecture, natural resources, agricultural industry, arts and culture, and social diversity all stem from a fascinating history that is worth learning more about.
An abundance of natural resources, combined with a mild climate, have provided a hospitable environment for activity in the Santa Cruz area since the time of its first inhabitants. For further resources, you can explore the Santa Cruz Public Library.
The oldest known settlement was in the Scotts Valley area. Extensive archaeological research indicates that people lived here some 12,000 years ago, pre-dating the pyramids of Egypt! These early people lived in small groups, eating seeds and following migratory game.
The Ohlones migrated to the area from the Sierra Nevada’s roughly 8,000 years ago. They settled along the coast from Marin to Monterey County and based their livelihood on the abundant marine resources: seals, shellfish, otter, salmon and birds.
In 1769, the members of the Portola Expedition became the first non-natives to explore the coast of Santa Cruz County. During their journey, they traversed the countryside and named the streams and rivers they encountered. In 1791, after the discovery of Monterey Bay, Father Lausen, who led the missionary system following Father Serra's death, erected a cross at the site where Mission Santa Cruz, or "Holy Cross," would be constructed. On September 25, 1791, Mission Santa Cruz was completed as the 12th mission in California.
In the years 1835 to 1840, after Mexico gained independence from Spain, the mission establishment was secularized. The 35 adobe buildings on Mission Hill, formerly at the heart of the mission settlement, evolved into the early town of Santa Cruz and were gradually repurposed for commercial uses.
In the late 1840s, a growing number of foreigners, especially Americans, were drawn to the area. The influx of Yankees was finalized with the 1849 Gold Rush and California's admission to the Union in 1850. Adobe buildings were replaced by tall Protestant church steeples and white picket fences.
The early industries of the area drew heavily on the seemingly unlimited natural resources. Lumber camps were established in the redwood forests of the Santa Cruz mountains, concentrating in the San Lorenzo Valley and Aptos areas. The McCrary family, who came to Davenport in 1863, still operates Big Creek Lumber Company, one of only two mills left in Santa Cruz.
Besides lumber, fine grade limestone was the source for critical building materials. The largest limestone industry was operated by Henry Cowell on what is now the UCSC campus. Its earliest quarry dates from the 1850’s.
Salz Tannery, the oldest operating tannery in California, is the last survivor of what was once a major industry in the county. At one time there were eight or nine active tanneries.
From the 1880’s through the turn of the century, a wide variety of agricultural industries were established and took hold throughout the county. Today, the large Wilder Ranch State Park with its historic dairy ranch complex is a reminder of that era.
In the Santa Cruz mountains, early vintners put to use their pioneering efforts to produce fine California wines. Fontenay Vineyard on Vine Hill and the Ben Lomond Wine Company in Bonny Doon provided leadership both locally and statewide.
In South County, apples have remained the main agricultural product since becoming the primary crop grown in the area. Other notable agricultural products from this region include artichokes, brussels sprouts, strawberries, and flowers.
The arrival of the railroad enabled the area to tap into its natural resources in an entirely new way, giving rise to the tourism industry. Early conservation efforts led by Andrew Hill culminated in the establishment of Big Basin, the first state park, in 1902.
The most ambitious effort to attract the tourist was made by Fred Swanton. When Swanton’s 1904 casino burned down in 1906, he responded with a second version which is the one we know today – the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. The Looff Carousel was installed in 1911 and the Giant Dipper roller coaster was added in 1923; both are National Historic Landmarks.
The mid-60’s brought the establishment of the University of California campus in Santa Cruz. The University acted as a focus for alternative lifestyles and new political trends.
The next major change occurred in October 1989 when the Loma Prieta Earthquake struck, causing severe devastation to homes and businesses throughout Santa Cruz County. Since then, the county has rebuilt most structures and is on the path to economic prosperity once again.
Over the past 15 years, there has been a remarkable flowering of the arts, with creative endeavors in crafts, fine arts, dance, music, theater, and writing thriving and gaining both local support and national recognition.
Things to Do
Santa Cruz County's scenic coastline spans 29 miles and includes over 14 state parks and beaches, offering plenty of options for outdoor recreation. Swim, camp, surf, soak up the sun, or hike at one of the county's inspiring local spots. Beachgoers can catch waves and sun at the craggy cliffs of Davenport, the sandstone arch of Natural Bridges State Beach, or the wide sands of Sunset State Beach. Santa Cruz's Main Beach connects prominent landmarks like the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, the Santa Cruz Wharf, and the San Lorenzo River. Centrally located in charming Capitola-by-the-Sea, Capitola Beach serves as the village's lively playground.
The Santa Cruz Mountains offer abundant outdoor adventures for nature enthusiasts. Visitors can hike through ancient redwood forests or to panoramic mountaintop vistas in the many state parks and open spaces. Locals also enjoy endless exploration opportunities in the county. For those who love hiking near wild rivers or babbling brooks, the mountains provide some excellent trails, including one leading to a 30-foot waterfall.
Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park offers hikers a mellow, just-under-a-mile loop trail or the more challenging Pipeline Trail that runs along the San Lorenzo River. The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park features remnants of old lime kilns, as does Fall Creek. In addition to its Victorian homes, barns, living history demonstrations and tours, Wilder Ranch State Park provides 34 miles of hiking, biking and equestrian trails.
Santa Cruz County features stunning hiking trails from redwood forests to coastal paths. If you're unsure where to head for your next adventure, consider these scenic trails protected by The Land Trust of Santa Cruz County. As a non-profit dedicated to preserving the area's natural lands, The Land Trust also aims to inspire conservation by connecting people to nature. Discover the trails and parks that The Land Trust has worked diligently to protect, maintain, and open to the public.
California's King Tides will arrive along Santa Cruz County's shores this winter. These predictable, naturally occurring events bring the year's highest and lowest tides, dramatically transforming the coastline. At high tide, waves often crash against seawalls and flow past their usual reach. The extreme low tides expose rarely seen tide pools and open miles of beach for exploration. Though the official King Tide dates are January 11-12 and February 9, 2024, more extreme high and low tides will occur in the surrounding days.
Neighborhoods in Santa Cruz County
Santa Cruz County encompasses coastal towns, mountain communities, farms, and wide-open spaces, providing an extensive array of recreational, occupational, educational, and residential possibilities to suit all interests.
Downtown Santa Cruz:
Downtown Santa Cruz serves as the vibrant heart of the city, bringing together government, business, entertainment, and more within a walkable area. Home to the offices of County and City government, shops, community hubs, and arenas alike, downtown offers easy access to the Boardwalk, wharf, Pacific Ocean, and historic architectural gems. From 19th century Greek and Italianate homes to the iconic spire of Holy Cross Church and adjacent adobe mission, downtown Santa Cruz allows visitors to experience the city's rich history firsthand.
Located amidst the sprawling redwood forests and rolling hills overlooking the Monterey Bay, the University of California, Santa Cruz has one of the most scenic campuses for higher education in the United States. Since its founding in 1965, UC Santa Cruz has become internationally renowned for its high-impact research and exceptional commitment to teaching and public service. With world-class facilities situated in a visually stunning natural setting, UC Santa Cruz provides rigorous academic programs and innovative research opportunities that encourage critical thinking and intellectual freedom. Environmental stewardship and community engagement are ingrained in the university's core values.
With its beautiful beaches, unique shops and restaurants, and abundance of vacation rentals and hotels, Capitola-By-The-Sea epitomizes the classic coastal town. Stroll along the Esplanade in Capitola Village to enjoy the great shopping, wine tasting, and fantastic dining options. A short walk up the hill leads to additional dining and shopping at Capitola Mall and the many stores and businesses lining 41st Avenue. Or simply wander the quiet, residential streets and savor the fresh ocean breezes. Don't miss the nationally renowned Capitola Art & Wine Festival held each September.
The quaint township of Soquel stretches inland from Capitola into the surrounding foothills, where antique shops and small restaurants share downtown with a fire station and white church. Well-kept older homes line the neighborhood streets. Past the high school sits Anna Jean Cummings Park, also known as Blue Ball Park, a popular spot for play and picnics. From there, one can travel into the wooded foothills and up to the summit to find secluded homes and wineries tucked amongst the redwoods.
Aptos, the home of John Montgomery’s pioneering manned flight experiments, is a community rich in history, culture, and natural beauty. It features charming residential neighborhoods, scenic state parks, historic landmarks, schools, churches, local businesses, and Cabrillo Community College, which predates the Wright Brothers’ first flight.
Nestled in California's fertile Pajaro River Valley, Watsonville is a thriving agricultural hub and community. Home to thousands of residents, churches, schools, and farms, the city invites visitors to pick berries and apples at local orchards, explore wetlands and parks, stroll through historic downtown, relax at Sunset Beach, golf, or attend the County Fair and Watsonville Fly-In. Watsonville also supports businesses, manufacturers, and the exclusive Pajaro Dunes resort, where vacationers stay in luxury beachfront homes.
Nestled between the coast and mountains, Scotts Valley offers easy access to both Santa Cruz and San Jose. New housing developments built near expansive parks and forests provide plenty of space for picnicking, hiking, and enjoying the sunshine. With great shopping, restaurants, and the Hilton Scotts Valley, it is the perfect place for companies to host conferences, get away, regroup, and invest in their employees and vision.
Felton has a charming small-town atmosphere perfect for unwinding with a leisurely stroll through the markets. Locals know each other by name, horseback riding is a daily sight, and the whistle of the Roaring Camp train departing for Santa Cruz fills the air. This people-oriented town is an ideal escape from the hustle and bustle of crowded Santa Cruz to enjoy a relaxing day outdoors.
Nestled in the redwoods, the village of Boulder Creek has maintained its distinctive character despite its isolation. Though small, it offers a vibrant mix of shops and services. Unlike many California towns swallowed by urban sprawl, Boulder Creek retains its historical roots and small-town feel. Once a timber hub, it later became a summer retreat that still balances a connection to nature with a hardworking, community-minded spirit.
With dozens of vacation rentals, a small motel, and an RV park next to Seacliff State Beach, this sheltered hideaway offers vacationers ample accommodation options. Dining is available indoors or on patios at several restaurants or enjoy the local ambiance at the neighborhood tavern.
Bonny Doon, located 10 miles north of Santa Cruz and inland from Davenport, is known for its lavender farms and wineries. Inland from Bonny Doon State Beach, coastal redwoods and sand hill habitats with trailside plants draw hikers and outdoor enthusiasts. Though flavored with an artistic, eclectic flair, Bonny Doon maintains a small-town feel that warmly welcomes visitors traveling the scenic coastal Highway 1 route.
Just ten miles north of Santa Cruz, the quaint 19th-century coastal town of Davenport perches on dramatic bluffs overlooking the Pacific. This tiny hamlet boasts sweeping ocean vistas, historic buildings now home to contemporary eateries, and charming spots like Whale City Bakery. A quick stroll reveals the town's highlights, including the rugged Davenport bluffs, Slow Coast General Store, and the beautiful Highway 1 drive along the coast.
City of Capitola
Square Miles - 1.6
City of Santa Cruz
Population - 62,956
Square Miles - 12.0
City of Scotts Valley
Population - 12,224
Square Miles - 4.6
City of Watsonville
Population - 52,590
Square Miles - 5.9
UNINCORPORATED AREAS 133,153
Tourism, agriculture, manufacturing, and high-tech.
The legendary Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk invites visitors to enjoy rides, games, and endless fun this season. Step back in time on two National Historic Landmarks: the Giant Dipper Roller Coaster and the Looff Carousel. Thrill rides, family rides, and kiddie rides offer excitement for all ages. Try your luck at over 300 vintage and new games in the Casino Arcade or mini-golf at Neptune’s Kingdom. Round out the entertainment with laser tag and bowling at the nearby Boardwalk Bowl. Take a self-guided walking tour of Boardwalk history or visit the free Boardwalk Historium exhibit on the second floor of Neptune’s Kingdom to see photographs and memorabilia spanning over 100 years. Although much has changed since its 1907 opening, the Boardwalk retains its storied past. Dive into historical photos and artifacts at the Historium or discover secret histories on a self-guided walking tour of the property's points of interest.
Nestled atop breathtaking Monterey Bay, this spectacular mountain retreat offers sweeping coastal views and access to beaches just minutes away. Enjoy year-round heated pools, miles of hiking trails, and much more. Savor fresh, local cuisine at The View Restaurant overlooking the bay.
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