30 of the Best Hikes in Monterey Bay, Santa Cruz, and Santa Clara Counties
We know you like staying active year-round, but there’s something about the new year that reinvigorates your wellness goals. And you don’t have to start training for a marathon come January first. We’re right there with you, which is why we asked the Strock Team to compile a local’s list of the best hikes in Monterey Bay and beyond to get outside and stay active!
Best Hikes in Santa Cruz County
From chill to challenging, you can find a gorgeous outdoor venue for every level of activity in Santa Cruz County. Here are our team’s top picks:
For a redwooded haven, hit the Fall Creek Trail in Henry Cowell State Park, the old-growth Redwood Tree Loop at The Forest of Nisene Marks in Aptos, or the meandering trails in the Land of the Medicine Buddha in Soquel. Each has its own version of this enchanting landscape, with towering redwoods – some hundreds of years old – shading your path.
The lesser-known Byrne-Milliron Forest is a small 402-acre land trust tucked into the hills of Corralitos. Expect more majestic redwoods and stellar views of Monterey Bay. Nearby, the massive Soquel Demonstration Forest is a Mecca for mountain bikers of all levels – weave in between the trees and catch blurred glimpses of the Bay as you barrel down the Santa Cruz Mountains.
For options closer to the waves, check out Pogonip, a 640-acre trail system that connects UCSC to Henry Cowell State Park. Why we love this park? For the insane ocean views and a trail that snakes along the bluff right above the waves. Just down Highway 1, Wilder Ranch delivers those same coastal vistas – and a hike called the Enchanted Loop Trail. Choose between flat, ocean-centric routes, or active trails that climb into the mountains.
Lastly, here are our Chill vs. Challenging picks for Santa Cruz County:
Our Chill choices include Arana Gulch, a partially-paved, completely flat 1 mile loop just inland of the Santa Cruz Harbor. We also love Neary Lagoon, another gem hidden in plain sight. This sub-1 mile paved pathway is perfect for getting the kiddos outside and watching the local wildlife.
Really want to test your endurance? Take on a 3 day hike with the Skyline to Sea Trail, which begins in Saratoga’s Castle Rock Park and ends at Davenport’s Waddell Beach.
Best Hikes in Monterey Bay County
On the other side of the Bay, Monterey County delivers some incredible outdoor activities. Here are our team’s top picks:
For the wannabe birder/safari guide, you can’t miss going to the Elkhorn Slough. This stunning estuary is a haven for all kinds of wildlife – from birds, to fish, to otters! Rent a kayak, paddleboard, or take to one of the trails at the Reserve. Another great option is the Salinas River National Wildlife Refuge. The stark landscape has an easy sub-two-mile loop that you can take to the ocean – it’s one of the least crowded beaches in the entire Bay. Fair warning: to get to the parking lot there is a ¼ mile of unpaved road!
For inland hikes, ranging for mild to moderate, check out Toro County Park, Fort Ord National Monument, Jacks Peak Park, or Garland Ranch Park. Toro County Park, located in Salinas, is a totally overlooked 4,756 acres of softball fields, volleyball courts, and 20 miles of trails. Fort Ord and Jack’s Peak are both in Monterey and offer loops for every level of hiker (some with ocean views). Garland Ranch Park, tucked into Carmel Valley, features level trails that weave across the Carmel River and a handful of routes that climb into the foothills. You can’t go wrong with any of these less-traveled options!
Best Monterey Oceanside Hikes
We also have picks for oceanside strolls or coastal view hikes. The Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail is a flat, paved pathway that stretches from Castroville to Pacific Grove. This trail has some of the best ocean views in the county and amazing stops along the way – like Fisherman’s Wharf, Cannery Row, and Lover’s Point. Just down PCH, the popular Point Lobos State Natural Reserve offers mild hikes and staggering ocean views – we suggest packing a lunch and checking out the tidepools!
Trails like Soberanes Canyon Trail and Garrapata State Park also have stellar views, but you have to work for them. These beautiful vistas require some sweat equity, but we guarantee that the effort is totally worth it!
Now onto our Chill vs. Challenging segment:
Asilomar State Beach Coastal Trail gets our “Chill” recognition, with a trail that hugs the rocky cliff sides where Monterey Bay meets the open ocean; the entire 3.6 mile out-and-back feels absolutely wild and refreshing. The Big Sur Tanbark and Tin House Trail gets our Challenging award, climbing into the steep mountains of Big Sur. We hope you enjoy taking advantage of the best hikes in Monterey Bay!
Best Hikes in Santa Clara County
In Santa Clara County, our team suggests Castle Rock State Park, Lexington Reservoir, and Bear Creek Redwood Preserve, which all feature variations of trails on the Santa Clara side of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Many of these trails offer beautiful city views, with some vistas stretching all the way to the San Francisco Bay!
Way down in South County, you’ll find Coyote Lake Harvey Bear Ranch, a park spanning almost 7,000 acres with 449-acre Coyote Lake. Hikers, horseback riders, and cyclists love the 33 miles of trails that wind across the golden foothills and through groves of oak trees. There’s also a level, paved, 2-mile loop!
In the middle of a posh neighborhood, the 37 miles of trails at Almaden Quicksilver County Park are anything but refined. Get ready for some steep climbs and gorgeous vistas – especially the trails that overlook Almaden and Guadalupe reservoirs. For another climb, make your way to Mission Peak. This notorious up-and-back trail lives up to its name: climb to the Peak and you’ll be rewarded with mind-blowing views of the San Francisco Bay. Trust us: worth it.
Chill Santa Clara Hike
For our chill hike, we are going with Villa Montalvo County Park. With the Montalvo Mansion serving as a starting point, a short (yet steep-ish) series of trails wind into the foothills with frequent lookout points. For our challenging hike, go to Mount Umunhum in the Sierra Azul Preserve. As the fourth highest peak in the Santa Cruz Mountains, be prepared for a 1,000+ ft elevation gain to get to the summit!
Are you ready to discover some new preserves, parks, and peaks this year? Let our team know how you like to get active in these beautiful communities!