West Cliff Drive

Santa Cruz loves its West Cliff Drive, and with good reason.

Editor’s Note: In the first weeks of January 2023, a parade of atmospheric rivers and bomb cyclones generated waves reaching 30 feet that pulverized West Cliff Drive, dragging chunks of roadway into the ocean. As of March 2024, the road remains closed to automobiles between Columbia Street and Almar Avenue.

In late February, the City of Santa Cruz released the first draft of its 50-year Community Vision For West Cliff. According to City Manager Matt Huffaker, the plan calls for separate pedestrian and bicycle lanes, as well as one-way vehicle control.

The plan, Huffaker writes, “is not about preserving West Cliff as it exists today, but rather creating a resilient and accessible space that can withstand the impacts of climate change while continuing to serve as a vital hub for our community.”

Watch this space for more; meanwhile enjoy this video and guide to what is still a crown jewel of the West Coast.

Video by Michael Horn
Photos by Michael Roberts

A 2.5-mile bike and pedestrian path skirting the cliffs above the sea, West Cliff extends from the wharf at one end to Natural Bridges State Beach at the other, offering spectacular views of the Boardwalk, the city of Santa Cruz, the world-famous surf break Steamer Lane, the coastline of the entire Monterey Bay and the mountaintops of Big Sur 50 miles south.

Other popular destinations along West Cliff Drive include Cowells surf break (perfect for beginners and SUP); Cowell Beach (in front of the Dream Inn); the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum (in the lighthouse overlooking Steamer Lane); Its Beach (the dog-friendly beach next to the lighthouse; Mitchell Cove (another dog-friendly beach, near the intersection of West Cliff Drive and Almar); and any place you can find a spot to settle in and watch the sunset. The Mobile Ranger tour app does a great job of explaining the geography of the coastline and the history of many cultural markers visible from the trail, including the "toilet bowls" and a wave motor.
Read Ten Tips for Happy Tidepooling

West Cliff Drive is an amazing place for viewing wildlife. It just does not disappoint. Platoons of brown pelicans, whiskered sea otters and sea lions are standard sights; lucky viewers will catch dolphins playing in the surf as well as gray whales and humpbacks passing through on their long migrations—and sometimes coming in close to feed and giving onlookers a thrill in the process. No wonder it’s Santa Cruz’s favorite place to pedal or stroll the hours away.

Natural Bridges State Beach