The stretch of coast between Santa Cruz and Pacifica (known to locals as the Slow Coast) is packed with amazing views, charming small towns, and beautiful beaches, yet despite its proximity to San Francisco is much less crowded than Big Sur and other famous sections of California's dramatic coastline. The adjacent Santa Cruz Mountains also contain a number of fun diversions for outdoor lovers, allowing for the creation of a jam-packed day trip loop.


  • Visit peaceful Japanese gardens
  • Hike through the redwoods of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
  • Sip Santa Cruz Mountains wine in a 100-year-old redwood cabin
  • Admire some of the most beautiful views along the Slow Coast

Beginning and ending in San Francisco, the first stop along this route can be found in the charming South Bay suburb of Saratoga. We recommend taking the 280 freeway (50 miles, approximately 45 minutes) to admire the eastern foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains along the way. Upon arrival in Saratoga, you'll have earned a quick coffee break. Sue's Gallery and Cafe has outdoor seating and is known for its mochas and matcha lattes, served in pottery pieces that can be purchased at the gallery next door. From there, just up the road is the Hakone Estate and Gardens, one of the oldest Japanese gardens on this side of the Pacific. The park is worth a quick stop to stretch your legs and admire the beautiful buildings, pond and waterfall, Zen garden, and peaceful pathways along the hillside (admission is $10 for adults, $8 for kids 5 and older).

Looking for more day trip ideas? Check out kimkim's top 10 day trips in the Bay Area

Hakone Japanese Garden
Hakone Japanese Garden

After leaving Hakone, the fastest route to the next destination is to head southeast to Los Gatos via CA-9 to connect to CA-17. However, we recommend a more scenic option: following CA-9 in the other direction through the Santa Cruz Mountains. The first part of this route is narrow and winding, but after passing CA-136 which splits off to Big Basin State Park, the road becomes less difficult, passing through the small, artsy mountain towns of Boulder Creek, Ben Lomond, and finally Felton, with a number of redwood groves to admire along the way (28 miles, approximately 50 minutes).

Speaking of redwoods, just off CA-9 beyond Felton is the next stop, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. While this park is lesser-known than Big Basin, it also contains an extensive old-growth redwood forest that is easily accessible during a quick stopover. The mostly flat Redwood Grove Loop Trail is great for families and takes in some of the largest and oldest trees in the park. At less than a mile, it can be completed quickly even at a leisurely pace so you can get back on the road.

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park

Although on a warm day there are a number of hidden swimming holes to be found along the San Lorenzo River, it's time to head towards the coast, but there's one more stop en route. Returning to Felton, you'll head towards tiny Bonny Doon, where the Beauregard Vineyards Tasting Room and Winery awaits. This is a far cry from the wine tasting experiences of Napa and Sonoma, located in a nearly 100-year-old redwood cabin nestled in the woods (10 miles, approximately 20 minutes). Those not driving (and of age) can sample some local wines made from vines on nearby Ben Lomond Mountain and enjoy the adjacent creekside picnic area. The Late Harvest Zinfandel is our recommendation for those who enjoy dessert wines. 

Tasting Room (Credit: Beauregard Vineyards)
Tasting Room (Photo courtesy of Beauregard Vineyards)

Continuing through the woods for a few more minutes down Bonny Doon Rd. will finally bring you to the Slow Coast and Highway 1, where you'll start to head north back in the direction of San Francisco. Just after turning onto CA-1 is the easy-to-miss next destination near the small coastal town of Davenport, Shark Fin Cove. Although not visible from the highway, it is worth a stop to check out this hidden cove and admire the waves crashing dramatically around the shark fin-shaped island in the middle. A short trail leads down to the cove and its large sandy beach, but be careful: the path is steep and slippery.

By now, it's time for a late lunch. The Whale City Bakery has a diverse to-go menu (don't forget to grab a few of their homemade pastries for dessert). Take your food less than 5 minutes up the road and park along the side of the highway for a picnic on beautiful, large Scott Creek Beach. Take a break and enjoy the sound of the surf.

Alternatively, on a windy day, heading another few minutes north along the Slow Coast brings you to Greyhound Rock County Park. Although you can admire the scenery from above if you are running low on time, following a short trail down to the beach allows you to catch more views both north and south along this picturesque stretch of coast, and the park's location at the tip of a small point usually means that you can find a section of beach protected from the strong winds that are a trademark of the coast. The namesake rock itself can be reached at low tide for those inclined to climb to the top for even more dramatic views.

Continuing north, you'll pass Año Nuevo State Park (famous for its large population of elephant seals in the winter months) and the rugged Pigeon Point Lighthouse. A few miles further will bring you to Pescadero State Beach, which is a great place to explore tidepools and spot starfish, anemones, crabs, and more (16 miles, about 15 minutes). From here, detouring off of CA-1 a few minutes into the town of Pescadero itself, the quirky Downtown Local coffee shop is a great place to fuel up for the rest of your drive.

Pigeon Point Lighthouse
Pigeon Point Lighthouse

Returning to Highway 1 from Pescadero, follow the undulating road north past Half Moon Bay to Pillar Point Bluff (23 miles, about 30 minutes). A short hike up the bluff brings sweeping views over the Pacific and the famed Maverick's surf spot, where big-wave pros ride up to 60-foot waves in the winter months. A few minutes from the bluff is the historic Moss Beach Distillery which can be a great dinner option, with an outdoor patio heated by fire pits where you can watch the sunset over the Pacific.

From here, it's a relatively short drive before you are back to the city lights of San Francisco (23 miles, about 30 minutes).

View the detailed trip map here


Map of Santa Cruz Mountains and Slow Coast Day Trip
Map of Santa Cruz Mountains and Slow Coast Day Trip