santa cruz dispensaries cannabis travel guide (ZekaG/iStock)

The Ultimate Cannabis Traveler’s Guide to Santa Cruz

Published on July 26, 2018 · Last updated July 28, 2020

Santa Cruz is one of the best places in America to be high, and I’m not just saying that because I live here.

If you’re into cannabis, this counterculture haven just 90 minutes south of San Francisco boasts a long and laudable history. We are, after all, where pioneering cannabis breeders the Haze Brothers created Original Haze, Purple Haze, and a bunch of other game-changing weed strains back in the late 1960s.

When legal cannabis sales to all adults 21 or older with I.D. began Jan. 1 in California, Santa Cruz was one of the first cities and counties to embrace the will of voters under legalization Proposition 64.

Santa Cruz already draws hundred of thousands of tourists to its legendary surf breaks, boardwalk, redwoods, breweries and wineries. Now, more than a dozen retail outlets for cannabis put Santa Cruz over the top, making it an irresistible cannabis traveler’s paradise and a must-visit this summer.

So where should you go, and, just as importantly, what should you smoke? Well, when the New York Times wrote up their travel guide a few years ago, they managed to spend 36 hours in Santa Cruz without mentioning cannabis once. But don’t worry, we won’t leave you hanging like that.

We’ll leave you “hanging,” like the locals.

We present to you, the Ultimate Cannabis Traveler’s Guide to Santa Cruz. Featuring:

  • The Best Dispensaries
  • Best Local Products
  • S.C. Headshops
  • S.C. Cannabis History 101
  • Beaches
  • Surfing
  • Hiking
  • Disc Golf
  • Shopping
  • Good Eats
  • Wineries and Breweries
  • Nightlife
  • Travel Logistics

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Shop the Best of the West
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Santa Cruz’s Best Dispensaries

Let’s just go ahead and assume the first stop you want to make is at one of Santa Cruz’s finer dispensaries—to get plugged into the local cannabis scene and stock up for your coming adventures. You won’t find any weed shops downtown, at the boardwalk, or in other touristy areas, so you’ll have to make a special trip.

Here’s a few spots that are definitely worth the extra effort.

PRO TIP: Today, this community remains a place where cannabis is not just tolerated, it’s celebrated. Now, naturally, not everybody here smokes weed, but nobody will mind if you do, so long as you’re not driving, or standing in a crowded public space.

  • Santa Cruz Veteran’s Alliance

Santa Cruz Veteran’s Alliance is cannabis collective started by local veterans to “incorporate the attention to detail trained from the military with agricultural science to grow top quality cannabis.” Along the way, they’ve built a community of mutual support that creates its own medicine as a way to treat PTSD and other serious medical issues outside of pharmaceuticals.

Their compassion program provides free cannabis to vets in need, with the funding coming from retail sales to the public. Best part: They grow incredible cannabis at some of the most competitive prices in the state.

  • KindPeoples

With two locations in Santa Cruz, one on the East Side and the other in the centrally located Harvey West neighborhood, KindPeoples may be the biggest name in town when it comes to retail cannabis sales, but that doesn’t mean they overlook things like quality merchandise and customer service. In fact, that’s the winning combination that’s motivated locals to vote them Best Dispensary in Santa Cruz in alt-weekly paper Good Times every year since 2015.

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Order online (or through a dedicated app) to speed up the process and get right to the beach!

With a cannabis breeding and cultivation tradition unparalleled anywhere outside of the Emerald Triangle, Santa Cruz can hold its head high and get even higher when it comes to the quality of flowers and concentrates available locally. But you gotta know where to look. So if you believe that sourcing a rare heirloom strain like Chocolate Thai or a Cannabis Cup winning cut of Cracker Jack is worth a little extra drive, then head out to Aptos and pay a visit to Santa Cruz Mountain Naturals. Best of all, everything at the shop is certified “Clean Green,” so you can rest assured their suppliers use eco-friendly, organic techniques to grow their cannabis to the highest standards.

  • Treehouse

A recent addition to the Santa Cruz cannabis dispensary scene, Treehouse offers bright, open, inviting decor accented with beautiful woodwork, living bamboo plants and displays of locally made artwork. Their hands-on product displays invite customer interaction, so you can actually touch, smell and handle the merchandise while being escorted through the showroom by a knowledgeable staffer. Build your order on an iPad as you go, and then make your purchase at the check-out window for an efficient, fun shopping experience.

Find more great cannabis at:

Shop Santa Cruz’s Local Cannabis Products

Santa Cruz has a long, proud tradition of cannabis cultivation dating back to the underground days, and remains home to some of California’s most celebrated breeders and growers. Dispensaries in town also stock the best local edibles, concentrates and other infused products, so here’s a quick guide to taking a “when in Rome” approach to getting stoned in Santa Cruz.

  • Lemon Tree

This legendary local cannabis strain (from the fine folks at Lemon Tree Organics) smells and tastes just like a sweet, ripe Meyer lemon. Originally bred in the mountains outside of Santa Cruz, the seriously stony hybrid varietal’s incredible aroma/flavor combination helped it take home a first place trophy at the 2017 Santa Cruz Cup.

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  • 3 Bros Grow

Why smoke the same old tired strains you can get at home when you’re on vacation? Instead, check Santa Cruz’s local dispensary menus and try to source some of the unique varietals grown to perfection by 3 Bros Grow, who’ve been “locally famous” for awhile now, and just made a name for themselves statewide with a a second place win for best indica flowers at the Chalice competition.

Extra points if you can track down a few grams of Grease Monkey or Cherry Bomb.

  • Big Pete’s

A locally-owned family business, these purveyors of cannabis-infused cookies give back to the community by sponsoring beach clean-up days. Just know, you’ll get nothing fancy or “artisanal” from Big Pete’s, only delicious cookies in old-school flavors like Peanut Butter, Chocolate Chip and Cinnamon Sugar—all made with real cannabutter and precisely dosed to 5 or 10 mg of THC.

  • Utopia

If you’re seeking healthy options for cannabis-infused foods, Utopia’s all-natural, moist and chewy macaroons will satisfy your sweet tooth without putting you (too far) off your diet. Raw, vegan, gluten-free, paleo and kosher-friendly, these treats come infused with 10 mg of THC in flavors including Chocolate, Vanilla, Raspberry, and Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough.

  • Lifted

Made with dried fruits and nuts, Lifted’s bite-sized edibles taste like high-end hippie power bars and have won numerous awards at cannabis competitions. Go for their variety pack so you can sample Cherry Mango, Pineapple, Blueberry and other incredible flavors made from high quality ingredients.

Re-up at Santa Cruz Headshops

Now that you’re all stocked up on herb, how about some heady glass to help you enjoy it in high style? Fortunately, Pacific Avenue (the main drag downtown) boasts two top-shelf smokeshops conveniently located right across the street from each other. So check out the goods for sale at both Needful Things and Pipe Line before plunking down your hard earned pay on a pipe, a dab rig, or whatever other kind of herbal accessory your heart desires.

S.C. Cannabis History 101

While things may be far from perfect in paradise amid an escalating affordable housing crisis, it still remains among the most laid back of California beach towns. Also, arguably the stoniest.

The stunningly beautiful University of California campus houses the official Grateful Dead archives.

When voters passed statewide cannabis legalization in November 2016, Santa Cruz helped lead the way with over 70% approval. And that was far from our finest moment when it’s come to pushing back against prohibition.

In 2002, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) raided WAMM, a pioneering local medical cannabis collective focused on servicing the terminally ill. Facing serious charges following an armed assault by thirty government agents against their garden, WAMM stood its ground. Two weeks after the raid, with the Mayor by their side, and thousands of Santa Cruz residents marching in the streets in support, WAMM distributed medical cannabis to its members on the steps of City Hall. WAMM then successfully sued the Department of Justice with support from the City and County of Santa Cruz (and the ACLU), creating an important victory for the medical cannabis movement at a time when raids and arrests were commonplace.

Duckdive into West Coast Surf Culture
Duckdive into West Coast Surf Culture

Hit the Best Santa Cruz Beaches

Santa Cruz boasts an embarrassment of riches when it comes to its beaches, not just in terms of the aggregate length of coastline to be found in this relatively small county of 275,000 people, but in how different all those beaches are from one another.

  • Natural Bridges

Named for mudstone bridges that formed over a million years ago, when the Pacific Ocean eroded away cliffs that jutted out into the sea, Natural Bridges is now a 65-acre State Park where a series of tide pools provide comfortable homes to urchins, hermit crabs, and other tiny marine life.

From October through early February, a eucalyptus grove in the park (accessible via a hiking path) sees an influx of up to 150,000 migrating monarch butterflies. You’re definitely going to want to be at least a little high if you’re lucky enough to experience that.

  • It’s Beach

This is the best beach to visit with your dog, because it’s the only off-leash beach in the area (at least officially). But be warned: the locals call it “shit’s beach” for a reason.

  • The Boardwalk

The Santa Cruz Boardwalk dates back to 1907, and retains a fair bit of old-timey charm.

In addition to all the rides, games, schlocky souvenirs and deep fried foods you’d expect from an ocean-front amusement park, there’s also a long, flat stretch of beach that’s well-suited to swimming (a rarity in these parts), plus a lively volleyball scene, and, within easy walking distance, a 2,745-foot long pier full of shops and restaurants where you can book a whale watching trip or a sunset sailboat cruise.

Best place to eat nearby is The Picnic Basket, which is open from 7am to 9pm daily and features the kind of food you’d bring on a picnic if you were a bit more ambitious about getting the best local ingredients and transforming them into something simple but delicious.

For a chance to hang with some colorful locals, try the karaoke scene at Boardwalk Bowl, just a short walk from the boardwalk itself, where you can also roll a few games as long as it’s not league night, Smokey.

  • Twin Lakes

With convenient parking, sparse crowds and no giant cliff to climb down, Twin Lakes Beach stretches for over a mile and is one of the more accessible coastlines in the area. It’s also a great place to head out on a kayak or a stand up paddle board. And you can make a fire right on the beach.

When you’re done with all that surf and sand, walk over to The Crow’s Nest, a classic bar and grill with a gorgeous view of the ocean. Go for happy hour (Monday thru Friday 3:30—6:00pm) and satiate your munchies with half-off appetizers like Dungeness crab cakes, smoked salmon, clam chowder and calamari.

Learning to Surf in Santa Cruz

If you’re coming to Santa Cruz to surf, start by checking out this comprehensive guide compiled by local experts, which lists ideal breaks for beginners (Capitola Jetty), huge waves (Mavericks), ariels (30th and East Cliff), and long boards (Opal Cliff Drive). For absolute beginners, surf lessons are definitely recommended.

If you just want to hang out and take in the scene, head for Steamer Lane, where on the right day you can stand on a cliff next to the old lighthouse (which doubles as a Surf Museum) and watch top surfers crush some of the West Coast’s tastiest waves. At sunset, the sea air takes on a familiar herbal fragrance as people gather to play drums and/or dance to an old Grateful Dead show blaring out of someone’s VW Bus.

Pete Feurtado (proprietor of Big Pete’s cannabis-infused cookies) was born in Santa Cruz and has been surfing here since 1975. He’s particularly fond of a place called Waddell Creek but says the best thing about the local surf scene is “how many surf spots there are, offering lots of different types of waves.”

And oh yeah, if you just want to eat like a surfer, don’t miss Paula’s, a breakfast spot that’s famous among local wave riders for serving up hearty, delicious breakfast fare at some of the best prices in town.

If Forest Bathing Suits You

The natural beauty of Santa Cruz doesn’t end when you head inland. Within a short drive you can go forest bathing in a variety of different micro-climates.

  • Henry Cowell State Park

To walk among old growth redwood trees, you’ll have to head about 15 minutes outside of Santa Cruz, to Henry Cowell State Park in the lovely little town of Felton. The park offers hiking and horseback riding on more than 4,650 acres of forested and open land, including a well-trafficked 40-acre old growth grove. Right next to the park, Roaring Camp Railroads is a re-creation of an 1880s logging camp complete with a steam-engine train you can ride on a steep climb up to the top of Bear Mountain and back, or straight through town to get dropped off at the Boardwalk.

On the way out of Felton, stop for a cold beer at Monty’s Log Cabin, an unpretentious (to say the least) old roadside bar that draws bikers, horseback riders, tourists and grizzled longtime locals alike. Or find a discreet place to puff a jay and then head over to the mind-blowing Bigfoot Discovery Museum.

Special Mention: De Laveaga Disc Golf

If golf is “a good walk ruined,” disc golf at DeLaveaga (especially on weed) is a great hike enhanced. The world-renown course takes you through the wilderness, and ends on hole #27—“The Top of The World”—perhaps the most famous disc golf hole in the world due to it’s incredible ocean view.

Stroll Pacific Avenue

The main drag in Santa Cruz remains pretty “weird” even as the forces of normalcy encroach from all sides.

  • Bookshop Santa Cruz

A mainstay of downtown since 1966, this beautiful, independent bookshop will help you stock up on beach reads while mingling with literate locals.

  • Cafe Campesino

There’s lots of good (and not-so-good) restaurants on Pacific Avenue, but Cafe Campesino is actually “on” Pacific. Just place your order at a little street kiosk that’s putting out big, bold Mexican flavors, then find a table right on the sidewalk to enjoy your meal and watch Santa Cruz’s moveable feast stroll past.

  • Go Ask Alice

Calling itself your “one stop hippie shop,” Go Ask Alice sells a truly impressive collection of herbs, blends and tinctures—everything from mugwort to kratom.

  • Abbot Square

Over the last few years, the dynamic forces behind the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History have transformed a once forgotten public square (directly outside the museum) into “the creative and cultural hub of Santa Cruz County.” Abbot Square Market also boasts some of the best artisan bites in town, from wood fired pizza to poke, plus beer, wine and a fully stocked fancy cocktail bar.

The museum itself is also worth a visit, especially the permanent exhibit focused on local history.

  • Saturn Cafe

Santa Cruz shuts down pretty early, but you can always get some righteous munchies at this 24-hour vegetarian diner, with plenty of vegan options and a fun retro vibe.

  • Verve Coffee Roasters

The best coffee in town comes from a small local shop with a national reputation for quality. So why give your money to a big chain when you can support local brewing while choosing from a wide variety of sustainably grown fair trade coffees from around the world?

  • Penny Ice Creamery

Okay, it’s technically not on Pacific Avenue, but Penny Ice Creamery is worth walking a couple of extra blocks. They work with dozens of local farmers, foragers and food artisans to create unique flavors 100% in-house, from the tried-and-true (strawberry) to the more esoteric (Candy Cap mushroom).  Rest assured, you won’t be the only one there with red eyes and a huge grin.

Crossfading at Breweries + Wineries

First, a note of caution: Mixing cannabis and alcohol should be done in moderation, and only by those with a strong affinity for both intoxicants—an approach that fits in with Santa Cruz culture anyway, since it’s a place dedicated to chilling, not “raging.”

That said, the West Side of town offers the best opportunities for conscious crossfading, as there’s a cluster of breweries and wineries with tasting rooms. Starting with Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing, an award winning, certified organic brew-pub with plenty of outdoor seating and a friendly vibe. Within easy walking distance, you can also check out Humble Sea, a new addition to the suds scene, or sample local vintages from a variety of wineries (Silver Mountain Winery, Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, Quinta Cruz, Sones Cellars, Vino Tabi, and MJA Vineyards). The best food options nearby are Kelly’s French Bakery, or—if you’re looking for something a bit upscale—try the wood fired pizzas and seasonal dishes at Bantam.

On the East side of town, check out Discretion Brewing, which also has great food in an elegant tasting room setting. Or head to the Harvey West neighborhood (home to several dispensaries) to indulge your inner wook at Shanty Shack, a hangout for the local cannabis industry that pairs home-brew style beers with the best local food trucks in a seriously informal setting.

Love the Nightlife

For a sleepy (okay, “lidded”) small town, Santa Cruz has some hoppin’ nightlife. The best way to get plugged in is by picking up a copy of Good Times, the local weekly alt-rag, and checking out the concert and event listings in back. In the meantime, here’s a few good spots for stepping out on the town.

  • The Catalyst

Located right in the middle of Pacific Avenue, The Catalyst has been drawing national touring acts to Santa Cruz since the 1970s. The main hall fits 800 and you can sometime catch up-and-coming acts in the smaller room for a very reasonable cover.

  • Moe’s Alley

Moe’s Alley consistently books great bands with an emphasis on jazz, blues, reggae, and musical traditions from around the world. The venue is intimate, the crowd is lit, and there’s a little courtyard in back where you can take in some “fresh air” during set breaks.

  • Motiv

Thump, thump, thump, thump….  Motiv is where Santa Cruz drops the beat.

Santa Cruz Travel Logistics

Getting There

Getting To Santa Cuz

Santa Cruz is a convenient day trip (or overnight) from the San Francisco Bay Area, and a perfect little pit-stop for anyone driving the legendary Route 1 that runs along the California coast.

—From San Francisco

If you’re heading to Santa Cruz from San Francisco, Route 1 is not the fastest route, but it’s among the most scenic stretches of road in the country and well worth the added time. Points of interest on your way south include a plethora of beaches, an entry point for Big Basin State Park, and Swanton Berry Farm, an organic, proudly union-powered charming rustic farmstead and u-pick.

—From the South

If you’re heading north from Los Angeles, Santa Cruz can be reached in less than six hours, making it a perfect place to stop for the night. Again, Route 1 is not the fastest route, but it will take you through the stunning beauty of Big Sur and right into the charming seaside city of Monterey, home of one of the world’s best aquariums.

From there, drive another 25-minutes up the coast to Moss Landing, where you simply must stop for a bowl of the award-winning Cioppino at Phil’s Fish Market, which has live bluegrass music most nights.

Times to Visit

August is the peak summer travel season, but the fall offers both good weather and less crowds. Winters are mild enough for monarch butterflies to overwinter.

Santa Cruz Travel Costs

Budget about $100 per day in Santa Cruz. That includes $33 for food and an average room rental of $94 per night.

Ready to send it like a local? Tell us how we did in the comments!

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David Bienenstock
David Bienenstock
Veteran cannabis journalist David Bienenstock is the author of "How to Smoke Pot (Properly): A Highbrow Guide to Getting High" (2016 - Penguin/Random House), and the co-host and co-creator of the podcast "Great Moments in Weed History with Abdullah and Bean." Follow him on Twitter @pot_handbook.
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