It’s not inaccurate to say that the Westside of Santa Cruz is world famous for its surfing beaches. When Surfer Magazine named Santa Cruz its “Best Surf Town” in 2009, it also named the Westside’s Steamer Lane Santa Cruz’s best surf spot. The Westside is also where you’ll find the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum and where the O’Neill Coldwater Classic surf contest was once a yearly event. The allure of Westside surf is undeniable, but there are plenty of other reasons to choose the neighborhoods west of the San Lorenzo River to call home.
The Westside is where funky Santa Cruz dabbles in sophistication. It is here that a former brussel sprout factory at Swift and Ingalls Streets was reborn as a hip shopping and dining district. The Swift and Ingalls Courtyard is filled with a half-dozen wine tasting rooms, two breweries, eclectic and high-end retails shops and the Westside’s unofficial town hall, Kelly’s French Bakery, where open tables on weekend mornings are a rare commodity.
The Westside is home to West Cliff Drive, which wends 2.5 miles along the coast from downtown to Natural Bridges State Beach, affording breathtaking ocean views to surfers, hikers, picnickers and those fortunate enough to own a home with a West Cliff Drive address. Properties here fetch upwards of $1,000 per square foot and range in size from tiny pioneer cabins to grand estates, all sharing the same life-affirming views.
The Westside is a community of many personalities. It has a thriving commercial district on Mission Street, a vibrant student and faculty population in its boroughs bordering the University of California Santa Cruz as well as oddities like The Circles, a neighborhood of circular streets laid out in 1890 by the Christian Church of California. The Westside offers block after block of middle- and upper-middle-class single-family homes, a comingling of historic and contemporary, and modest to oversized, but all reflecting the ever-increasing desirability of beachside neighborhoods during the past 30 years.
Westside residents enjoy an abundance of natural riches and they make the most of them. The Westside is ground zero for Santa Cruz surf culture, but it also offers mountain biking in Wilder Ranch, hiking and biking at nearby Henry Cowell Redwoods Park, skateboarding and disc golf at Derby Park, nature walks along West Cliff Drive and, of course, days lying on the warm sand at any of the Westside’s world-class beaches. In West Santa Cruz, the challenge isn’t what to do, it’s how to find the time to do it all.
Of course, not all time is spent outdoors and the Westside has just as many options for fans of “the great indoors.” Besides the aforementioned shopping and dining districts on Mission Street and at the Swift and Ingalls Courtyards, there is the Seymour Marine Discovery Center, the Surf Museum and events at UC Santa Cruz. If that isn’t enough, the Beach Boardwalk and downtown, with its dining, shopping, live music, culture and sports arena, are within walking distance for most Westsiders.
In terms of the age-old, tongue-in-cheek “Eastside vs. Westside” Santa Cruz rivalry, the Westside is usually cast as the more buttoned-down, affluent community. While it’s true that the Westside has many newer, larger homes and numerous upscale neighborhoods, is home to UCSC and the highly regarded Pacific Collegiate School, don’t think for a moment that it has lost its connection with groovy, eccentric Santa Cruz. After all, this district grew up around counterculture surfers, utopian seminarians and loggers. Before that, West Santa Cruz was home to a lime works plant, whose product fueled the building boom in San Francisco during the Gold Rush. Today’s Westside may have its share of upscale amenities, jaw-dropping views and impressive homes, but it also has an organic brewery, surfers, skaters and the free-thinkers of UCSC. This is Santa Cruz, after all.
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History of West Santa Cruz
In 2014, when Claude “Duke” Horan passed at age 96, he took with him a piece of local lore. Horan was the man who, in 1936 (or 1937, it is not clear which), casually and almost inadvertently, named Santa Cruz’s most famous surf spot.
A student at San Jose State at the time, Horan wasn’t a member of the Santa Cruz Surf Club, which could explain his presence at what was then an unnamed, treacherous surf spot far north of the popular Cowell’s Beach. On this day, Horan and Wes Hammond sat on their boards, staring out at the ocean. Horan remarked that a large swell had waves breaking uncommonly far from shore, in the route steamboats used to enter and exit Santa Cruz Harbor. “Look outside,” Horan is reported to have said, “they’re breaking clean out in the steamer lane.”
Horan later moved to Hawaii and became a ceramics artist. Steamer Lane grew in popularity until it became legendary, not only for its challenging waves but also for its bone-chilling water temperature. Two decades later local surf shop owner, Jack O’Neill, invented the modern wetsuit to ward off the unbearable water temperatures, kick starting a business that eventually grew into a worldwide conglomerate. In addition to its icy waters, Steamer Lane’s challenging wave patterns was off-putting and not many surfers were willing to brave the spot for fear of losing their boards to the rocky shore. That risk was mitigated in the 1970s when O’Neill’s son, Pat, invented the modern surf leash.
In 1961, Surfer Magazine wrote that Steamer Lane featured “the coldest water available, giant bull kelp to bring your ride to a screaming halt, an occasional killer whale, a few sharks, and several miscellaneous forms of sea life to scare the pants off you.” In spite of these “amenities,” it is considered one of the best surf breaks in California and the signature surfing spot of Santa Cruz. Over the years, Steamer Lane produced scores of legendary surfers, has been the site of numerous pro surf contests and has appeared in more than forty surf movies and videos.