Aptos is a census-designated community (CDC) and unincorporated town that reaches from the mountains to the sea. Within its borders there are opportunities to live almost any lifestyle you can imagine. In Aptos you can live off the grid in a shack built by itinerant loggers a century ago. You can set up shop in a 1960s beach cottage a few blocks from the sand. You can raise horses on acreage. You can look out of your living room and see the ocean.
Aptos is many things, but there is one thing it is not: urban. The locals like it this way. They understand that, should they tire of live blues at the Aptos Street Barbecue or a low-key French dinner at Cafe Sparrow, all of the big city sophistication they need is a short drive away, in Capitola or Santa Cruz.
Aptos is not Capitola or Santa Cruz; it’s quieter and moves more slowly. Instead of gift shops and Michelin star restaurants its tiny downtown is comprised of small-town businesses in repurposed 19th-century storefronts, historic buildings like the Bayview Hotel and modest shopping centers where your risk of getting run down by a school age child on a skateboard is much greater than that of being run down by a car. Aptos Village Park is the center of “the Village.” Its 10 shaded acres are a popular place for daily strolls, weekend picnics, weddings and every Memorial Day weekend, the Santa Cruz American Music Festival.
Yes, Aptos wears many hats and its residents enjoy a dizzying number of lifestyle options. Head east from the village and you’ll find sprawling equestrian centers, hillside homes and the natural glory of The Forst of Nisene Marks State Park, lush with second- and third-growth Redwood trees and over 30 miles of hiking trails. Head west and before long you’re descending into Rio Del Mar, an unincorporated beach town with an Aptos mailing address.
With all of this geographic diversity, it’s no surprise that outdoor recreational opportunities about in Aptos: surfing at Dolphin/Sumner Beach (known to locals as “Beer Can Beach”), hiking among the Redwoods, horseback riding, golf at the Seascape Golf Club, bicycling, running on the beach, exploring local parks or simply strolling along Aptos Creek. What this town may lack in bight lights/big city perks it more than makes up for with its small town and natural amenities. Nowhere else along the Central Coast will you find a spot that so effortlessly and with such abundance combines beach, small town and rural cultures.
There was a time when a place like this was not significant, when California’s coast was dotted with small, rural towns where housing came in all shapes and sizes, neighbors stopped to chat and horses routinely clopped their way through downtown. Most of those towns are gone now, lost to growth and changing priorities. Somehow, Aptos has continued on, absorbing its share of modernity, subdivision growth and wealthy newcomers but never sacrificing and ounce of its character. People come to Aptos for this, for the comfortable, slower-paced way of life, for the natural beauty and for the outdoor opportunities. In Aptos, there’s room for everything.
It’s fairly easy to imagine what Aptos must have been like in its early years because the town has retained so much of its original character. Historic buildings like the Bayview Hotel are treasured in Aptos, so much so that even when development comes to town, like in the form of a new mixed-use Aptos Village project, pains are taken to protect historic structures. In this case, the developers are moving and restoring the 1878 Hihn Apple Barn as part of their project.
After a long history of local native villages and a stint as the rancho granted to Rafael Castro in 1833, Aptos set out on its road to the present in 1850, the same year California became a state. That was when Castro, a cattle rancher, began leasing his land to Americans. In the years following, Aptos saw the construction if its first saw mill (1851), its first tannery (1853) and, by Castro himself, the first wharf (approximately 1852), which was 500-feet in length and was eventually purchased by sugar magnate Claus Spreckels, whose fleet of ships used it to offload sugar from Hawaii.
Spreckels, one of the wealthiest men of this time, eventually bought almost 3,000 acres of land in Aptos. On it, he built a grand summer home, a racetrack and the Aptos Hotel, plus an enclosure for deer hunting on the site of today’s Deer Park Center. A major Aptos booster, Spreckels was later a key player in bringing a railroad station to town.
Aptos’ first period of sustained growth came shortly after Spreckels’ arrival, when the harvesting of timber — redwood, specifically — became the town’s primary industry. Among those capitalizing on the boom was Frederick Hihn, founder of Capitola. Hihn joined others, notably the Loma Prieta Company, to eventually produce 140 million board feet of lumber during Aptos’ heyday as a mill town. During this time, Aptos grew to include “three hotels, 13 saloons, a deep sea pier, two railroad stations and five railroad spur lines,” according to the Aptos History Museum.
Aptos’ next boom would come, sadly, as an eventual result of the death of Claus Spreckels. Having excluded his sons from inheriting his land, which instead came under the control of a trust called the San Christina Investment Company, which struggled to manage the assets for a decade before selling all 2,400 acres — including whatever had been built on the land — to Fred and Phoebe Somers for $92 per acre. Somers financed the purchase by pre-selling 411 acres for $236 per acre. On June 15, 1924, a San Jose developer named Gingg began selling lots on former Spreckels/Somers land. That development, called Forest Glen, became the first Aptos subdivision.