Santa Cruz is steeped in surf culture — and redwoods

Ride along on a steam train through the redwood forest

Roughly 6 miles from Santa Cruz, Roaring Camp features locomotive train rides through the redwood forest. Here's a look at a trip led by Sonora Shay No. 7, a steam train originally built for a lumber company in 1911.
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Roughly 6 miles from Santa Cruz, Roaring Camp features locomotive train rides through the redwood forest. Here's a look at a trip led by Sonora Shay No. 7, a steam train originally built for a lumber company in 1911.

As our century-old locomotive muscles up a steep hill, spewing clouds of stream into the redwood forest, our guide relays a staggering fact: During a logging boom that began in the late 19th century, 96 percent of all old-growth coastal redwoods were cut down.

And it was steam trains like the one hauling us that helped make that massive harvest possible.

I brought the family to Santa Cruz partly because I wanted to see how it stacked up against Huntington Beach, the other tourist favorite claiming to be “Surf City.” But the giant redwoods — and the locomotive designed to be a foe to the trees — stole the show.

Given Huntington Beach’s warmer water, surf culture and location in Southern California, it’s easy to see why that town claims the Surf City title (and in fact has the official “Surf City USA” trademark). But Santa Cruz has a worthy trump card: Surfing was introduced to the mainland in 1885, when three visiting Hawaiian princes paddled to the lineup — in Santa Cruz.

But, as I learned, their claim isn’t just about history. The place is steeped in surf culture, with numerous surf shops, a surfing museum and, of course, a bevy of classic surf spots.

As we arrived at the famous Steamer Lane — a surf break memorably depicted in Bruce Brown’s iconic “Endless Summer” — I practically ran to the edge of the cliff just above the break, which provided a front-row view of surfers dropping in on 10-foot waves.

Near the famous break, a bronze surfer statue — simply titled “To Honor Surfing” — stands tall, a 1930s longboard at the surfer’s back. Also within walking distance is the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, located in a historic lighthouse.

In Santa Cruz, the best surf spots draw spectators, as we also noticed at Pleasure Point, where a harmonica player provided a perfect summer soundtrack with his laid-back, bent-note style.

Even more famous than its surf breaks, however, is the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. It’s sometimes referred to as the Coney Island of the West, but that somehow undermines this amusement park by the sea.

Built in 1907, the Boardwalk features numerous rides, including the Giant Dipper roller coaster, which channel an era before the world wars. One of our favorites was a carousel delivered in 1911. In this day of apps and iPhones, it was charming to watch kids get excited as they tried to grab rings from a dispenser as the carousel revolved. The ornate horses on this carousel were carved by Charles I.D. Looff, who built his first carousel on Coney Island in 1875. Looff, a Danish woodcarver, built carousels across the country, including the one on the Santa Monica Pier.

During the summers, the Boardwalk offers a special treat — free concerts on the sand every Friday night. On the day we were there, roadies were setting up for a Blue Oyster Cult performance. But we were too tired to return so we had a quick bite at the anime-inspired Sushi Totoro, a hole in the wall wallpapered with photos of past patrons.

Our cabin was in nearby Ben Lomond, a town named by a Scotsman who wanted to channel his homeland. (From there, you can take the high road to the Loch Lomond Recreation Area.) The cabins at Jaye’s Timberland Resort are surrounded by redwoods so that if you sit on the balcony and look up, you find yourself staring up at some of the Earth’s tallest trees. As it turns out, this was great preparation for the next day’s activity. But first, we planned a quick stop in the town of Felton.

For nearly half a century there was one way to get in and out of Felton — through the covered bridge. Built in 1892, it’s believed to be the tallest covered bridge in the United States.

The late 19th century is also the era recreated in nearby Roaring Camp, roughly six miles from Santa Cruz. Mountain man Isaac Graham is credited for settling here in the 1830s, establishing a saw mill in 1842. Around that time Ephraim Shay was born in the Midwest. In the 1870s, his Shay locomotives would provide a more efficient way to transport logs. Sonora Shay #7 — the locomotive that led our tour — was employed by the West Side Lumber Co. more than a century ago.

But while much of the great redwoods were cut down, there are still plenty around Roaring Camp, and the Sonora Shay offers an excellent tour of them.

The one-hour trip begins in Roaring Camp’s old town, which features gold panning, a blacksmith and old railroad cars (A 1920s-era train here also offers longer trips to the beach.) Locomotives once used to haul giant trees pull multiple carloads of people through the redwood forest ($27 for adults, $20 for children 2-12), up Bear Mountain, as a guide offers various facts about the redwoods. Consider this one: Redwoods are nearly fire resistant due to a chemical in the bark that also gives them their color.

“These trees thrive after they burn,” says the enthusiastic guide. “Bring on the heat here.”

They also never stop growing, he said — unless, of course, they’re cut down.

When our short trip was over, I never did make a judgment on which place deserved the Surf City moniker. In fact, I’ll probably just call it a draw. But I’ll say this: If you drive six miles east of Huntington Beach, you probably won’t find a single redwood.

And when it comes to favorite California places, that carries more weight than the Sonora Shay.