Santa Cruz Mountain Towns

Santa Cruz County, CA is most famous for its eponymous coastal city, Santa Cruz. Many people have also heard of the towns that sprawl down the shoreline along the Monterey Bay – Soquel, Aptos, Capitola, Rio Del Mar, and Watsonville, or the hamlet of Davenport that is accessed by Highway 1 to the north. But there’s another part of Santa Cruz County that is less well-known – the mountain towns.

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The Santa Cruz Mountains are part of California’s Pacific Coast Range. They’re a rugged range covered in picturesque coastal redwood, live oak, douglas fir, madrone, bay, and laurel trees. The logging industry began exploiting the area’s profitable forest resources in the mid-to-late 1800’s, and as a result, a handful of towns popped up along the ridge to support timber extraction. While several of these became ghost towns when the industry waned, others remained viable mountain communities whose remoteness – combined with their proximity to major cities such as San Jose and San Francisco – made them ideal hometowns for an eclectic collection of hippies, artists, back-to-the-landers, work-from-homers, and folks who didn’t mind a longer commute to Silicon Valley.

Somehow, after living in Santa Cruz for almost a year, I hadn’t made the drive up into the mountains until last week. Sure, I had traveled Highway 17 – the terrifying mountain pass road between Santa Cruz and San Jose that carries over 60,000 cars a day – but that hardly counts. I hadn’t yet gone to visit places like Felton, Ben Lomond, Brookdale, and Boulder Creek, and that clearly needed to change.

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It’s amazing how far you feel from Santa Cruz while wandering in these villages. Maybe the depth and darkness of the redwood forest transports you to another time and place, because the city of surfing, beaches, and the boardwalk seems to be a world away. The roads are windy and slow, and the towns have a distinctive mountain-town pace and vibe.

Each of these towns holds a smattering of buildings from the 1800’s – some very brightly painted – as well as a host of old bars and motels right out of the 1950’s. I stumbled into several murals, including one elaborate depiction of the San Lorenzo Valley log flume, a wooden-trestle construction that once carried redwood boards from these forests down to the Santa Cruz wharf for transportation.

There are more than a few cute-looking cafes and down-home style restaurants as well as antique and gift shops in each downtown too. But what struck me most was the preponderance of old signs. Random, I know, but they made an impression on me. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a high density of quirky old-school neon signs in such small communities. I loved them, and had a great time taking pictures of their various and sundry incarnations while cruising around.

I had read that Santa Cruz’s mountain towns provided good hideouts for people looking to be hidden, and, as such, harbored a fair amount of methamphetamine labs and users as well as pot farms and other quasi-legal operations. While I can’t attest to the truth of that statement, I can say that these communities are clearly serving as “base camps” for a proportionally similar homeless and transient population to the one we’ve got in downtown Santa Cruz. As I walked down Boulder Creek’s main street, I passed six or seven homeless folks with their pitbull companions seated on the curbs. And, at the same time, out of the corner of my eye, a Tesla pulled up with a fifty-something man behind the wheel. Yes, this contrast exists here too, I thought, recognizing once again the overwhelming gap between the haves and the have-nots that is on display throughout the state of California. Here it was in microcosm, in a former logging town five hundred feet above the coastline. One hundred and fifty years ago, that man would have been the head of a redwood mill; now he almost certainly works in a Cupertino tech firm. And those men looking for handouts in front of the grocery store might have once been itinerant loggers.

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Maybe times don’t really change all that much. Indeed, my attraction to all those old neon signs seems to suggest so.

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