COASTING ALONG: People (on foot or on two wheels) and pooches alike can enjoy the scenery up (or down) the California coast between Santa Cruz and Monterey.
Paul Schraub/Santa Cruz County Conference and Visitors Council

Just a short distance from popular tourist spots, the seaside stretch of California from Santa Cruz to Monterey gives those who wander it the feeling of urban wilderness.

With the delighted screams of roller-coaster riders echoing in my ears, I trace a crescent shape from the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk to Monterey’s Fisherman’s Wharf on the map in my hand. The beaches along this stretch of coast a short drive from the San Francisco, San Jose and Monterey airports had been among my favorite haunts as a child. I thought I knew it all well, as do many who have visited the hot spots of Monterey Bay.

But while the region may be popular with visitors, not many have immersed themselves in the natural coastline beyond spending a few hours at the shore. With 15 state parks, beaches and refuges, everything is accessible for day-trippers. The bluffs and dunes also provide a buffer for those in search of lingering solitude.

It’s this wild side of the bay that my husband and I are looking for on the map provided by Margaret Leonard, the owner of Slow Adventure self-guided walking tours, whose trip itineraries include lodging, most meals, luggage transfers and a loose schedule. All we have to do is walk the 40 miles from Santa Cruz to Monterey (although the itinerary is flexible enough that we could have opted for the reverse route).

Leaving the amusement-park chaos behind is easy. The four-day trek, while bookended by two popular tourist attractions that filled me with delight as a kid, is all about what I desire as an adult — a quiet place where daily sounds are limited to birdsong, the crash of waves, the hiss of the surf as it runs up the beach and the crunch of my footsteps in the sand.

We walk south of the boardwalk along sidewalks and old railroad tracks. In Pleasure Point, we linger along East Cliff Drive to watch surfers catch a morning session. Past the brightly painted houses of Capitola, California’s oldest seaside resort town, the stairway down to New Brighton State Beach allows me to shake the sounds of cars and the clatter of dishes in seaside restaurants. At low tide, the wide strip of sand near the water’s edge is easy to walk on, and the number of people dwindles to a handful of dog walkers and fishermen surveying their lines.