You’re ambling along on West Cliff, and you spot a small brick building with a lighthouse on top. You think it’s just that: a lighthouse.
But you know nothing in Santa Cruz is as it seems, so maybe you shouldn’t be too surprised when you walk closer and realize it’s a museum.
The Santa Cruz Surfing Museum opened in 1986, to pay tribute to the huge impact Santa Cruz has had on surf culture, and vice versa. From the primitive slabs of Santa Cruz redwoods used in the early days of surfing to the sleek striped boards from the 1960s and beyond, this museum documents every step of the journey surfers in Santa Cruz have taken so far.
The museum shows a newspaper article from 1885 telling of Hawaiian princes surfing off the coast of Santa Cruz — the first documented evidence of surfing in the mainland, meaning Santa Cruz may have been the first site of surfing in the continental U.S. (you can read more about the history of surfing in Santa Cruz here.)
Of course, that tradition started by foreigners has been deeply embraced by locals over the years, and the museum also documents the artistry put into making different types of boards, and how surfing culture always connects to the larger culture — particularly in the 1960s, when the anti-establishment counter-culture went mainstream and the idea of dropping out and moving to the beach was a fantasy of even the most straight-laced city dwellers. Pictures of surfing groups from different decades illustrate how much has changed for surfers, the transition from tiny swim trunks to wetsuits being just one example.
You can also see surfing’s role in popular culture in an exhibit about surfing in film, which commemorates such classics as The Endless Summer. But perhaps the most gnarly exhibit is the surfboard that survived a shark attack (though admittedly it isn’t exactly functional).
While those who surf themselves will likely feel a special connection to the museum, its highly informative exhibits and friendly staff make for an inviting atmosphere even for those who prefer to just dip their toes in the freezing Santa Cruz ocean, and anyone interested in popular culture in general will find something to take an interest in. There are enough amusing pictures and flashy surfboards to keep kids entertained (not to mention a gift shop).
Admission is completely free, and it’s open Wednesday-Monday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. July 4th through Labor Day. The rest of the year, hours are Thursday-Monday, noon to 4 p.m. Head to the museum, then stick around outside to watch surfers keep up the Santa Cruz tradition that started over a hundred years ago.
Santa Cruz Surfing Museum
701 W Cliff Dr, Santa Cruz, CA 95060 (next to Steamer Lane)