Santa Cruz Mountains

Destination North: River Rock: Howden Castle, which sits on the side of Highway 9 in the Santa Cruz Mountains, was built in 1927. Inspired by Scottish strongholds, the stone dwelling can be rented at the rate of $2,000 a week (left). Exceptional Character: Ciao Bella owner Tad Morgan leads Ben Lomond’s bawdiest performance (right). —Stuart Thornton


Approximately 50 to 60 miles depending on specific destination, or about an hour to an hour and a half by car.


Head north on Highway 1, turn right onto River Street in Santa Cruz, River Street becomes Highway 9.

Just outside of Santa Cruz, along snaking Route 9, lie the rustic communities of the Santa Cruz Mountains. At first glance, they might look like any small town in the United States, with the two-lane highway doubling as their main street. But while listening to the low wail of a passing train from the Roaring Camp Railroad and glancing up at the coast redwoods that scrape the sky like giant green pipe cleaners, one gets the sense that this place is just a little bit different from other areas. The unique attractions, including the Bigfoot Discovery Museum and the rumored-to-be-haunted Brookdale Lodge, only confirm it.



Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, six miles up Highway 9 from Santa Cruz, Felton. 335-7077. $6/day use per vehicle.> With an impressive gash of a canyon formed by the San Lorenzo River and a forest of redwoods rocketing to incredible heights, the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is a great place for people who enjoy the outdoors.

Just six miles from Santa Cruz, it features 20 miles of hiking trails.

One trail that should please both experienced hikers and folks that don’t get to the outdoors too often is the easy .8-mile Redwood Loop Trail. A flat path through some of the park’s most impressive redwood trees, this trail passes by a pair of giants stuck together like conjoined twins and the Fremont Tree, a hollow redwood where California pioneer John C. Fremont is said to have spent a night.


Bigfoot Discovery Museum, 5497 Highway 9, Felton. 335-4478. Donations appreciated. Call for hours. With a 10-foot wood carving of Bigfoot out front, it’s hard to miss the small, firehouse colored Bigfoot Discovery Museum. Curator Michael Rugg, who claims to have seen the large ape-like creature in Humboldt County as a child, opened the center in 2004 and mans the counter every day the museum’s doors are open. Visitors can talk big, hairy and blurry with Rugg,  view footage of the Patterson-Gimlin film, the oft-seen video of the beast striding through the woods, and peruse pop culture artifacts like a tabloid cover showing President Bill Clinton hailing a Bigfoot hooker. Special music like Tenacious D’s “Sasquatch” and Jonathan Richman’s “The Abominable Snowman in the Market” accompany the visit.>


>Brookdale Lodge, 11570 Highway 9, Brookdale. 338-6433. $59-$99/standard rooms; $99-$130/deluxe suites. Even if you don’t stay the evening at the Brookdale Lodge, the rambling compound is worth exploring. Opening its doors in 1900, the lodge became a popular destination in the early half of the century due in part to its unique dining room, which features a small stream running through it. During the Brookdale’s heyday, luminaries like President Herbert Hoover and Marilyn Monroe visited the establishment. >

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In the ‘40s and ‘50s, the lodge’s glory faded, and it became known as a hangout for criminal elements. Tragedy struck during this time when one of the owner’s daughters drowned in the creek winding through the restaurant. It is said that the ghost of the young girl still makes appearances.

Visitors should make sure to check out the “Mermaid Room,” a small room whose sole window looks into the bottom of the lodge’s pool.



Ciao Bella, 917 Highway 9, Ben Lomond. 336-9221. Entrees range from $9.95 to $20.95. Reservations are required. There are some great places to dine in the Santa Cruz Mountains, like the Italian eatery La Bruschetta and the Cowboy Bar & Grill, which serves creative comfort food. But none are as memorable as Ciao Bella in the town of Ben Lomond. >

Decorated with an explosion of records, photos and street signs, Ciao Bella is the brainchild of owner Tad Morgan, who is prone to slipping into platform shoes adorned with flames and a dyed, spiked mohawk that stands up on his head like a rooster’s comb.

While the restaurant serves Italian food (including a tasty Chicken Parmesan), Ciao Bella is known more for the racy performances that take place on the establishment’s small stage than its cuisine. Throughout the evening, Morgan, who dresses in drag, takes the stage every hour or so and lip synchs to bawdy numbers while swinging around poles. The restaurant’s wait staff frequently join in.


Manor Bed and Breakfast, 245 Fairview Ave., Ben Lomond. 336-3355. $159/room April 1-Nov. 1; $129-$139/Nov. 2-March 31. Located in Ben Lomond, a town known for its bustling biker bar called Henfling’s, the Fairview Manor Bed and Breakfast offers an oasis of normalcy in the eclectic Santa Cruz Mountains. The Fairview is a sprawling yellow home located under a canopy of evergreen trees that has five well-appointed rooms each with its own private bathroom. Overnight guests receive a full hot breakfast (which ranges from Grand Marnier French toast to vegetarian omelets) in the morning and a serving of wine and cheese in the afternoon. >

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