What to Know About Living in the Santa Cruz Mountains

What to Know About Living in the Santa Cruz Mountains

Between the Pacific Ocean and San Jose, some mountains hold natural beauty and lots of well-priced homes. The location is just as ideal as the surroundings, sandwiched between a coastline and a global tech hub. Nearby, Santa Cruz is the county seat of Santa Cruz County.

Being a mountain range, it has the topography you’d expect, plus an element of privacy that can’t be bought closer to the major Silicon Valley cities. New residents are typically outdoorsy and choose this area for a reason. The trails, rolling hills, and viewpoints are in high supply. Thankfully, living in the Santa Cruz Mountains doesn’t mean breaking budgets either. Prices are far lower than in nearby neighborhoods, despite offering countless advantages.

We want to explain all of the key aspects of living in the Santa Cruz Mountains. If you’re thinking of moving into these gorgeous green hillsides, then the cost of living, job market, and best places to live are important to know.

One style of home found in the Santa Cruz Mountains - Photo via Canva

Where Are the Santa Cruz Mountains, CA?

The Santa Cruz Mountains run northwest to southeast, from below San Francisco to the Sierra Azul. It’s a massive area, with enough space to support communities, agriculture, and redwood forests. Three counties overlap the Santa Cruz Mountains: San Mateo, Santa Cruz, and Santa Clara Counties.

The San Jose downtown core is around 15 miles to the northeast of the Santa Cruz Mountains, as is the international airport. The Pacific Ocean is a shorter drive to the south, where local families can spend weekends in the sun. 

Your commute depends heavily on location. For example, depending on how close homes are to Central Avenue and Santa Cruz Highway, getting into San Jose communities might take a few minutes longer. Using these major routes, Mountain View, Cupertino, and Los Gatos are a few of the first cities you’ll encounter on the way out of the Santa Cruz Mountains. For homes that are more off the beaten path, direct drives might not be possible. 

Are the Santa Cruz Mountains Growing?

The population of the Santa Cruz Mountains is not clearly defined, as it is technically a mountain range, rather than a town or city. We only have rough estimates at the moment.

Some organizations place the total population at around 50,000, though it may be lower. The United States Census Data does not have tallies for the Santa Cruz Mountains, however, there are census data for nearby areas. Santa Cruz City reported 62,956 residents in the 2020 Decennial Census, up 5% from a decade before.  

Growth is projected across Silicon Valley, and if that trend continues, the Santa Cruz Mountains will also see a population boost. However, the terrain doesn’t lend itself to construction as well as flatter parts of the Bay Area, adding expense, and influencing development.

Important Things to Know About the Santa Cruz Mountains

From the Spanish colonial era to lumber camps, the Santa Cruz Mountains history is also the tale of Santa Cruz history. The timeline stretches back much further though. Small settlements in the Scotts Valley area were dated to 12,000 years old, and more recently, the Ohlones migrated to the area (roughly 8,000 years ago). Going even further back in time, the mountains themselves were formed by movements along the San Andreas Fault system.

The initial wave of non-natives arrived on the coast in 1769, as part of the Portola Expedition. This eventually led to a missionary system and Mission Santa Cruz being built in 1791. After the Mexican independence from Spain, the first Americans arrived in the 1840s. Mills that handled the lumber of the Santa Cruz Mountains still operate today, though far more frugally. Tanneries, limestone quarries, and wineries paved the way for more agriculture in the 1880s.  

Here are some other things to know about the Santa Cruz Mountains area:

  • The tallest peak in the Santa Cruz Mountains is Loma Prieta at roughly 3806 feet high.
  • The first vineyards in the area were planted in the 1870s by Paul Masson and Charles Lefranc.
  • The first commercial vineyard in California was also opened in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
  • The Santa Cruz Mountains have over 70 wineries and more than 100 small vineyards.
  • 10-12 million years ago, the entire range was underwater, which left behind incredible fossils.

The mountains are a paradise of recreation for some, who just stop by for day trips or camping. For residents, this lifestyle is year-round. Living in the Santa Cruz Mountains suits those who love the outdoors and seek the charm of nature. Also, the communities are more tight-knit and residents often share the same passion for the beautiful surroundings.

Santa Cruz Mountains - Photo via Canva

What is the Santa Cruz Mountains Cost of Living?

Again, there’s a problem with the data here. The Santa Cruz Mountains' cost of living is not available for the entire mountain range, nor is it likely to be calculated any time soon. Instead, we could look at Santa Cruz and draw reasonable comparisons. 

Remember that some of the costs may be less or more due to the unique living situation in the Santa Cruz Mountains. 

Santa Cruz, CA cost of living is 77% above the national average and 30% above California’s average. These percentages assume a $72,000 annual salary and a 2-bedroom apartment. The same ERI data points to below-average affordability for food, transportation, health, and housing.

Of course, you may be able to mitigate the cost of living by choosing a prime location for your lifestyle or a more efficient home. 

What’s the Santa Cruz Mountains Job Market Like?

In the Santa Cruz Mountains, the businesses aren’t all as outdoorsy as you’d expect. Yes, there are plenty of orchards, vineyards, ranches, and even pumpkin patches, but residents often work outside of these industries. 

Scotts Valley on the southern end is home to plenty of smaller tech companies. There are several business parks in the area, making semiconductors and software, among other things. It’s the same mix of industries further north near Forest Park and Brookdale, with slightly more construction companies.

Tourism also draws one million tourists to the beaches and boardwalk every year, bolstering the local economy.

Nearby in Santa Cruz and other neighboring cities, there are several major employers. For example, there’s Seagate, one of the largest computer hard drive makers on the planet. These major employers are mostly in the metropolitan areas around the Santa Cruz Mountains. As a result, many locals make the trip to San Francisco and San Jose, where job prospects multiply.

What’s the Santa Cruz Mountains Real Estate Market Like?

The Santa Cruz Mountains real estate market is not comparable to an area like Downtown San Jose. It’s hard to compare it to nearby Santa Cruz either, with a very different set of advantages and a coastal lifestyle. 

There’s a huge contrast between our June 2024 median listing prices for Santa Cruz ($1,399,000) and Santa Cruz Mountains ($632,000). This is due to plenty of empty lots ready for development, which drive the median price in the mountains downward. 

One example of a Santa Cruz Mountains home from Felton 

If you want to carve out your slice of forest and live above Silicon Valley, this area is perfect. Affordable fixer-uppers, rustic cabins, and older homes can last for a few hundred thousand. Lots are much less, with plenty of choice.

In the mountains, among the trees, homes are full of character. You’ll see lodge-like builds, and styles like cozy, yet modern, cabins. Closer to developed communities like Scotts Valley, the patches of suburban-style homes are more common. 

What Are the Best Places to Live in the Santa Cruz Mountains?

It’s tricky to compress the best places to live from an entire mountain range. You might choose to live out of the communities we’re about to highlight, but these are starting points. 

  • Scotts Valley 

As one of the closest communities to Santa Cruz, Scotts Valley has expanded to house many residents and businesses over the years. It has plenty of suburban-style homes to choose from, plus a selection of stores and services. Scotts Valley reaches from around the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park Campground to the Glenwood Open Space Preserve in the north. If you’re lucky enough to get property on the outskirts, lots are larger. Closer to central Scotts Valley, expect classic suburban sizes.

  • Felton

Around 5,000 residents live in Felton, a census-designated place directly west of Scotts Valley. Trails and trees cover more of Felton than residential space, which is not exactly a negative point to make. However, there are homes, and plenty of them, on the east side of Felton. The area is served by its small selection of shops and services, but Scotts Valley is there to supplement with more choices. Roaring Camp Railroad is a unique relic that still offers rides through the redwoods, to the top of Bear Mountain.

  • Boulder Creek

This lovely small community sits on either side of Central Avenue, conveniently at an intersection of other roadways. Boulder Creek is a rural community with a school, library, and plenty of stores to serve around 5,500 residents. Homes are often encircled by trees, with sprawling patios, garden spaces, and driveway space. This tight-knit, naturally beautiful community is just 40 40-minute drive from San Jose. Through the San Lorenzo Valley Museum or leftover architecture, Boulder Creek reminds us of logging and gold rush era boomtowns

  • Ben Lomond

Around 6,300 people call Ben Lomond home. If you’re curious about the name, it comes from a mountain to the west. The census-designated place is home to California’s oldest park and the largest continuous strand of coastal redwoods (at least, the largest south of San Francisco). Stroll among the ancient trees, over one of the historic covered wooden bridges, and then back to your one-of-a-kind mountain home.

If you have specific requirements for living in the Santa Cruz Mountains, our realtors can find suitable options

What is There to Do in the Santa Cruz Mountains?

Mountains offer outdoor activities - that’s already obvious to you. Anyone living in the Santa Cruz Mountains gets world-class walks, tiring treks, various viewpoints, and scenery to cycle. 

That’s only the start though. Here are some different categories of things to do in the Santa Cruz Mountains. 

Wines and vines:

The Santa Cruz Mountains have a rich history of wine-making, starting over 150 years ago. The industry grew to over 300 small growers and wineries, mostly serving Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay. Most of the people in the Bay Area take long trips to reach the wine producers on your doorstep in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Unique recreation:

We’ve already covered the classic stuff, but the Santa Cruz Mountains are also home to horse riding schools, outdoor laser tag, golf courses, and archery. A canopy tour through the redwoods is another activity you won’t find elsewhere.

Mountaintop cuisine:

Perhaps it won’t always be atop a peak, but the Santa Cruz Mountains have a fantastic spread of restaurants. Many of the eateries laid down roots long ago and still hang on to their rustic charm. Mexican and American food are dominant culinary forces all over the mountain range, but other cuisines like Italian and Japanese make appearances. 

Galleries and local art:

In the Santa Cruz Mountains, you’ll find everything from fine art centers to small galleries. Up and down Highway 9, locals can visit exhibitions in professional studios, privately-owned galleries, or museums for a more historical perspective. The mountain is also home to the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, giving a select few a month to stay on the 583-acre ranch.

Visit nearby attractions:

There are a few places that should be contenders for the top of your list. Whether you’re traveling through or settling down for good, give these some thought.

  • The Mystery Spot deserves a visit. This “gravitational anomaly” seems to flip your assumptions upside down through various demonstrations. Over a space of about 46 meters in diameter, humans and objects appear to have a slightly different relationship with gravity.
  • Harley Farms is the place to see farm animals, and then taste farmstead cheeses and small-batch honey. Their site playfully urges guests to look out for sleeping farm cats and “encourage them to get up and get back to work.” Aside from felines, you and your companions can also see donkeys, alpacas, and plenty of goats. 
  • The Santa Cruz Beach and Boardwalk are another obligatory stop for newcomers. Depending on how far into the Santa Cruz Mountains you’re living, the trip to the shore could be 20 minutes or over an hour - but it's worth it. Fantastic seafood, surf lessons, and sandy relaxation await. 

A view of the Santa Cruz beach - Photo via Canva

What is Near the Santa Cruz Mountains?

The Santa Cruz Mountains are a lengthy piece of land, but a few things remain true for most residents. No matter where you end up living, it usually takes about 20 minutes to reach the nearest Bay Area communities in the east, like Los Altos, Cupertino, or Saratoga. The mountains are covered in highways though, so the convenience of getting around varies.

To the west, the Santa Cruz Mountains are close to Santa Cruz, Half Moon Bay, and other coastal communities.

The northern tip of the Santa Cruz Mountains is around 15 miles from central San Francisco.

From that same point, known as Montara Mountain, it’s 35 miles to San Jose. From other spots in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the same journey could be 10 or 15 miles, showing the scale of this area.

Living in the Santa Cruz Mountains, CA

Will the winding roads of the Santa Cruz Mountains lead to your new home? If you’ve got more questions about liveability or specific communities, speak with a local real estate agent. 

The Jamison Team is your way to secure your dream Santa Cruz Mountains home, with a guarantee. In the unlikely situation where you fall out of love with your new property there, we’ll immediately sell it (or pay for the home with our funds). If you’d like to know more about the Buyer Satisfaction Guarantee, let’s talk about it.

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If you have more questions about what to expect from the markets around the Bay Area, don’t be afraid to reach out to us today. Our experts are experienced in all property types and the entire San Francisco Bay Area, and we can help you to find what you need to know today.

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