Where to Elope in Santa Cruz California
updated for 2021!
Why Santa Cruz County is a Great Place to Elope
California is a popular place to get away for an elopement, for good reason. Recently the most popular places to elope in California have been Big Sur and Yosemite. A quick look at instagram will tell you that couples and photographers have been flocking to those places like crazy. Now, I LOVE both those places, but Santa Cruz is a destination that boasts incredible scenery, easy access, and fewer crowds if you know where to go.
Lucky for you, I am a local Santa Cruz elopement photographer, so I know a ton about the area and stay updated on things like permit requirements and area closures. I have seen a fair bit of inaccurate information online about eloping in Santa Cruz from some other photographers. So let’s dig into some ideas and information about where and how to elope in Santa Cruz, California!
Santa Cruz county is sandwiched between a dramatic coastline and some stunning coastal mountains. Many people think of the famous Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk when they think of this area, but it is so much more than that! Our county has lush redwood forests with old growth trees (1,000-2,000 years old!) and beaches framed by dramatic cliffs. Santa Cruz itself is a funky little college town, famous for it’s progressive and artistic culture. It’s a little grittier than some of the polished coastal towns north and south of it that attract fancier crowds.
Santa Cruz is located south of the San Francisco Bay Area within 1-2 hours of all the major airports. The town has all the amenities you could need, yet it still feels like a secluded vacation-land once you leave the bustle of the San Francisco Bay Area. Another cool thing about Santa Cruz? We are located on a sunbelt in the Monterey Bay, meaning we get way more sunshine than the rest of the famously foggy coastline of Northern California.
I offer elopement experiences for couples looking to elope somewhere gorgeous in the outdoors. Wherever we go during your elopement, it is my priority to make it feel meaningful. Sure, we are going to take lots of fun portraits, but I also believe that your wedding isn’t a photo shoot. It’s about creating real, meaningful and fun memories. Let’s go for an adventure.
- When to Elope in Santa Cruz
- The Basics for Planning your Elopement Location
- Where to Elope in Santa Cruz
- How to Elope
- Vendor Recommendations
- Lodging Options
- Why Elope with Melissa
When to Elope in Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz has a mild climate that makes it fun to visit most of the year. Our driest, warmest weather is between mid May and mid October. Our coldest weather with a higher likelihood of rain is typically mid November-March.
Santa Cruz proper has mild weather with a relatively narrow temperature swing. According to USClimatedata.com, the average temperatures stay in the range 41-75F throughout the year. It is pretty incredible that the average high in late summer is 76F and the average high in January is only 63F! The weather up in the Santa Cruz mountains tends to get 10-15 degrees warmer than the coast May-early October, making it perfect for river dips and seeking shade in the redwoods!
If your main objective is to avoid rain at all costs, plan to elope here anytime between late May and early October.
Day of the Week Matters
The best time to elope in Santa Cruz is on a Monday-Thursday. Read on to find out why!
Santa Cruz is a destination for Bay Area residents as well as tourists from farther away. Weekends in warmer months are impacted by beach-goer traffic and crowds visiting the popular areas of Santa Cruz county. The best way to avoid the crowds is to elope on a Monday-Thursday.
Eloping on a Monday-Thursday date will make it more likely to book your top picks for vendors and locations. Wedding vendors and venues often book up far in advance for weekend dates (one year or more), usually for larger “classic” weddings. Many vendors choose to reserve weekend dates for those larger weddings, since they rely on a certain number of bigger weddings annually to make ends meet. This applies to photographers, videographers, planners, venues, florists, hair & makeup artists, and officiants.
The Basics for Planning your Ceremony Location in Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz County offers a variety of public and private lands as options for elopement ceremonies. We have incredible coastal and forest environments on State Park land, Land Trusts and National Monument land. There are also some really great private land options located in beautiful, natural settings.
About Private Land in Santa Cruz
Private venues (lodges, wedding venues, restaurants, undeveloped privately owned land etc) can be a great choice for elopements in Santa Cruz. You can find options nestled in stunning redwood groves or along coastal bluffs. There are also some special venues that have historic charm.
Benefits of holding an elopement ceremony on private land:
- Guaranteed privacy
- Generally easy to access, especially if you have a few guests or a pet attending
- Many private options offer a place to get ready onsite
- No need to worry about permit applications or park closures
- Fewer restrictions on things like group size
About Public Lands in Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz County has some incredibly special public lands, including the very first California State Park. We have a lot of protected redwoods forest land with ancient old growth redwoods, rivaled only by the giants way up north (several hours north of San Francisco). Our coast is dramatically gorgeous, yet lesser known than the more crowded tourist destinations in California.
Benefits of holding an elopement ceremony on public land:
- Certain locations offer couples an adventurous experience built into the process of getting to the chosen ceremony spot
- It is either free or relatively inexpensive to elope on public land
- Eloping in the wilderness or an undeveloped natural location can emphasize the feelings of spontaneity and connection with nature that many couples associate with the spirit of eloping
Outdoor Ethics for Public Lands
If you hold your ceremony on public lands (or any fragile outdoor environment), please do so responsibly to preserve the environment around you. “Leave No Trace” principles are very important to me as an elopement photographer and avid outdoor adventurer. Please do your part to keep this place stunning and accessible!
Here are a few ways to minimize impact on the environment: pack out your trash (including fallen petals from a bouquet), stay on durable surfaces (like hard-packed clearings, trails, rocks, sand and gravel), do not walk over plant life, and respect the other visitors around you. Please do not throw confetti, rice or something similar, even if it is labeled as “biodegradable”. Do not use sparklers or smoke bombs, as these can easily cause wildfires (a huge problem in California!). If you want to do a dramatic champagne spray for a celebratory photo, please use bubbly water instead for the photo and save the champagne for drinking so that you minimize impact on the local wildlife (the spilled champagne will attract wildlife and can habituate them to humans, among other things). These are just a few ways to respect and preserve the environment. For more, check out this guide to Leave No Trace principles.
Where to Elope in Santa Cruz, California
Below are just a few location ideas for your elopement! Couples who work with me get the privilege of learning even more about local options, including some really special hidden gems!
1. Henry Cowell State Park
Henry Cowell State Park is a redwood forest with old growth redwood trees in Felton, California. It is a 15 minute drive up scenic Highway 9 from Santa Cruz. Close to the main parking lot is the wondrous Redwood Loop, which is a relatively short and very easy trail circling tremendous old growth trees. The redwood trees there are easily 1000-2000 years old or more. Just beyond the midpoint of the loop is a junction with another trail, which is a designated, reservable spot for wedding ceremonies. Eloping here in Henry Cowell will allow you to have an easy but inspiring journey through some of the most famous redwoods in the Santa Cruz mountains!
Permits are required to elope at Henry Cowell. Contact Henry Cowell SP to find out more details about reserving the site for a wedding and obtaining a permit.
2. Coast Dairies State Park
All along the coast of northern Santa Cruz County are gorgeous beaches and bluffs that offer dramatic views. There are several beautiful spots within the Coast Dairies State Park that are perfect for elopements and tiny weddings. This land is undeveloped and rugged with lots of hidden gems if you know which dirt turnoff to pull out on and what path to follow. If you work with me, I’ll be able to share with you the best spots and take the burden of scouting and planning off of your shoulders.
A state park issued special event permit is required to elope within Coast Dairies. The park is managed by the neighboring Wilder Ranch State Park, so please contact them for more information. You will need to specify that you are applying for an elopement permit at Coast Dairies, since Wilder Ranch itself does not allow elopements. Wilder Ranch State Park Website
3. Sand Rock Farm
Sand Rock Farm is a Bed and Breakfast in a historic home and winery. It was the site of the first winery in Santa Cruz County, built in the late 1800s. The large property has winding paths under oaks and redwoods, delicate gardens and a really cool feature called the “Barrell Room”. The Barrell Room is an old concrete courtyard that used to store wine.
4. Sparrow Valley Retreat
Sparrow Valley Retreat is a new, intimate venue nestled in the redwoods on several acres in Aptos (just south of Santa Cruz and Capitola). A custom deck was built under a ring of redwoods to hold ceremonies for elopements and small weddings. This venue offers some lodging and camping options in addition to the use of the venue for the ceremony and reception!
Check the links below for the latest images of this venue.
HOW TO ELOPE
You can plan your elopement in SO many different ways. The great thing about eloping is the freedom to get married exactly the way you want to, and in the place you want to. When you elope, you are relieved of the pressure of performing certain traditions for the sake of family and friends. Eloping is intimate, relatively easy, and can be full of adventure or very straightforward and simple.
Legally Tying the Knot:
There are three ways to legally marry your partner in California:
- You may go to the county courthouse or city hall and have an official preside over your wedding
- You may hire an independent wedding officiant to preside over your marriage ceremony in the location of your choice (this could be a judge, justice, clergy member/religious leader, magistrate or “Marriage Commissioner”)
- Any individual over the age of 18 may legally preside over your ceremony if they take the steps to get ordained by a religious organization. I have been ordained by American Marriage Ministries and can legally sign as your officiant on your marriage license (but I generally encourage couples to think about hiring or bringing someone who can craft a meaningful ceremony in addition to signing!)
Some couples decide to legally marry each other at the county courthouse and then later exchange vows in a meaningful, symbolic ceremony in their dream location. This could make sense for couples who are traveling internationally for their elopement, or who prefer the simplicity of having fewer people present during their symbolic ceremony. This could also make sense for couples going deep into the backcountry for their elopement ceremony, such as on an overnight trek.
If you plan to hold your legal ceremony outside the county courthouse, I’d recommend hiring an independent officiant who can craft a beautiful, custom ceremony for you. They will take care of the paperwork and submit your marriage license back to the county clerk within a few days of your ceremony.
In order to be legally married you will need to secure a marriage license. There are different types of marriage licenses available depending on your state. In California, you can either get a Public Marriage License or a Confidential Marriage License.
A Public Marriage License is the most common type of marriage license. This license enables you to hold your official wedding ceremony outside the county where you applied for the license. It requires 1-2 witnesses and an officiant who is authorized to preside over a wedding. As your photographer, I am happy to sign as a witness.
A Confidential Marriage License does not require a witness in addition to an officiant. However, you must hold your wedding ceremony within the same county that you applied for the license. The difference between this license and a public license is that your records cannot be accessed by members of the public without permission.
SANTA CRUZ ELOPEMENT VENDOR RECOMMENDATIONS
Hair and Makeup
LODGING OPTIONS IN SANTA CRUZ COUNTY
Put simply, Dream Inn feels like the hotel version of a Beach Boys’ song. It is a seaside boutique hotel with a fresh, mid-century modern feel. Bright and colorful in design, you will feel like you’ve been transported back in time to a mid-century vacation dreamland. A luxurious pool is perched right above Cowell Beach. Cruiser bikes are available for rental, and the Santa Cruz Boardwalk is a short walk away. The best part? Each room has an ocean view!
Brookdale Lodge is located up in the Santa Cruz Mountains on Highway 9. This is a great option if you’re looking to elope in the redwoods around Henry Cowell or Big Basin state parks. The Brookdale Lodge has a famous history dating back to 1900. Many movie stars stayed here during Hollywood’s golden era. The most famous aspect of this lodge was the restaurant that featured a natural creek running through the middle of the dining room before turning south down the mountain. The main historic restaurant is currently being renovated and is promised to re-open soon, but there are other dining options! The lodge has a beer garden and a ’50s style diner with surprisingly excellent food.
West Cliff Inn
This beautiful historic Victorian inn is across the street from the ocean and a short walk away from the Boardwalk!
Sand Rock Farm
This Bed and Breakfast style inn is tucked away in a super peaceful, wooded area of Aptos. The historic building is gorgeously furnished and surrounded by paths winding through gardens and under trees. Sand Rock Farm is perfect for couples looking for a quiet, peaceful experience away from the bustle of the waterfront.
Bring warm layers, shoes you can comfortably walk with on steep trails, and a picnic! Stilettos are not ideal for most locations in Big Sur. Also consider bringing a small blue tooth speaker you can use if you want to have your first dance out in the wild or wherever you choose to elope.
Please do not bring confetti, rice, glitter or anything similar for tossing, even if it is labeled biodegradable. Unfortunately it is harmful to the environment and wildlife, stays put for a long time and leaves a big mess! Also, do not bring smoke bombs or sparklers. These can easily ignite wildfires! In order to keep nature pristine and accessible for future visitors, we need to be careful of how we impact the land on your elopement day.
Not really! Most of the county has at least some cell service. However, if you are planning to be in the woods or at a more remote beach, don’t count on having service. Be prepared before you leave a cell service or wifi area by plugging in your navigation before you leave.
While the Beach Boardwalk is the most famous attraction, there is a lot more to Santa Cruz county that you should consider experiencing! Explore the Davenport beaches, the Redwood Loop at Henry Cowell, and some of the many micro breweries! A great place to simultaneously witness the natural beauty and the local culture is to stroll along West Cliff Drive near the surf museum. Here you can watch the pros surf at the famous Steamer Lane.
There are many ways to make your elopement day feel special and memorable. Some things to consider: writing personalized vows, planning a first dance, having a musician present (maybe you’re the musician!), cutting and eating a cake, popping champagne, exchanging letters or gifts before your ceremony, going to a special restaurant for dinner afterward, having a catered picnic, and collecting items from your elopement to put into a time capsule (like dried or pressed flowers from your bouquet/boutonniere, or a sprig of redwood needles from the ground at your ceremony location). You could even plan to hop on a charter boat!
Please be sure to obtain the proper permits or permission for any location you choose for you ceremony. Respect the land by staying on trails and using durable surfaces for ceremonies (such as a pre–existing hard-packed clearing, rocks or sand). If you are in an area where certain places are roped off, do not cross beyond those boundaries. Usually this is in place to restore plant life from previous visitors, or to protect visitors from eroding cliffs. Pack out all your trash (including fallen petals and crumbs) and leave the area better than you found it. Please do not trespass onto private property bordering public areas. As mentioned earlier, please do not plan on tossing confetti, glitter, rice or using smoke bombs and sparklers. Thank you for caring about preserving nature and future accessibility to it!
WHY ELOPE WITH MELISSA?
I offer hands-on guidance around planning and manifesting your elopement day in addition to documenting it. In order to help couples plan their dream elopement day, I have spent years finding the most beautiful, inspiring locations for elopements in Santa Cruz County and Big Sur. Couples who work with me get even more access to ideas about where you can elope around Santa Cruz county, including up-to date information about permits and regulations. However, there is more to an elopement day than a beautiful location for stunning portraits. Couples who work with me get a photographer who brings the focus back to creating a memorable experience, not just pretty photos.
Reach out to me about photography if you’re considering an elopement in Santa Cruz, Big Sur, Tahoe or anywhere else in California. I would love to give you detailed information about my photography services and help you navigate your elopement adventure!
Not sold on Santa Cruz? Big Sur is another great destination. Check out my blog post about how and where to elope in Big Sur!