On the surface, Santa Cruz, CA, looks like a Beach Boys tune come to life. There’s a thriving surf culture, ample beach volleyball and sandcastle building space, and an amusement park just feet from the ocean waves.
But Santa Cruz is more than a year-round surfing safari. Creative, environmentally conscious, and filled with family-friendly fun, there are a lot of great things to do in Santa Cruz with kids.
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Fun Things to Do in Santa Cruz with Kids
Shop Downtown Santa Cruz
Shop for unique gifts and souvenirs that are authentically Santa Cruz on Pacific Avenue. Peruse the shelves at the Bookshop Santa Cruz, a large independent bookstore with a 50-year history. Nearby Comicopolis has the finest selection of comics available.
Creating your own souvenir is one of the most fun things to do in Santa Cruz with kids! Tie-dye is a favorite free-spirited fashion statement in this beach community. You can make your own at A Brighter World.
Perhaps you’re in the market for a magic spell? Serpent’s Kiss is a great source for spells, witchcraft, spiritual gifts, and more.
Looking for another great NorCal beach town to enjoy nearby? Check out this guide filled with things to do in Half Moon Bay.
Walk or Bike Along West Cliff Drive
Getting outdoors should be at the top of your list of things to do in Santa Cruz with kids. The scenic three-mile walking and biking path on West Cliff Drive has plenty of incredible ocean views to enjoy.
Watch surfers bob in the tide while waiting to catch a wave in Steamer Lane. Lose yourself in the soothing sounds of the ocean crashing against the shoreline and feel its mist on your face. Dream of living at the water’s edge while admiring the nearby beach houses. Be awestruck by the wildlife. This path is wheelchair accessible and popular with both locals and tourists.
Parts of West Cliff Drive were hit hard and collapsed during the epic storms that hit California in early 2023. Please be mindful of signs and barriers. The road is open to pedestrians and cyclists but partially closed to drivers.
Catch the Sunset at Santa Cruz Harbor
By day, the Santa Cruz Harbor teems with life. Fishing, whale watching, and eco-tour charters come and go. Beachgoers enjoy the restaurants and retail shops between sunbathing sessions, water play, and sandcastle construction.
Nature caps all this great fun each night with a light show. Enjoy the explosion of orange and yellow hues over Monterey Bay during a walk out to Walton Lighthouse. It’s not only one of the most beautiful things to do in Santa Cruz with kids; it’s dog-friendly too!
Get Out on Monterey Bay
One of the best things to do in Santa Cruz is get out on the Monterey Bay! The Santa Cruz Harbor is a popular departure point.
Whether you rent from Kayak Connection, hit up the SUP Shack, or set sail with O’Neill Yacht Charters or Chardonnay Sailing Charters, you’ve chosen one of the best ways to explore all Monterey Bay offers. It’s common to spot otters, seals, sea lions, pelicans, dolphins, whales, and other marine life.
Explore the Santa Cruz Mountains
One of the best ways to explore the Santa Cruz Mountains is to take to the rails! Roaring Camp and Big Trees Railroad has two routes to choose from. One heads into Santa Cruz, dropping passengers off at the Boardwalk, and the other travels deeper into the mountains.
An almost hidden gem sits in the park near Roaring Camp- the Felton Covered Bridge. Built in 1892, it was once the area’s only road link with Santa Cruz. It remained in use until the 1930s. Today, it’s an excellent place for kids to test the structure’s “echo factor.” Let me tell you, the acoustics are fantastic!
You never know what you may find in the small towns tucked in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Check out the Big Foot Discovery Museum in Felton to learn local history and see evidence, including film footage, of Big Foot sightings (that beast sure gets around!)
In Brookdale, there’s a lodge where a stream runs through the dining room. Once a mountain escape for Old Hollywood A-listers like James Dean (featured in a mural on the property), the Brookdale Lodge is rumored to be the most haunted site in all of California. About 49 spirits are refusing to check out. Paranormal experts have also discovered all kinds of portals and vortexes.
San Jose is just down the road. Read about the best things to do in San Jose with kids.
Stand or Soar Among Giants
You can hike among giant redwood trees in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. There’s a 40-acre redwood grove where the tallest tree in the park is 277 feet tall. Don’t miss the famous Fremont Tree, a hollowed-out tree you can enter!
This park also offers 4,650 acres for camping, picnicking, horseback riding, and swimming. Be sure to visit the Garden of Eden, a natural swimming area nestled in the forest along the San Lorenzo River.
California’s oldest state park sits in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Big Basin Redwoods State Park is recovering from a devastating wildfire that swept through the area in 2020. Small portions of Big Basin are open for partial day-use access and by reservation only. It’s a unique opportunity to see nature renew itself. Many of the scorched redwoods have sprouted buds at their bases and along their branches.
One of the most adrenaline-pumping things to do in Santa Cruz with kids is to zip through the redwoods! Redwood Canopy Tour at Mt. Hermon offers two-hour guided eco-adventures that include six zip lines and two sky bridges at heights of up to 150 feet.
Investigate a strange gravitational anomaly at the Mystery Spot. Located in the redwood forests just outside Santa Cruz, gravity and the law of physics don’t follow the rules at this beloved local attraction which has perplexed visitors for over 80 years.
Bright yellow Mystery Spot bumper stickers are a common sight around town. Is it an optical illusion or trickery? Take the 45-minute tour and decide for yourself!
Be Enchanted by Capitola Village
California’s oldest seaside town is just a short drive from downtown Santa Cruz. Looking at the charming little village of Capitola, it’s hard to believe it was once a lumber port. If you want some verification, visit the Capitola Historical Museum for fun photos and artifacts from the town’s early days. You can even get a peek into a 1907 beach cottage.
Today, diners fill classic establishments like Zelda’s On the Beach and other quaint restaurants along the Esplanade in the village. During the summer, Capitola Beach fills with families and groups looking build sandcastles and soak up a few rays.
Many also play beach volleyball in the shadow of the historic and colorful Capitola Venetian. A noteworthy landmark, the Capitola Wharf, ordinarily the finish line for the annual Wharf to Wharf Run, which starts at the Santa Cruz Wharf, is currently in disrepair due to the epic winter storms earlier this year. Work to repair it will likely begin in the fall.
Want more kid-friendly fun in California? Check out the best things to do in California with kids!
Learn About Marine Life
Life revolves around marine life in Santa Cruz, and so do the next two things to do in Santa Cruz with kids. Take a deep dive into ocean research in Santa Cruz by visiting the Seymour Marine Discovery Center.
Part of the University of California (UC Santa Cruz), visitors head here to see how marine scientists work. They also learn more about scientific research’s role in understanding ocean conservation.
Just a short walk from the Santa Cruz Wharf, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center features state-of-the-art exhibits and interactive displays that make the bay accessible to visitors. One exhibit that really resonated with my family illustrated the human effect on the ocean. You will be changed by seeing what happens to a bottle dropped into the water! Spoiler alert: it eventually becomes an artificial reef!
Visit the Arboretum and Botanical Gardens at UC Santa Cruz
One of the most surprising things to do in Santa Cruz with kids is to visit the 145-acre arboretum and botanical gardens at UC Santa Cruz. With so much coastal beauty and focus on beachside living, it’s easy to overlook places like this one. It would be a shame to miss it.
The arboretum and botanical gardens feature rare and unique plant species from around the world. In fact, many are not otherwise available for study in American botanical gardens and arboreta.
Taking a walk here can include a stroll through a eucalyptus grove and a butterfly garden. Along the way, you might spot all sorts of birdlife, including some spectacularly bright hummingbirds.
Rent an E-Bike
If trying out an eBike has been on your list, then one thing you should do in Santa Cruz is visit the Gazelle Experience Center. Gazelle has been making bikes for about 100 years. They are headquartered in the Netherlands, a country where a bike is a commuter vehicle, so you can rest assured that they know what they’re doing.
You can demo a bike or rent Gazelle bikes in increments of 2,3 and 4 hours. A four-hour segment will run you about $80 per bike. Gazelle even has customized routes riders can follow via the Ridespot app. The bikes are lightweight and easy to use. Technicians will fit you with the proper bike for your desired riding style.
Trekaroo Tip: A portion of the Santa Cruz Coastal Rail Trail walk/bike path winds past the Gazelle eBike Experience Center. The 1.2-mile stretch is phase one of a more extensive proposed Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail Network.
Enjoy the Best Santa Cruz Beaches for Families
With 29 miles of coastline, hitting the beach is the easiest thing to do in Santa Cruz with kids! Natural Bridges State Beach is the seasonal home to migrating monarch butterflies. It is also great for viewing whales, seals, and otters. Treasures like sea stars and shore crabs are revealed with the low tides.
For a prime spot to watch the sunset, head to Seabright State Beach. It’s the long sandy stretch between the Boardwalk and the Santa Cruz Harbor.
A half-sunken concrete freighter is visible from the shore at Seacliff State Beach. Until recently, it sat at the end of a long wooden fishing pier that allowed a better view of it. After it sustained severe damage during the epic storms last winter, the pier had to be removed. The ship, the USS Palo Alto, remains making for an unusual beach photo backdrop.
Touch history at Wilder Ranch State Park, a historic ranch along a rugged coastline with its own tide pools.
Walk the Santa Cruz Wharf
California’s longest over-the-water public pier, Santa Cruz Wharf, was originally built to ship potatoes to San Francisco. Today, visitors dine at numerous restaurants enjoying the catch of the day and stunning ocean views.
One fun thing to do in Santa Cruz with kids is to go shopping in the wharf’s kitschy shops. The colorful choices include beach-themed gifts and décor, kites, and candy. The famous saltwater taffy at Marini’s Candies is my family’s favorite. You can also book fishing trips and rent boats and kayaks.
Get out on the water to catch your own dinner or get a glimpse of seals and sea lions under the pier. If you visit on Sunday evening, you might even stumble across an outdoor dance party. Salsa by the Sea kicks off next to the Ideal Bar & Grill weekly. Noteworthy for you runners, this is the starting point for the annual Wharf-to-Wharf Run.
Headed north? Read about things to do in Santa Rosa with kids.
Get Acquainted with the Lost Boys
Decades before they were household names, Kiefer Sutherland and Corey Haim starred in a vampire film called, The Lost Boys. While this cult classic took place in the fictional town of Santa Carla, the beaches, boardwalks, and bridges of Santa Cruz were the scenery.
One of the most cinematic things to do in Santa Cruz with kids is to take a self-guided Lost Boys tour, taking in many of the movie locations, including the Pogonip Clubhouse, the Loof Carousel on the Beach Boardwalk, the Atlantis Fantasyworld Comic Shop and more.
The Santa Cruz County Film Commission developed a free downloadable map outlining where key scenes were filmed.
Trekaroo Tip: Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk kicks off its summer movies series with a free screening of The Lost Boys! The movie series is shown right on the sand in front of the amusement park.
Take in Surfing Lore
Santa Cruz has long been synonymous with surfing. It’s a relationship dating back to 1885 when three Hawaiian princes exported it to the city’s shores. Local legend Jack O’Neill then gave it a boost by introducing the wet suit, a great guard against chilly Pacific waters.
Bone up on the sport’s history at the Surfing Museum located at the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse. Perched above internationally renowned surfing hotspot Steamer Lane, it’s full of photos, surfboards, and other artifacts.
While the area waters teem with experienced surfers, Cowell Beach is also a great place to start if you’re new to the sport. The best way to learn is by booking a beginning surf lesson with pros that know how to get you hanging ten.
For a quintessential surfer’s vibe, head to Pleasure Point, one of the settings for the feature film Chasing Mavericks. Wherever you choose to hang ten, know you’re visiting a designated world-surfing reserve, one of only four. The others are Malibu, CA; Ericeira, Portugal; and Manly Beach, Australia.
Play at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
Surround yourself with endless summer vibes at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Picture this- cool ocean breeze, classic amusement park attractions, and a crazy variety of fried foods served on a stick! It is easily the most memorable of the things to do in Santa Cruz with kids.
Ride the Giant Dipper, the classic wooden rollercoaster that has been thrilling riders since 1924. Wander the walkways while noshing on caramel apple chips. Afterward, engage in competition for giant stuffed animals in the carnival games.
Toss brass rings grabbed while riding horseback on the antique Looff Carousel. Then head down to the sand for Bands on the Beach or an Outdoor Movie Night.
If you hear the smack of a volleyball just outside the Casino Arcade, a match could be gearing up at the nets. Other fun activities in the area include mini golf at Buccaneer Bay and Boardwalk Bowl.
Trekaroo Tip: Boardwalk Bowl offers Atomic Bowling on Thursday nights. Picture this groovy experience, black lights, glowing pins and alleys, and a light show all set to dance music!
Take a Hike
Hiking is one of the best things to do in Santa Cruz with kids! With a wide variety of terrain and stunning sights to choose from, you could wander the trails of this county endlessly! The Old Cove Landing Trail at Wilder Ranch State Park is a magnificent 7.5-mile coastal track known as a great place to spot dolphins, sales, and humpbacks.
There are 28 hiking trails that span 40 miles and 10,000 acres of nature in the forest of Nisene Marks State Park near Aptos Village. This park is also the home of the Twisted Grove, a group of trees with oddly configured trunks.
On the Sunset and Discovery Loop Trails at Quail Hollow Ranch, hikers will see oak riparian forests and endangered Western pond turtles. The Redwood Grove Loop at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is an excellent choice for hiking with small children. It’s shady, flat, and wheelchair accessible.
The Natural Bridges to Lighthouse Field Loop is an easy out-and-back trail with a bird’s eye view of the beach habitat and tide pools at Natural Bridges.
Castle Rock State Park has tons of easy hiking options, including Castle Rock Loop, a one-mile loop with sweeping views of the Monterey Bay from one of the highest ridges in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Get Your Daily Dose of Fruit
One of the most delicious things to do in Santa Cruz is pick your own fruit! Depending on the season, you can pick strawberries, olallieberries, boysenberries, and apples to take home. These include Gizdich Ranch, which is a fourth-generation family-owned and operated farm in Watsonville. It also has an onsite deli where you can purchase lunch after you work up an appetite from all that fruit picking.
You’re going to be thirsty after all that fruit picking! Luckily Martinelli’s Company Store is just a few minutes away! Take your family to taste their varied sparkling apple cider blends. Perhaps you’ll help settle a debate in my house about whether the superior flavor is apple-cranberry or apple-pomegranate!
Visit Mission Santa Cruz
Head to Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park to see the only original building left of the 12th California Mission. Founded by the Franciscans in 1791, Misión la Exaltacion de la Santa Cruz collapsed in 1857 after being damaged by several earthquakes. The lone remaining structure, a single-story abode, once housed the Mission’s California Indian residents. Today it houses exhibits that tell the story of the mission from the perspective of the Ohlone and Yokuts people.
Positioned atop Mission Hill, there’s a patio and gardens to relax in and excellent views of Santa Cruz to enjoy. After you visit the historic park, head over to the replica of the original Mission Santa Cruz to see a recreation of the mission. The two stops provide should take less than 30 minutes to visit, but they offer a free experience and an interesting look at some of Santa Cruz’s oldest history.
Enjoy Storytelling Using Art and History
Located in downtown Santa Cruz, the Museum of Art and History (MAH) intersects art, history, and the stories of Santa Cruz. This community gathering space combines contemporary art, mixed media, and performing arts with Santa Cruz County history to facilitate shared experiences and connections.
Peruse the Santa Cruz County History Gallery to discover some of the area’s unheard stories. Take to the rooftop and explore the museum’s outdoor sculpture garden while admiring the surrounding Santa Cruz vistas. Explore a rotation of exhibits magnifying cultural traditions and voices. Visit the Collaboratory, a reimagined gallery space for resource sharing and creative collaboration.
MAH also holds community events and hosts festivals celebrating digital, cultural, and performative art.
Attend Shakespeare Santa Cruz
See a Shakespeare production just as the playwright intended, in an open-air environment. A summertime favorite, Santa Cruz Shakespeare, is known to fill every seat in the outdoor theater under the trees in the Audrey Stanley Grove at DeLaveaga Park.
Children over six years old are welcome at any of the performances. There is an all-age matinee option for families with really young children.
You may also want to opt to be a “groundling.” This term, coined in Shakespeare’s time, referred to those who paid a penny to stand in front of the stage to watch the play. At Santa Cruz Shakespeare, groundings bring their own blanket to spread out in a specified area.
Where to Stay in Santa Cruz with Kids
Dream Inn Santa Cruz
Located on legendary Cowell Beach, the Dream Inn Santa Cruz is a short walk from the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and fine dining on the Santa Cruz Wharf. It’s also an excellent spot for setting out down West Cliff Drive to watch the surfers in Steamer Lane, check out the famous Surfing Statue, and wind up at the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum.
Guests can even access complimentary beach cruisers to explore the area on wheels if they prefer. The Dream Inn Santa Cruz is a great choice for a family getaway or a romantic weekend, featuring 165 retro-chic rooms, incredible ocean views, and access to an outdoor heated swimming pool and hot tub.
Chaminade Resort & Spa
Chaminade Resort & Spa is a beautiful mountain retreat offering sweeping views of the Monterey Bay and the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Just five minutes from golf courses, the beach, and downtown Santa Cruz, Chaminade Resort & Spa has an acclaimed spa, features yoga, and a patio with a koi pond. The resort’s lap pool is open year-round. Guests also enjoy walking the trails through the woods, which reveal gorgeous bay vistas.
Enjoy your own beach house with all of the amenities of a four-star accommodation at the Seascape Resort. Move the family into a condo with a full kitchen, washer, and dryer (essential appliances after beach play), sitting room, and patios that look beyond the pristine resort grounds and the Monterey Bay.
The Capitola Venetian Hotel
It’s the classic backdrop of many Capitola Beach photos. The colorful collection of buildings known as the Capitola Venetian Hotel is an all-suite boutique hotel that opens onto the beach on one side. Its central location means that guests can walk to nearby restaurants on the Esplanade as well as the wharf.
Where to Eat in Santa Cruz with Kids
There’s an eatery for just about any experience in Santa Cruz. Grab an avocado toast, Dad’s meatloaf, or Fancy Pants grilled cheese at Picnic Basket.
Adjacent to the wharf, Ideal Bar & Grill is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This popular spot may be known for its seafood, but even non-seafood lovers can find plenty to eat here.
The Jack O’Neill Lounge is a nod to the local legend who popularized using the wet suit in cold Pacific surfing waters. The restaurant is a nod to everything the man loved about the ocean. Every accent and every light fixture is a nod to the water outside the windows, which frame amazing views of the Santa Cruz Wharf and Cowell Beach.
The menu centers around regional ingredients, including fresh-caught seafood that meets the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch sustainability standards. Even the eggs and other seasonal produce are sourced from area farmers.
Take a road trip northeast! Here are the 10 best things to do in Sacramento with kids.
The Crow’s Nest has been around since 1969, located where the Santa Cruz Harbor meets the beach. No matter what time of day you visit, the views are amazing!
Celebrate a special occasion at Shadowbrook. Originally built as a summer home in the 1920s, the log cabin atmosphere is quaint and charming. Whether you follow the meandering garden path sloping into the restaurant’s entry or ride the tiny cable car, you’re in for an evening to remember.
Day Trips from Santa Cruz with Kids
Half Moon Bay
In Half Moon Bay, pumpkins are celebrated with an annual festival. In fact, pumpkin patch hopping is a thing for the whole month of October.
Located an hour north of Santa Cruz, legendary surfing spot Mavericks sits just outside the city limits near unincorporated Pillar Point Harbor.
Año Nuevo State Park
Situated along scenic California Highway One, Año Nuevo State Park is an experience with wildlife your kids won’t forget!
Elephant seal breeding season begins in mid-December with the arrival of the first male seals. Weighing up to 2 ½ tons, they fight to establish dominance. The winners, or alpha bulls, wind up doing much of the breeding.
Not long after, the more diminutive females, tilting the scales at 1,200 to 2,000 pounds, show up and form “harems” on the reserve’s beaches, where they will give birth to the pups.
For the first three months of each year, naturalist guides take tourists to the areas for an up-close (but safe) look at these mammoth animals that once neared extinction.
Home to one of California’s most wildlife-rich coastal wetlands, you’re almost guaranteed to see otters, seals, sea lions, wharf seals, shore birds, and much more while kayaking Elkhorn Slough. Imagine seeing a mama otter swimming through the water with her baby on her chest!
Read about all the best places to see sea otters in California.
The quaint little village of Moss Landing boasts vibrant fishing and agricultural industries. It also offers a rare opportunity to slow down and take in the peaceful pace of a small town living in harmony with nature.
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