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Top Ten Things for Families to do in Santa Cruz, CA

Santa Cruz featured Image

Photo Courtesy of BigStock/inacioluc

On the surface, Santa Cruz looks like a Beach Boys tune come to life. There’s a thriving surf culture, ample space designated for beach volleyball and sandcastle building, and an amusement park sits just feet from the ocean waves. Some might say that an endless summer is enjoyed in these parts. But Santa Cruz is more than a year around surfing safari. Creative, environmentally conscious, and filled with family fun, here’s our top 10 list of Santa Cruz area experiences for families to enjoy.

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10. Shop Downtown Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz Downtown

Photo by Flickr/Stanislav Sedov

Find unique gifts and souvenirs that are authentically Santa Cruz in the shops on and around 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. You’ll see plenty of tie dye while you’re in town; it’s a favorite free-spirited fashion statement in this beach community. Your family can make their own at A Brighter World. While those creative juices are flowing, stop by the Glow Candle Lounge to create gifts and personalized items. Perhaps you’re in the market for a magic spell? Serpent’s Kiss is a great source for spells, witchcraft, spiritual gifts, and more.

9. Walk or Bike Along West Cliff Drive

Ride a bike in Santa Cruz

Photo by Flickr/ Don DeBold

There are plenty of incredible ocean views to admire on the scenic 3-mile walking and biking path stretching alongside West Cliff Drive. Watch surfers bob in the tide while waiting to catch a wave. 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 beach houses in the area and be awestruck by the wildlife. This path is wheelchair accessible and popular with both locals and tourists.

8. Catch the Sunset at Santa Cruz Harbor

Sunsets in Santa Cruz

Photo by Kristine Dworkin

By day the Santa Cruz Harbor teems with life. Fishing, whale watching, and eco-tour charters come and go. Beach goers enjoy the restaurants and retail shops between stretches of sun bathing, water play, and sand castle construction. Nature caps all of this great fun each night with a light show. Enjoy the explosion of orange and yellow hues over the Monterey Bay during a walk out to Walton Lighthouse. It’s a dog-friendly trek and the sunsets are extraordinary!

7. Explore the Santa Cruz Mountains

Redwoods of Santa Cruz

Photo by Flickr/Jarelyn de Guzman

Hike among giant redwood trees in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park or Big Basin Redwoods State Park. Ranging in age from 50 to nearly 1,000 years old, these majestic trees stand as much as 250 feet tall. Get a different perspective of them with Redwood Canopy Tour at Mt. Hermon. Take on six zip lines and traverse two sky bridges at heights of up to 150 feet during a two-hour guided eco-adventure. When you’re finished thrill seeking, investigate a strange gravitational anomaly in the mountains at the Mystery Spot. If taking to the trees is not your thing, then take to the rails! Roaring Camp and Big Trees Railroad has two routes to choose from. One heads to Santa Cruz, dropping passengers off at the Boardwalk, the other travels deeper into the mountains. If that’s not enough train lore for you, stop by the Covered Bridge Playground . It sits in the shadow of the covered wooden bridge that was once Felton’s only road link with Santa Cruz.

6. Be Enchanted by Capitola Village

Santa Cruz Capitola

Photo by Flickr/ Harold Litwiler

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. Today, diners fill classic establishments like Zelda’s On the Beach and other quaint restaurants along the Esplanade while shoppers hunt for treasures in boutiques like Capitola Seashells and Zen Island by the Sea. In the summer time, Capitola Beach fills with families and groups looking so soak up a few rays and play volleyball in front of the colorful and historic Capitola Venetian. The adjacent wharf is the finish line for the annual Wharf to Wharf Run, which starts in Santa Cruz.

5. Learn About Marine Life

Santa Cruz Science

Photo by VSCC/Mark Barnes

Take a deep dive into ocean research currently taking place in Santa Cruz with a visit to the Seymour Marine Discovery Center. Part of the University of California Santa Cruz, visitors get to see how marine scientists work and learn more about the role scientific research plays in understanding ocean conservation. Featuring state-of-the art exhibits and interactive displays, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center is set up to make the bay accessible and attainable 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; it eventually becomes an artificial reef!

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4. Enjoy the Best Beaches for Families

Santa Cruz Beaches

Photo by Flickr/Vadim Kurland

With 29 miles of coastline, finding a beach for playing in the surf or the sand is a pretty simple task. Natural Bridges State Beach, the seasonal home to migrating monarch butterflies, is a great spot to view shore birds, migrating whales, seals, and otters. Treasures like sea stars and shore crabs are revealed with the low tides. There are also tide pools to explore. Seabright State Beach, the long sandy stretch between the Boardwalk and the Santa Cruz Harbor, is a great place to watch the sunset. At Capitola Beach, the shops and little eateries on the Esplanade are just a short walk from the sand. My kids claim Pizza My Heart is the quickest and most delicious way to get fueled and back to beach combing. There’s a half sunken concrete freighter connected to the fishing pier at Seacliff State Beach. While the ship is off-limits, the pier is open and kids love running to the end of it to get a better look.

3. Walk the Santa Cruz Wharf

Santa Cruz Wharf

Photo by VSCC/Paul Schraub

California’s longest over the water public pier, the Santa Cruz Wharf has had shifting purposes during its more than 100 year history. Originally built to ship potatoes to San Francisco, it later became the base of the north Monterey Bay fishing industry. Today visitors dine at the numerous restaurants featuring the catch of the day and stunning ocean views. Beach themed gifts and décor, kites, and candy can be picked up at one of the wharf’s shops. You can book fishing trips, rent boats, and kayaks to get out on the water to catch your own dinner or get a glimpse of seals and sea lions under the pier. If you find yourself here on Sunday evening, you might even stumble across an outdoor dance party. Salsa by the Sea kicks off next to the Ideal Bar & Grill every Sunday. For you runners, this is the starting point for the annual Wharf-to-Wharf Run.

2. Take in Surfing Lore

Santa Cruz Surfing Lore

Photo by VSCC/Mark Barnes

Santa Cruz has long been synonymous with surfing. It’s a relationship dating back to1885 when three Hawaiian princes exported it to the city’s shores. Local legend Jack O’Neill gave sportsmen a boost by introducing the ultimate tool for battling the chilly Pacific waters —the wet suit. Bone up on the history of the sport by visiting the Surfing Museum. Perched above Steamer Lane, an internationally renowned surfing hotspot, it’s full of photos, surfboards, and other artifacts. While the area below it is best for experienced surfers, Cowell Beach is a great place to start if you’re new to the sport. For a real surfer’s vibe, head out to Pleasure Point one of the settings for the feature film Chasing Mavericks. (Download a self-guided tour map for points of interest from the movie.)  No matter where you choose to hang, know that you’re visiting a designated world surfing reserve, one of only four in the world. The others are Malibu, CA, Ericeira, Portugal, and Manly Beach in Australia.

1. Play at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

Santa Cruz Boardwalk

Photo by Kristine Dworkin

Almost everyone is familiar with the Drifters song, “Under the Boardwalk.” With the happy sound of the carousel, the taste of the hot dogs and the smell of the fries, you won’t be able to resist humming its melody as you stroll along the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Ride the Giant Dipper, the classic wooden rollercoaster that has been thrilling riders since 1924. Wander the walkways enjoying a variety of food on a stick or noshing on caramel apple chips. Know that the competition is fierce for winning giant stuffed animals in the carnival games. Toss brass rings grabbed while riding horse back on the antique Looff Carousel. Then head down to the sea and on a blanket with your baby; take in Bands on the Beach or an Outdoor Movie Night. Should you hear the smack of a volleyball just outside the Casino Arcade, there could be a match gearing up at the nets. Other competitive contests in the area include mini golf at Buccaneer Bay and hitting the lanes at Boardwalk Bowl.

Places to Eat 

Where to stay in Santa Cruz

Photo by Kristine Dworkin

There is a Santa Cruz eatery for just about any experience you desire. Grab an Avocado toast, Dad’s Meatloaf, or Fancy Pants Grilled Cheese among other made to order sandwiches at the Picnic Basket. Adjacent to the Municipal Wharf, the 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. Located where the Santa Cruz Harbor meets the beach, the Crow’s Nest has been around since 1969. No matter what time of day you visit, the views are amazing and the food is delicious! Celebrate a special occasion at Shadowbrook. Originally built as a summer home in the 1920’s, the log cabin atmosphere is quaint and charming. Whether you choose to 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.

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Places to Stay 

Chaminade Resort & Spa

Santa Cruz places to stay

Photo by VSCC/Chaminade

This beautiful mountain retreat offers sweeping views of the Monterey Bay and the Santa Cruz Mountains. Just five minutes from golf courses, the beach, and the downtown Santa Cruz, the Chaminade 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.

Dream Inn

Dream Inn Santa Cruz

Photo by Flickr/TJ DeGroat

Being Santa Cruz’s only beachfront hotel, there’s a lot to enjoy at the Dream Inn. Monterey Bay sunsets, surfing, and paddle boarding on Cowell Beach are all a short walk away as are the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and the Santa Cruz Wharf.

Seascape Resort

Santa Cruz

Photo by Flickr/Greg Balzer

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 (key appliances after beach play), sitting room, and patios that look out over the pristine resort grounds and the Monterey Bay just beyond it.

The Capitola Venetian

Capitola Hotel

Photo by: Flickr/ Dan DeBold

It’s the classic backdrop of many Capitola Beach photos. The colorful collection of buildings known as the Capitola Venetian is an all-suite boutique hotel that opens onto the beach on one side. It’s central location means that guests can walk to nearby restaurants on the Esplanade as well as the wharf.

Read reviews of kid friendly Santa Cruz lodging on Trekaroo.

Day Trips

Half Moon Bay

Santa Cruz day trips

Photo by Kristine Dworkin

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 of the city limits near unincorporated Pillar Point Harbor.

Año Nuevo State Park

Santa Cruz

Photo by Kristine Dworkin

Situated along scenic California Highway One, Año Nuevo State Park is an experience with wildlife that your kids won’t soon forget! Elephant seal breeding season begins in mid-December with the arrival of the first male seals. Weighing up to 2 ½ tons, they engage in fights to establish their 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 down into the areas for an up close (but safe) look at these mammoth animals that once neared extinction.

Moss Landing

Santa Cruz Sea Lions

Photo by Kristine Dworkin

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 whether you’re maneuvering a kayak or a passenger on the Elkhorn Slough Safari. Just imagine seeing a mama otter swimming through the water with her baby on her chest or birds sucking worms from the wet muck of the water line, all happening close enough that you feel part of the scene. The quaint little village of Moss Landing  boasts vibrant fishing and agricultural industries, and offers a rare opportunity to slow down, and take in the peaceful pace of small town living in harmony with nature.

Want more kid-friendly fun in California? Check out our top ten things for families to do in California!

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