Santa Cruz: 17 Uniquely Californian Things to Do

Santa Cruz does an excellent job of hiding all its wonderful nooks and crannies. Highway 17 is basically a chute that deposits people coming into town from Highway 17 into the Boardwalk parking lot. It’s no wonder most people who come to Santa Cruz typically end up at the Boardwalk and maybe walking off their aching fried food belly on West Cliff.  However, there are so many awesome things to do in Santa Cruz that are well worth checking out when you’ve had your fill of rollercoasters and funnel cake. 

17 Things to Do in Santa Cruz When You’ve Made it Over Highway 17

1.Ride A Train Through the Redwoods: Roaring Camp in Felton is open year round and has a couple different train riding options. In the summer months you can take the train down to the Boarwalk and spend a few hours before returning to Felton. Another option is to take the train up to Bear Mountain. The train moves excruciatingly slow, I think it might actually be faster to walk up the mountain, but sometimes they will have special events at the top of the mountain such as an Easter Egg Hunt or a visit with Santa. Cost: varies depending on which route/age of passenger.

old train going through the redwood trees with passengers
Learn about redwood trees and local history while riding a train through the forest
steam train parked in front of a water tower
Go back in time at Roaring Camp in Felton

2. Pet a Shark at the Seymour Center: You can easily see all the exhibits in this compact aquarium in an hour but there are also tours offered throughout the day to get a more in depth look at the workings of the marine center. Children will be thrilled to get the chance to pet the nurse shark and parents will appreciate the beautiful views from the bluffs outside. Cost: Adults $8 Children ages 3+ $6.

large elephant seal statue in front of the seymour center aquarium in santa cruz california.
Small and hassle free, the Seymour Center is a great option for young children

3.Take A Hike in Henry Cowell: There are plenty of hiking options for all ages at this popular state park. When you’re done hiking pop into the Visitor Center and learn about the history of the area. It’s also adjacent to Roaring Camp if you want to wander over and look at the trains. Read about my favorite Henry Cowell hikes and hang out spots.

wooden bridge leading over a creek with a trail going up a hill through the redwood forest
The Eagle Creek Trail is a stunning leg-burner best suited for fairly fit hikers
trail through the redwood trees with sun coming through the trees
The magical evening sunbeams on the Redwood Loop

4.Go for a Sail on The Chardonnay: On the right day this is pure nautical bliss. Wear plenty of warm layers and sip wine while sailing along the Santa Cruz coast. Afterwards grab a bite to eat at one of the nearby harbor restaurants and enjoy the salty breezes just a little bit longer. Chardonnay Sailing Charters.  Cost: Varies depending on day/sailing excursion

people on a sail boat with mountains in the distance. A sail on the Chardonnay is one of my favorite things to do in Santa Cruz.
Sailing on the Chardonnay is a fun time no matter what the occasion!

5.Ride a Bike Along West Cliff: If you don’t have your own bike there are different rental options in the area. The easiest and cheapest option is to rent a Jump bike using the Uber app. Pick the bike up near the lighthouse and cruise along West Cliff on the paved pedestrian/bike path.

If you want a longer ride, rent a bike from Pacific Ave Cycles which is a few blocks from the beginning of West Cliff and make your way out to Wilder Ranch State Park by riding along West Cliff, through Natural Bridges State Beach, and connect with the bike path that goes out to Wilder. To do this you will ride through Natural Bridge State Beach, then take a left on Delaware Ave, followed by a right on Shaffer Road. Walk your bike across the railroad tracks and at the end of Shaffer Road you will see the start of a bike path. Head left on the bike path and ride about a mile until you reach Wilder Ranch State Park. At Wilder you can pet the resident goats, wander around the ranch buildings and decide if you’re ready to head back or get a little sweatier. Still want more exercise? Pedal the unpaved three mile loop that goes along the coast at Wilder Ranch and try to spot seals lounging on the rocks below the cliffs. If you start from the beginning of West Cliff and ride out to Wilder Ranch it’s about a twelve- fifteen mile ride depending on if you do the coastal loop at Wilder Ranch.

Just a heads up: if you’re using the Jump bikes you will need to bring your own helmet if you plan on using a helmet. If you’re biking with kids Pacific Ave Cycles has trailers, kids bikes, and everything you need for a family ride.

little boy riding on a bike behind his dad on a path next to the ocean
A stunning afternoon bike ride along West Cliff

bright red jump bike leaned up against a fence on a path next to the ocean
Rent a Jump bike and you can be on your way in mere minutes

6.Learn About Santa Cruz’s surf history at the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum: This might be the tiniest museum in the area, and it’s frequently closed (check the website for the hours), but when it’s open it’s free to the public and a quick way to get an overview of Santa Cruz’s surfing history. Surfing Museum. Cost: Free

small brick lighthouse with a lawn in front and the ocean in the background in santa cruz, CA
Pop into the Surf Museum and read about some of Santa Cruz’s local surfing legends

7.Go Wine Tasting at the tasting rooms at the Swift Street Courtyard: Several local wineries have tasting rooms in and around the Swift Street Courtyard area on the Westside. Walk from tasting room to tasting room and finish up with a meal at West End Tap or Kelly’s Bakery. If you’re more of a beer person, Humble Sea is a local brewery with a great outdoor patio area. Spending an afternoon wine-tasting is one of my favorite things to do in Santa Cruz when I want a stay-cation with friends. Walking to different tasting rooms is so much easier than finding a pregnant friend to be your designated driver for the day..  Swift Street Tasting Rooms . Cost: Typically $10 for a tasting. Many places waive the tasting fee if you purchase a bottle of wine.

outside courtyard at Kellys Bakery in Santa Cruz
Enjoy a pastry or fish tacos in the sunny Swift Street Courtyard

8.Listen to a free concert at Abbott SquareRelatively new to Santa Cruz, Abbott Square hosts a few different eateries and is a relaxing places to enjoy a cocktail or a bite to eat. There are both indoor and outdoor seatings options, bring a jacket if you’re planning on hanging out al fresco in the evening. The wood fired pizzas are great for sharing with friends or keeping kiddos happy. Take a look at the website for information about different free events and concerts happening in the square.

courtyard with tables and umbrellas. surrounded by tall buildings
Have a drink or wood-fired pizza at Abbott Square in downtown Santa Cruz

9.Go Tidepooling: There are a couple places around town that are fun for tide pooling when the tide is low. Pleasure Point is good for younger children because when the tide is a negative it’s protected from the waves and easy to access. Just park near the Point Market or anywhere in the vicinity of East Cliff Drive and 32nd ave and walk down the stairs to the beach. Natural Bridges State Beach has some rocks on the far side across the creek that are exposed at very low tides. FYI: these tide pools require a some scrambling and awareness of ocean safety.

two little boys peering into a tide pool
Searching for anemones in the tide pools at Natural Bridges State Beach
beach sunset at low tide with lots of exposed tide pools and palm trees along the cliff.
An extreme low tide at Pleasure Point

10.Take a Surf Lesson: Cowells is the place to go for beginners and aspiring surfers. There are a couple different surf schools in the area. Club Ed has been around for 25+ years and will get you geared up and catching waves. Club Ed Surf School  Cost: $90 for adults/ kids 11 years old + $120 for children under 11 year old.

young blond boy in a wetsuit smiling and standing in front of a blue wetsuit
There’s nothing like catching a great wave to leave you smiling
sunset with the santa cruz wharf in the background. people surfing a little wave
Mellow vibes and beginner friendly waves at Cowells

11.Rent a Kayak and Hang With the Sea Otters: Rent a kayak at Venture Quest on the Santa Cruz Wharf and paddle out to the kelp forest. Along the way you’re almost guareented to spot seals, sea lions, and otters playing in the kelp.  Early morning is usually the least windiest and smoothest on the water although it can be foggy.  There are also guided tours if you’re a novice or simply want to make it a group hang kind of adventure. Venture Quest Kayaking   Cost: $35 for a single kayak for 3 hours. $60 for a two hour tour.

blue ocean and kelp forest off the coast of santa cruz
With a little luck you’ll spot an otter or two lounging in the kelp forest

12.Find a Swimming Hole on the San Lorenzo River: During late spring, summer and early fall the San Lorenzo River is a sunny day utopia. Highlands County Park in Ben Lomand and Henry Cowell State Park in Felton are both good options for river access. And of course there’s always the Garden of Eden if you don’t mind the crowds. The Garden of Eden: A Guide to Santa Cruz’s Favorite Summer Swimming HoleHenry Cowell State Park: 5 Must See Spots 

swimming hole in a river surrounded by cliffs and foliage
Explore and find a little piece of river paradise to have to yourself for the afternoon

13.Go for a paddle on a SUP: There are a couple places in town where you can rent a SUP. On a really calm day the wharf will let you explore the kelp beds off of west cliff. However, if there is swell or wind, which there frequently is, you might find yourself battling the elements. Renting from Capitola Beach Company, just a few minutes walk from Capitola beach, lets you paddle south towards New Brighton State Beach where you’re almost guaranteed to spot a seal or sea otter along the way. Just a heads up, there have been shark sightings off of New Brighton.. At the harbor you can rent a SUP at The SUP Shack. If it’s a calm day you can paddle out of the harbor and cruise along the coast. Otherwise, take a little paddle around the harbor and fantasize about which boat you could see yourself on.

mom in a purple swim suit and toddler in a life jacket on a paddle board in the ocean
Sunny morning paddle off the coast of New Brighton State Beach
paddle boarder paddling in clear water with the beach and the wharf in the background in santa cruz.
Paddling around Cowells near the Santa Cruz Wharf

14.Ride the Big Dipper at The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk: Love it or hate it the The Boardwalk is one of Santa Cruz’s most popular attractions. If you’re going it’s definitely worth it to buy the all day wristband because at approximately $5 per ride it gets pricey quick. Check out the website ahead of time for different special events like “dollar night” (discounted rides) or the free beach concerts. 

giant dipper sign at the santa cruz beach boardwalk with brightly colored gondolas soaring above
Step back in time at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

15.Have a bonfire:  There’s something so nostalgic about a beach bonfire. There’s a few beaches in Santa Cruz that allow bonfires, as long as it’s in the designated fire rings. In the summer it can be competitive to get a ring so get to the beach early and claim a spot or wait until winter and have the beach mostly to yourself. I learned the hard way that the no alcohol policy does in fact mean no booze, even if it’s just a splash of rose in a stainless steel cup. So either save the drinking for a different occasion or be extremely stealthy.  Seabright State Beach, Twin Lakes State Beach and New Brighton State Beach all permit bonfires.

sunset at the beach with people sitting around a bonfire
Cozy up with friends around a bonfire at sunset

16.Find Butterflies at Natural Bridges State Beach: This is one of my favorite things to do in Santa Cruz on a warm winter day. Come here between October and February and you are likely to see hundreds of butterflies clumping in the eucalyptus trees and fluttering around in the Monarch Grove. The butterflies are the most active when the temperature us above 55 degrees so a relatively warm, sunny winter day is the best for butterfly viewing.  Natural Bridges State Beach. Cost: $10 to park. 

arched rock in the ocean
Natural Bridges’ namesake rock formation
Wander the trails around Natural Bridges and keep an eye out for monarchs

17.Visit the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History: Just across the street from Seabright State Beach is a charming little bungalow style building that houses that Natural History Museum. Small but packed with interactive exhibits that teach visitors about California’s native species this is a great place to take kids. Young children will love being archeologists and excavating bones from the raised basin of sand or marveling at the honeybees working away in the displayed hive. Parents will love the affordability of admission and the satisfaction of doing something educational with their child. Cost: $4 for adults. Free for kids under the age of 18

group of children gathered around a box full of sand and working to unbury pretend bones at the natural history museum in santa cruz
Future paleontologists doing some excavating

18. Investigate the Paranormal at The Mystery Spot: Was it a crashed UFO or simply the geology of the area that causes the strange phenomenons that occur in “The Mystery Spot”? This popular tourist attraction offers tours all day long with guides who demonstrate the different oddities that happen in this section of the forest. The tour lasts about forty minutes and you’ll be given a yellow bumper sticker at the end. Expect cheesy jokes, some goofy photo opps and to leave wondering is it all a hoax or…?

If you have some extra time there is a short less than one mile hike at the end of the parking lot with signs along the way describing local flora and fauna. Parts of the hike are a little steep but my four and six year-old were able to do it fairly easily.

Buy your tickets online ahead of time, especially on the weekend. And bring $5 cash for parking. Children 3 and under are free. Everyone else is $8.

parking lot and entrance to the mystery spot in santa cruz CA
The Mystery Spot is a classic funky Santa Cruz tourist attraction

switchback trail leading up the mountain in the redwood trees in santa cruz
Short but sweet the adjacent trail is a respite from the crowds

Tips/Advice

  • Wear layers. Mornings can be foggy but the sun frequently comes out by midday
  • In the summer traffic can be bad coming into Santa Cruz, especially on hot days. Plan on arriving early and leaving late to avoid peak traffic times on Highway 17.
  • Check Groupon for deals on surf lessons or paddle board/ kayak rentals. Occasionally they have discounts.
  • Grab a burrito and head to the beach. Nothing beats eating a burrito and watching the sunset.
woman in red swimsuit walking on a piece of driftwood at the beach facing the ocean. Hanging out at the beach is my one of favorite things to do in santa cruz!

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