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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
8.Listen to a free concert at Abbott Square: Relatively 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Hole. Henry Cowell State Park: 5 Must See Spots
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
- 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.