I’m a teacher and a mom so naturally I love free stuff. Bonus points if it’s something that gets me climbing mountains rather than folding mountains of laundry. I get fresh air and some exercise, the kids are tuckered out for an easy bedtime. Everyone wins. This is why with two very active, energetic kids I have stockpiled a collection of great hikes in Santa Cruz to do with kids.
I’ve also learned that a great trail to do with kids can be very different from a great trail without kids. It’s a lesson that I’ve had to learn the hard way more than once, starting with when our eldest son was six-weeks old. We were new parents, stir crazy and eager to take our darling baby hiking. I don’t know if it was a moment of mental insanity from being couch bound for a month with a newborn or just wanting to share our love of waterfalls with our little guy, but we decided that a steep, high altitude hike on an unfamiliar and poorly marked trail to a waterfall in the Lake Tahoe, CA area was a good idea.
Not surprisingly we ended up lost (briefly!), never made it to the waterfall and ended up very sweaty, dirty and sore in a climbing over large pieces of granite with a baby in an Ergo way.
Fortunately those were our early family hiking years and since then I’ve learned a lot about what makes a trail kids friendly. Read below to learn more about my favorite family friendly hikes in Santa Cruz!
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Best Hikes In Santa Cruz To Do With Kids
Redwood Loop in Henry Cowell State Park
Quite possibly the perfect toddler hike. And definitely one of the best hikes in Santa Cruz to do with kids. This slightly less than a mile loop is flat and devoid of dogs, mountain bikers, and poison oak. Other toddler friendly features are the bathrooms/drinking fountain that are located half-way along the trail. Kids of all ages will love climbing inside the giant Fremont Tree, especially if you happen to have a flashlight with you. If you’re wanting to go inside the Fremont Tree, don’t do this hike after a heavy rain, the inside of the tree fills up with water and becomes a boggy mess!
Tips/Advice: The parking lot fills up early on summer weekends. Get there before 10am to get a parking spot and avoid traffic getting into the park. Looking for other things to do in Henry Cowell State Park? Check out my article on the best things to do in Henry Cowell State Park
Trail Length: 1 mile.
Stroller Friendly: Yes
Parking: $10 or free parking along Highway 9 but this adds fifteen minutes of walking each way.
Bathrooms: in the Visitor Center and 1/2 way along the loop.
Old Cove Landing Trail In Wilder Ranch State Park
You could easily spend a few hours doing the 2.5 mile Old Cove Landing loop. The flat trail goes from the parking lot, along the bluff, passes through a farm and then loops back to the parking lot. Keep an eye on your kiddos when you’re walking the section along the bluff because there are only a few flimsy rope fences between the trail and the cliff edge. Definitely take the trail down to the “fern grotto”, a huge cave tucked away on a quaint little beach. Explore the cave and have a picnic at this picturesque beach before continuing on. As you continue on the trail, make sure to be on the look out for seals lounging on the rocks below. If you finish the hike and want to extend the adventure, walk over to the historic ranch section of the park. Check out the goats, climb the cypress tree, or explore the irresistible tunnels through the clumps of succulent plants.
Trail Length: 2.5 miles
Stroller Friendly: Somewhat. Trail can be rutted/bumpy in sections.
Bathrooms: Located in the main parking area
Spring Trail in Pogonip County Park
A mostly flat, wide trail that meanders along a ridge under towering redwood trees, the Spring Trail, is a very kid-friendly Santa Cruz hiking option. The trail is wide enough to push a stroller and while it’s in the redwoods the sweeping views give it a less buried in the forest feel than other wooded hikes in the Santa Cruz area.
There are several different access points for Pogonip. My favorite spot to enter the park when I’m hiking with kids is from Spring Street. Park in the neighborhood and walk through the gate then head right. The wide fireroad trail takes you through a section of open grassy hills before entering the forest. Walk for as long as you’d like, the entire length is 1.6 miles, and turn around when your kids have expended about half their energy. If you have older kids take the Spring Box trail which branches off from the Spring trail and see if you can find the hidden koi pond. It’s a magical little spot tucked away amongst the towering redwood trees.
Tips/Advice: There isn’t much poison oak along the Spring Trail but some trails in Pogonip do have poison oak so use caution if you decide to explore other parts of the park. Also, it’s rare but mountain lions have been spotted. Keep kids close by, especially if you’re hiking in the early morning or evening hours when mountain lions are most active.
Trail Length: 1.6 miles
Stroller Friendly: Yes if you stay on the Spring Trail .
Walking Trail in Twin Lakes State Park
Considered to be part of Twin Lakes State Beach, you aren’t actually able to access the beach from this little slice of nature set in the Live Oak neighborhood of Santa Cruz. But the two short loop trails are a scenic spot to take a walk and feel like you’re getting away from civilization. Mostly shaded by oak trees, these walking trails are popular with joggers and dog walkers.
To access the trails, park in the large lot at Simpkins Swim Center and walk through the gate at the back of the parking lot. Follow the dirt path straight through the field and down a little hill. There will be a fork in the trail where you can decide to go to the left, the shorter loop, or continue straight to walk a longer loop.
Tips/Advice: Just a heads up that after heavy rain these trails get really muddy.
Trail Length: About two miles total
Stroller Friendly: Not really.
Parking: Free at Simpkin Swim Center.
Bathrooms: Use the bathroom at Simpkins Swim Center
Discovery Loop in Quail Hollow County Park
This idyllic park in Felton feels like a world away from Santa Cruz and the rest of the bay area. Start the loop out by the pond or from behind the horse stable area. It’s approximately a mile long and flat with a mixture of shade and sun. There aren’t many signs but the trail is well worn and easy to navigate. After you complete the loop have a picnic under the giant oak tree near the historic ranch house. If you’re looking for something a little longer there are several other great trails in the park. If I have a few hours and it’s not too hot the Sunset Trail has nice views and connects to other trails to form a 3-4 mile loop, although be prepared for some hills. Check out my article on hiking in Quail Hollow Ranch for more info.
Trail Length: 1 mile.
Stroller friendly: Not really.
Bathrooms: A port-o-potty
Fall Creek Trail: Fall Creek State Park
Fall Creek State Park is technically a part of Henry Cowell State Park, although downtown Felton separates the two sections of park. The often overlooked little sister park to Henry Cowell, Fall Creek is absolutely gorgeous. With approximately twenty miles of hiking trails there is plenty of forest to explore, minus the crowds, and not a gift shop or tour bus to be found.
From the parking lot you will make your way down a fairly steep but short trail. At the bottom of the hill the trail intersects the Fall Creek Trail. Take a left and follow the burbling creek upstream along the narrow trail. Little side trails offer up exploration opportunities for young hikers and there’s almost always a fallen tree to climb over or under. Some sections of the trail are quite narrow and have a steep drop off on one side (nothing too perilous but just be aware if you’re hiking with toddlers).
If you were to hike the entire trail it’s around four miles one-way. Most people, especially those with children hike along the creek for a bit then turn around. The trail crosses over the creek several times, kids will love walking across the simple wooden bridges. Just a heads up, sometimes after a heavy rain the bridges can be washed out and it’s not possible to continue very far.
Tips/Advice: There are some patches of poison oak along the trail. Have kids walk in the middle of the trail and consider treating for poison oak post hike. Due to the fact that you’re hiking along a shaded creek, this hike gets chilly. Bring layers.
Trail Length: Approx 4 miles one-way
Stroller Friendly: No
Parking: Free in the Fall Creek State Park lot off of Felton Empire Road
Seacliff Path in Sea Cliff State Beach
Looking for a mellow stroll along the beach? The one mile paved path stretching from Rio Del Mar to the “high five hand” at Sea Cliff State Beach is a great spot to do a walk or jog with the stroller and then let the kids play in the sand or explore the driftwood forts. Another option is to bring bikes for the kids and let them ride. Bikes are allowed on the path but there are rarely any adults bikers because the path is only a mile long. This makes it a fun spot for kids to ride bikes without parents having to worry about cars, cliffs, or collisions with other bikers.
You can access the trail either from the Rio Del Mar parking lot or Sea Cliff State Beach. The parking lot at Rio Del Mar can get crowded since there are shops and restaurants that share the lot with beach goers. But it’s free and convenient for grabbing a coffee to take on your walk. You can also park in the Seacliff State Park lot. If you park up on the bluff you will have to walk down a steep hill. Otherwise park in the lower lot that is adjacent to the walking trail.
Tips/Advice: If you park in Sea Cliff State Beach in the lower parking area it’s mere steps to the sand. This is awesome if you want to throw your kids bike/stroller in the car and hit the sand after your walk. Grab an ice cream at Marianne’s afterwards to complete the beach walk/ride adventure.
Trail Length: 1 mile each way.
Stroller Friendly: Yes
Parking: Free in the Rio Del Mar lot, $10 if you park at Seacliff State Beach
Bathrooms: Several different locations along the path
Old Growth Loop: The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park
There are over thirty miles of trails in Nisene Marks but if you’re looking for something kid friendly that provides a snapshot of the park, the Old Growth Loop is a good option. About 2.2 miles this trail passes through redwood groves with play inspiring hollowed redwoods and crosses a pretty little creek. There is a little bit of elevation change on this hike (aka expect a few gentle hills) but it’s a great option for families looking for kid friendly hike that feels like you’re hiking an actual single-track trail.
Finding the trail: Park in the lot near the main entrance. You will see the trailhead near the bathrooms. Almost immediately you will encounter some beautiful old redwood trees that were hollowed out by forest fires, as well as forts that people have built from fallen branches. It’s almost impossible to pass by here without letting kids stop and play. Plan on letting kiddos explore this grove before beginning your hike.
Tips/Advice: Be prepared for some poison oak and the occasional biting insect. Also, cell service is patchy in the park.
Trail Length: 2.2 Miles.
Stroller Friendly: No
Bathrooms: In Main Parking Lot
A flat, approximately one-mile loop around a marsh hidden in the middle of Santa Cruz, this is an easy place to walk with toddlers. One of the highlights is the boardwalk section that crosses over the marsh and lets you peer directly down into the water. Look closely and you might spot a few fish swimming in the murky water.
To find the start of the trail: walk along the paved path past the playground, tennis courts, and waste water treatment center to find this wildlife refuge. (Peeking in at the waste treatment center might end up being your child’s favorite part of the outing!) FYI: Occasionally on a hot day, unsavory odors from the waste treatment center can waft into the lagoon area. Also, you might encounter a transient or two laying in the grass in the park.
The length of this walk and it’s proximity to a fun playground make it a great choice for toddlers and younger school-aged children.
Trail Length: About a mile.
Stroller Friendly: Yes
Bathrooms: located next to the parking lot.
Newly opened to the public the Glenwood Preserve in Scotts Valley has three miles of hiking trails. Exceptionally beautiful in the spring when the wildflowers are blooming, these well-marked and easy to navigate single track trails meander along the hillside. Many sections of the trail are in the sun but there are also places where the trail dips into a grove of oak trees, giving weary hikers a cool place to rest. The trails are short loops, identified by color on the trail map, which is stationed at every main trail junction. Do one or two of the loops with younger children or do them all with older kiddos.
The parking lot is down the street from the actual start of the trail. If you’re driving on Glenwood Drive coming from Scotts Valley Drive you will see a dirt lot on your left before you reach the high school. Park in this lot and walk down Glenwood Drive, past the high school and you will see a driveway leading up a short, steep hill to the trailhead.
Tips/Advice: In the spring, Glenwood Preserve is one of the best hikes in Santa Cruz to do with kids. The hills are green and the wildflowers are stunning. Instagram dreams come true.
Length: 3 miles total
Stroller Friendly: No
Castle Rock Loop at Castle Rock State Park
This absolutely stunning state park isn’t actually in Santa Cruz but it is in the Santa Cruz Mountains and about a 30-40 minute drive from the city of Santa Cruz. The Castle Rock Loop Trail is a one-mile loop trail that is best known for its interesting rock formations. A popular spot for rock climbers it’s also a fun spot for kids to play and explore.
From the main parking lot, you will see a sign for the trail. The single track trail starts with an ascent up the hill and into the trees.
Tips/Advice: In the summer do the hike early before it gets hot/crowded. If you have time of extra energy hike out to Castle Rock Falls but keep a close eye on kiddos, the overlook for the falls isn’t exactly kid-safe. Make sure to wear sturdy shoes/pants for clambering over rocks…
Length: one mile.
Stroller Friendly: No
Parking: $8 day use fee.
Bathrooms: In the main parking lot.
Tips for Hiking With Kids
- Beat the heat: Nothing seems to kill a kid’s energy more than trying to have them walk anywhere in the heat. Hiking in the morning when it’s cooler and they have the most energy is your best bet for happy hikers.
- Fully fuel up: I make sure my kid’s belly’s are completely full before we hit the trail. One of my hiking hacks is to have the boys eat a 1/2 peanut butter sandwich in the car on the way to the trailhead. Hunger complaints will thwart adventure momentum, and there’s nothing more annoying than being ten minutes into a hike and having your child asking for a snack.
- But bring some fun food bribes: If we are doing a long or challenging hike I’ll bring a snack that’s extra special, like a granola bar with chocolate chips, to give them when we’ve reached our halfway point. It creates an atmosphere of celebration and they have plenty of time to burn off the sugar before getting back to the car.
- Distractions for tired hikers: when I can tell that the kids are starting to lose steam or interest in hiking I’ll start telling them stories ( real and fiction). Once I got my boys to walk an extra mile uphill, without complaint, with an impromptu history lesson on Teddy Rosevelt. A little distraction can help you go a long way.
- Make it exciting: I try to find something about the trail that will get the kids stoked. A lake that we can swim in, a rock formation that’s good for climbing, the possibility of spotting a mountain lion, anything that will make them excited to explore.
- Pants when possible: Pants will save knees from trail scrapes and ankles from poison oak. Unless it’s really hot I try to encourage pants when hiking…
Essential Gear for Hiking With Kids
- Insulated water bottles. Cold water is so much more refreshing. My favorite kid water bottle is made my Hydroflask. It’s the perfect size for keeping your kiddo hydrated for a short hike without being overly bulky.
- A small backpack. Kids 5+ can carry their own small backpack with a snack of their choice and a water bottle. (This will keep you from feeling like the family pack mule!)
- Shoes with traction.
- Sunscreen/hats for exposed trails.
- Long socks. Short socks seem to cause all kinds of trail drama. Sand gets in them, they slip down, things you wouldn’t think would be an issue until you’ve tried hiking with a three-year old wearing ankle length socks.
- Tecnu or dish soap. Lather up with some Tecnu post hike to rinse away any poison oak oils. If I think there is a chance my kiddos came into contact with poison oak I apply this when we get home. Five minutes of poison oak oil cleansing is way better than weeks of itching. This is a life saver!
The Bottom Line: Hiking with kids is great. Just pick the right trail, throw a couple apples in a backpack, and enjoy some nature time with your little adventurers.