Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk: Obviously this is top of the list for everyone, but be sure you don’t miss out on one of our favorites at the Boardwalk: the miniature golf course. We play at least once a year, and the course takes you through a pirate ship and a psychedelic dark room. If your kids are old enough (and tall enough), don’t miss the thrilling Giant Dipper roller coaster, an old, fast wooden roller coaster. If that’s too much of an adrenaline rush, check out the hand-carved carousel that’s been around since 1911. Finally, be sure to take your whole family on the Sky Glider, where you can get a great view of the boardwalk and the beach below. The best thing about the Boardwalk? It’s FREE! (Free to just walk around and people watch). But, be sure to bring money for all the deep fried food, rides, and carnival games as well.
Wharf: The wharf is a great place to stroll, people watch, eat, or shop. The wharf was built in 1914 and is the longest pier on the West Coast at 2,745 feet There are a tons of shops and restaurants, with fresh fish straight off the boats. Make sure you go out to the end of the wharf and we guarantee you will see, hear, and smell the barking sea lions lounging on the wooden structure down below. You can watch the fishing boats load or unload, or even book a boat tour. Be sure to check out Marini’s Candy shop; we love their salt water taffy. The wharf is also a great place to grab a seafood dinner or some fish & chips.
Free Museum: Right across from the Wharf is the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Exploration Center. It is open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. It has some interactive displays and a great underwater environment for kids to explore. There’s a couple old Chevy cars for kids to climb in, and learn about the downfalls of motor oil and other pollutants. There’s also a few areas where you can watch informational science videos. Finally, there is a touch pool with tidepool animals, and a kelp forest to look at.
Walk, Drive or Bike Along West Cliff Drive: We recommend walking, as you can find great people-watching along this busy street, and wander down the path to gawk at surfers, mansions, and locals having a great time. The views are scenic the whole way, and you can walk all the way to Natural Bridges, which is about 3 miles from the Wharf. Start at the Wharf and head up the hill. The first little beach is called Cowells Beach; this is where there are always surfing classes going on and beginning surfers taking to the waves. Continue up the street to get a better view of the surfers and the surfer statue (usually decorated with various hats for holidays), and as you keep rounding corners you’ll have a great view of the Boardwalk behind you. The street has many trees and benches along the way, if you need a break. Next you’ll come to Steamer Lane and the Lighthouse Surf Museum, where the more advanced surfers are. Below, on the other side, is a dog-friendly beach (Lighthouse State Beach where your dog can run leash-free) and a huge natural arch rock formation. Next you’ll run across Mitchell’s Cove Beach, another place where many locals let their dog run free. There’s a staircase leading down to the beach. Continue on and find a few more sculptures, many more mansions, and eventually Natural Bridges State Beach (see #5 below).
Tide Pooling at Natural Bridges: Natural Bridges State Beach is a great place for hiking, kite flying, watching surfers, swimming, nature walks and picnics. But the best activity to do with kids there is to wander through the tide pools. On a good day you can usually see sea urchins, sea stars, hermit crabs, and kelp. Check the tide times to make sure it is calm. You can also often see many birds, seals and otters, and sometimes even spot a whale in the distance.
Monarch Butterflies: Also at Natural Bridges State Beach is a huge eucalyptus grove that provides a home for up to 150,000 monarch butterflies each year. (Sadly, in 2016 when we went, there were 8,000 that year). The butterflies migrate up to 2,000 miles to escape the cold weather in northwestern United States and Canada. You can usually catch the butterflies between late-November and early-December. There are guided tours through the Grove at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. You can find free parking on the street nearby, or pay the $10/car fee to park in the lot right at the Visitor’s Center. There is a wooden path to take to the observation area. We loved visiting because they had magnified lenses you could look through to see all the masses of butterflies, bundled up together to keep warm from the cold.
Pacific Avenue, Downtown Santa Cruz: Once you’re tired of the beach and the Boardwalk, be sure to head to the downtown area. The whole street is full of restaurants, stores, and street performers. There’s almost always something going on downtown, whether it be a parade or just a group of locals who declared it “bike around in leotards day” or “silent disco dance party time”. Be sure to check out our Best of Santa Cruz Article to find out where to grab the best pizza, ice cream, cookies, etc.
Rio Del Mar Beach: This beach is a great place to take kids because there is a ton to do. You can walk either way down the seemingly endless beach, chase seagulls, watch in the distance for whales, and even scour the beach for sea glass. Our favorite thing to do is to head right when you get to the beach and walk all the way down to see the old, sunken cement ship. The S. S. Palo Alto was a 435-foot long, 7,500-ton oil tanker built for use during World War I; however, the ship was never finished. It ended up in Santa Cruz, was renovated, and then used as party central. However, that didn’t last long before the corporation which owned the ship went bankrupt. You used to be able to climb aboard, but since the storms in 2016-2017 battered the ship and the pier, it is now indefinitely closed. You can still wander along the beach and see the stern upended, and it’s only a matter of time before the whole thing goes under.
Capitola Beach: a great beach for kids, as the waves are generally very mild. It’s a perfect place for young folks who’d like to learn to surf. There’s bathrooms and showers nearby, and the beginners can usually stand up in the water for a ways out, making it a great place to try to catch a wave for the first time. The town of Capitola is fun to walk around, with various stores and restaurants right near by. You can grab a slice of Pizza My Heart and eat it at the beach, or a scoop of Marianne’s ice cream from one of the nearby stores. There’s tons of cute little shops to wander through if you want to buy souvenirs or beach wear.
Roaring Camp Train Ride: This tourist railroad starts from Roaring Camp depot and runs up steep grades through redwood forests to the top of nearby Bear Mountain, a distance of 3.25 miles. Several of the steam engines date from the 1890’s. Kids can ride the train for $23, and adults for $32. The 75 minute train ride is a bit pricey for us, but if you have a child who loves engines and trains, this might be the activity for you. You can also take the train from Roaring Camp to the Beach Boardwalk and back.
Nisene Marks Hike: Finally, if you enjoy hiking, you’re sure to find a trail that you’ll love at Nisene Marks State Park. The hikes in this park range from easy to moderate, and there are plenty you can do with kids in tow. We recommend Old Growth Loop, which is about a mile and a half. It leads up to a remote waterfall and the canyon has a ton of variety and redwoods.