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Santa Cruz is the quintessential California beach town, no matter what you’re looking for – relaxation, adventure, fantastic scenery or all of the above, you’re sure to find it here in addition to a collection of alluring hotels. If you’re trying to figure out what to see and do, this list of fabulous things to do is sure to give you a great head start.
Discover a Beautiful Stretch of Beach
What Is It? On the beaches right in Santa Cruz, people are packed in like sardines, battling for their own spot on the sand, but just a short drive north, and you might just get to enjoy a beach all to yourself.
Why Do It? Greyhound Rock Beach, just 17 miles north along scenic Highway One is ideal. You can’t see it from the road, which is probably why many people don’t venture down – it also requires a steep, but short, walk down a cliff, and while it keeps the crowds away, it’s easy to navigate for most. Once there, even during the busy summer months, you’ll usually find that few others are around, though you might spot an elephant seal enjoying the tranquility.
Good to Know: By making the easy climb up Greyhound Rock, which juts out into the ocean, you’ll have a perfect vantage point for viewing the dolphins that frequently pass by, leaping from the surf.
Play at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
What Is It? One of the best seaside amusement parks in the country, if not the very best, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is the most popular attraction in town.
Why Do It? It’s filled with rides for just about everyone, from the heart-pounding Giant Dipper, one of the oldest roller coasters in the nation, running for over 90 years, to an old fashioned 1911 Carousel and the Sky Glider, which offers the chance to take spectacular panoramic views of the park, beach and the endless expanse of the Pacific. On Friday nights in the summer, you can enjoy free live concerts while soaking up the sun and the sand, and year-round kids and teens will love the massive arcade with over 300 of the most popular video and pinball games, laser tag, simulators, games of skill and more.
Good to Know: There are also multiple shops selling beachwear, souvenirs, gifts and other items, along with the usual eateries that serve corn dogs, cotton candy, snow cones, pizza and more.
Walk to the Wharf to See Sea Lions
What Is It? Seeing the sea lions is one of the best things to do in Santa Cruz, and they can be seen year-round at the end of the Santa Cruz Wharf which is adjacent to the Boardwalk.
Why Do It? Some will be snoozing away on the rafters underneath, while others hang out on the platforms along the side of the wharf, and still others can be seen splashing about in the water. If you’re looking for a bite to eat, this is a great place for that too, with everything from upscale restaurants with ocean views to small seafood markets where you can pick up a crab cocktail and a beer to enjoy while taking in the entire scene.
Good to Know: In addition to the sea lions, whales can occasionally be spotted, otters frequently pass by, and pelicans often land right on the pier to scoop up visitors’ leftovers.
Watch for Whales
What Is It? A whale-watching excursion in Santa Cruz offers an amazing adventure.
Why Do It? Cruises allow passengers to take in gorgeous views, the wonderful salty air and gentle swells, as well as to spot humpback whales between April and November, as the creatures that spend the winter months off the Mexican coast return north to the central California coast for the feeding season. These whales are known for being especially curious, and often come right up to the boat to do their own “people watching.” Gray whales can be spotted between December and April, and transient killer whales can be seen at any time, though they’re most common in the spring.
Good to Know: In addition to the whales, there is an abundance of dolphins, porpoises, sea otters, sea lions and all types of birds that can be spotted as well.
Ride the Rails at Roaring Camp
What Is It? Roaring Camp, located in Felton, a 10-minute drive from Santa Cruz, isn’t just a great place to take the kids but also the kid-at-heart and anyone who likes trains.
Why Do It? It’s a fantastic way to step back in time, riding one of the oldest narrow-gauge trains in existence that still carries passengers, through the beautiful Redwood forests, traveling to Bear Mountain through old-growth redwood groves in the one-hour, 15-minute round-trip journey. Or, you can take the standard-gauge Santa Cruz Beach Train which makes its way down a winding path to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk along the San Lorenzo River in a three-hour out-and-back trip.
Good to Know: Henry Cowell State Park is right next door, offering picnic areas, fishing and 30 miles of hiking trails.
Go Sand Dollar Hunting at Sunset State Beach
What Is It? Sunset State Beach, just south of Santa Cruz, is not only a wonderful place to camp near the Pacific, but it’s one of the best beaches for beachcombing for sand dollars.
Why Do It? Sand dollars are sea creatures that live on the bottom of the ocean, burrowing into the sand to stay protected from debris and predators. Their dried-up exoskeleton remains, which is what is commonly collected by beachgoers, are often used in DIY decorative items. You’ll need to check the tide tables and go about an hour before low tide. Dead sand dollars will be white, or off-white, in color – if they’re still alive, they’ll be reddish-brown and have a fuzzy appearance, be sure and leave those where you find them.
Good to Know: The beach also offers a picnic area and the largest dunes in the country, mountainous 200-foot-high sand dunes that build up in front of the coastal bluff. The beach itself stretches down to where it meets the mouth of the Pajaro River, providing three miles of unobstructed, stunning shoreline.
Catch a Wave at Pleasure Point
What Is It? As long as you can swim, you should really give surfing a try while you’re in one of the sport’s top destinations in the world.
Why Do It? Not only is Santa Cruz a National Surfing Sanctuary, host of the annual O’Neill Cold Water Classic contest, and home to numerous pro and big-wave surfers, but the sport is ingrained in much of the everyday culture here. Cowell’s Beach near the Boardwalk or 36th and East Cliff at Pleasure Point are two of the best spots for beginners, though you’ll probably want to take surfing lessons before you head out on a board. Surf School Santa Cruz boasts some of the city’s top pros, both your board and wetsuit are provided, and lessons take place at legendary Pleasure Point.
Good to Know: Aside from being popularized in the 2012 film Chasing Mavericks, the Pleasure Point neighborhood has a ton of great restaurants, cafes, surf shops and local boutiques.
See a Show at Rio Theatre
What Is It? The Rio is one of Santa Cruz’s most enduring landmarks.
Why Do It? It first opened on June 12, 1949, with a double feature of “Song of India” and “Law of the Barbary Coast” on its “cyclorama” curved screen. In the years that followed, it weathered many changes in the movie industry yet somehow managed to stay intact as an artifact from its native decade. The theater’s famous sign, marquee, and ticket booth have served as a touchstone for Santa Cruzans of a bygone era.
Good to Know: Today, it’s considered one of the nation’s most prominent performance venues, hosting live music concerts, comedy shows, lectures and film festivals, and it’s really a must to experience while you’re in the city. No matter what time of year you arrive, there’s sure to be something fantastic on tap.
Take a Refreshing Dip in the Garden of Eden
What Is It? A true hidden gem in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park between Felton and Santa Cruz, the Garden of Eden is a natural swimming hole where locals congregate to cool off on a hot day.
Why Do It? You’ll have to hike in about a mile, parking at the Ox Trail turnout off Highway 9, following the railroad tracks for about a half-mile before proceeding down the Eden trail. While it’s not exactly easy to get here, it’s worth the trek as you can enjoy some amazing deep river swimming in the pools that sit among giant boulders in the gorge.
Good to Know: Just be aware that as it’s fairly remote, with the closest restrooms being two miles away.
Hike to Waterfalls in Big Basin Redwood State Park
What Is It? California’s oldest state park is located in Boulder Creek, in the heart of the Santa Cruz Mountains about a 20-mile drive from downtown Santa Cruz.
Why Do It? While its main attraction is the ancient coast redwoods, some of which are 2,500 years old, over 50 feet around and more than 300-feet-tall, the park is also home to a number of beautiful waterfalls. If you’d like to see them, hike the Waterfall Loop which starts at the park headquarters and follows the Sunset Trail downhill through the forested canyons to a series of three dramatic falls.
Good to Know: Berry Creek Falls is a favorite, with the 60-foot cascade distinguished by lush ferns and moss that cover the rocks around the waterfall. The viewing platform near its base is an ideal location for a picnic.
Enjoy Wine Tasting
What Is It? There are more than 70 wineries and tasting rooms in the Santa Cruz Mountains, which unknown to most is one of the oldest wine regions in the country, renowned for award-winning pinot noirs and other great wines.
Why Do It? With so many to choose from, where do you start? One fabulous and easily accessible option is Surf City Vintners, located right in Santa Cruz. This is a collection of local boutique wineries, most of which are housed in a cluster of charming renovated warehouses on the west side of town, offering a convenient tasting experience.
Good to Know: You can also take the Santa Cruz Mountain Wine Trail, following Highway 35 to Bear Creek Road, visiting wonderful wineries among the redwoods, including Thomas Fogarty Winery & Vineyards, Byington Winery & Vineyard, David Bruce Winery, and Burrell School Vineyards, located in a historic 1890 schoolhouse.
See Elephant Seals at Ano Nuevo State Park
What Is It? If you’re in the area during the wintertime, from about mid-December through the end of March, be sure to visit Ano Nuevo State Park.
Why Do It? This is the home for elephant seals, named because of their large size and long pendulous noses on the male, which use the sand dunes here to rest and mate. The park offers guided walks, led by volunteer docent naturalists, to see the massive creatures in their natural habitat inside the Natural Preserve. The breeding season for the animals begins in December when the first males arrive. From 14- to 16-feet long and weighing up to two-and-a-half tons, the huge bulls engage in violent battles to establish dominance, with the successful bulls doing much of the breeding. Then in late December, the females, which average 10- to 12-feet in length, weighing 1,200 to 2,000 pounds, arrive. Within a week after their arrival, the females give birth to the pups that were conceived the previous year. They mate about 24 days after giving birth, and the whole cycle begins again.
Good to Know: It’s fascinating to see these ginormous animals in person – and well worth the less than 30-minute drive up the coast from Santa Cruz.
Visit Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center
What Is It? Located just across from the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, this great little new exploration center is free to visit and offers a journey through the underwater environment of the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary.
Why Do It? It includes engaging multimedia and interactive exhibits that allow visitors to have fun while learning.
Good to Know: Just some of the possibilities include feeding a turtle jellyfish and helping to guide it as it travels across the Pacific, driving an underwater submersible or taking an adventure anywhere in the world using Google’s Liquid Galaxy.
Explore Surfers' Museum & Watch Surfers Ride the Waves
What Is It? One of the best spots to watch the many talented surfers who come to Santa Cruz to ride its famous waves is along West Cliff Drive at Steamer Lane.
Why Do It? You’ll also find a tiny surfing museum housed within a lighthouse that will take you back through 120 years of surfing history.
Good to Know: Established in 1986, its collections date back to the earliest years of surfing off the shores of the U.S. mainland.
Pick Up Fresh Produce at a Farmers' Market
What Is It? There are five different farmer’s markets in Santa Cruz and the surrounding area, including one right downtown and in the Westside and Live Oak neighborhoods.
Why Do It? Felton and Scotts Valley, just minutes away in the mountains, offer markets too, so odds are, you’ll find one open while you’re there – check the current schedule to find out which ones are open. The markets typically offer lots of local organic produce and you’re likely to find trendy health foods like bone broth and handcrafted goods too.
Good to Know: Pick up some delicious items and then enjoy a picnic in any one of the many parks or beaches in Santa Cruz.
Walk or Cycle West Cliff Drive
What Is It? A stroll, or ride, along West Cliff Drive, anywhere from Natural Bridges State Beach to the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf, is guaranteed to provide breathtaking views of the Pacific, multi-million dollar homes, and people out enjoying some of the best the area has to offer.
Why Do It? This 2.75-mile stretch of sidewalk that mostly runs right alongside the ocean, is the most scenic and accessible coastline walk in the city. The paved path passes a lighthouse, Steamer Lane surf break, the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum and many of the city’s very best beaches and coves.
Good to Know: If you prefer to explore it on wheels and don’t have a bike with you, you can rent one through a number of outfitters, including the Family Cycling Center.
Shop and People Watch at Pacific Garden Mall
What Is It? When you’re in the mood to shop, you’ll find bargains galore in the Pacific Garden Mall and a whole lot more.
Why Do It? This is the anchor of downtown Santa Cruz, and it’s probably not the type of mall that you’re expecting because of both the people and the atmosphere. This is an outdoor mall where the old Santa Cruz hippy culture is kept alive, though new innovations seem to happen every day. You can still find all sorts of characters, with street performers among them, dancing, strumming a guitar or singing.
Good to Know: It’s also a great place for coffee or dinner, and with a host of outstanding thrift stores, consignment shops as well as cool music and bookstores, you’re sure to find a great deal on that item you always wanted, or didn’t know that you wanted but apparently did.
Hunt for Mushrooms in the Forests of San Lorenzo Valley
What Is It? Mushroom hunting is a popular activity here in the San Lorenzo Valley, the area in the Santa Cruz Mountains between Felton and Boulder Creek.
Why Do It? The southern region of the “mushroom range,” the warm climate and unique habitats support a stunning diversity. The region is home to more than 1,000 different species, and to find them, just head to the hills. The mixed evergreen forest of Douglas fir trees, oaks, tanoaks and madrones, support the most diverse assemblage of mushrooms of any habitat. They’re somewhat less plentiful in the redwood forests, due to the reduced number of tree species.
Good to Know: Be sure to do your research first – keep in mind that picking mushrooms is prohibited at most parks, and you never want to eat one without checking with the experts – they can be deadly. The golden rule is to “collect many before you eat any.”
Experience the Mystery of the Mystery Spot
What Is It? If you like the magical and the mysterious, be sure to head to the Mystery Spot, a place that’s been alluring and mystifying visitors since 1940.
Why Do It? Just three miles from downtown Santa Cruz, it’s located in the Redwoods, and here the laws of gravity apparently don’t apply. You’ll see some pretty bizarre things, like balls rolling up hills, water that appears to flow upward and trees with branches that only grow on one side. You can even become a part of the tour if you want to.
Good to Know: Even if you don’t believe what you’re seeing, skeptics tend to have fun just attempting to debunk the mystery.
Join the Santa Cruz Food Tour
What Is It? Santa Cruz has a dynamic food scene, and if you want to sample some of the city’s best eats join the Santa Cruz Food Tour.
Why Do It? You’ll visit a number of off-the-beaten-track places and in between, you’ll explore Victorian architecture and Santa Cruz history in two downtown historic districts so that you’ll have time to digest all that delicious food before heading to the next eatery.
Good to Know: Along the way, you can learn about local history, culture, architecture and historic neighborhoods.