Looking for a destination for your next family getaway? Santa Cruz is a super fun town to visit with kids. Located off Highway 1, it’s about 2 hours south of San Francisco if you take the scenic coastal route, but it feels a world away.
Santa Cruz is an environmentally conscious surf town with wide sandy beaches. It also happens to be home to one of California’s most iconic roller coasters, The Giant Dipper. With a thriving creative scene downtown and majestic coastal redwoods in the mountains, Santa Cruz is an amazing town to visit for family fun.
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WHAT TO DO IN SANTA CRUZ WITH KIDS?
Santa Cruz is a laid-back town with beach vibes at every turn. And when you need a break from the waves, it’s a short drive to redwood groves in the mountains.
I’ve also added a sample four-day itinerary to help you imagine how all of these ideas can blend into an unforgettable family adventure.
All the places and activities mentioned can be found here on the post map.
TOP 15 FAMILY-FRIENDLY THINGS TO DO IN SANTA CRUZ
1. THE BEST SANTA CRUZ BEACHES WITH KIDS
A visit to Santa Cruz isn’t complete without a stop at the beach.
The beaches here are within easy reach of the Bay Area and are the closest thing many of us have to Southern California’s wide stretches of sand. On a sunny weekend, Highway 17 is jam-packed with beach-goers making the trek out of the valley and to the ocean.
A weekend getaway near the beach means you can skip the traffic. Simply roll out of bed and make your way to the sand.
Natural Bridges State Beach
Many of our favorite California State Parks are in or near Santa Cruz, and Natural Bridges State Beach is one of the best.
The beach is named after three naturally occurring arches that were once a part of a large cliff that jutted out into the ocean. Over time, the waves eroded the mudstone, forming caves. The caves transitioned into the bridges. Of the original three arches, only the middle one remains standing.
Besides playing on the beach, Natural Bridges is also a well-known spot for exploring tide pools. As the tide rolls out twice per day, the park’s rocky shoreline is revealed. Visitors can view sea stars, hermit crabs, urchins, kelp, and more in the pools. This is a part of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, so please don’t touch or take the animals and plants you find.
Another cool feature of Natural Bridges is its Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary. Though the number of butterflies returning to the California coast has declined, you can still visit the grove from mid-October through December to try and glimpse monarchs in their winter habitat. Make sure to stop by the visitor center to learn more about these fascinating insects and their life cycles.
Seabright State Beach
Across from the hustle and bustle of Main Beach, Seabright State Beach stretches along the ocean for a half-mile. Although smaller than many popular beaches, it’s a good place to watch the boats enter Santa Cruz Harbor. The nearby Walton Lighthouse protects the harbor and is a landmark in its own right.
This beach is a great spot to watch the sunset and to make s’mores in one of the onsite fire rings. Over the summer months, Seabright is also known as a popular place to catch weekly sail races on Wednesday nights. Those of you with science-loving kids will enjoy Seabright’s location in front of the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History!
Seacliff and Rio del Mar State Beaches
My grandparents lived in Aptos, so these are the beaches I most remember from my own childhood. To this day, they are also the places my mom and aunt take the boys for walks along the shore. My kids are STILL afraid of the ocean, so it’s slow-going but at least they enjoy shell collecting!
Seacliff State Beach is known for the Cement Ship, one of Santa Cruz’s odder points of interest. You can view the remains of the SS Palo Alto, now over 100 years old, just off the shore. The ship was hauled to its current spot in 1929. It was built for WWI but never saw wartime service as intended. Instead, it was once the site of splashy parties with a casino, swimming pool, ballroom, and restaurant onboard during the tail end of the Roaring ’20s.
By the time I first saw it in the 1980s, the remains of the ship were already deemed unsafe for visitors. It has degraded even more since then, but you can still walk along the pier to view the ruins. The ship is also now an artificial reef that is home to marine life and sea birds. Harbor seals and sea lions are regular visitors and halibut, lingcod, and mackerel dart through the underwater interiors.
A bit further south, within walking distance of Seacliff, Aptos Creek creates a lagoon on Rio del Mar State Beach. This area is often full of little kids like mine who prefer splashing in the calm lagoon over the ocean’s waves.
2. THE SANTA CRUZ BEACH BOARDWALK
The Boardwalk is Santa Cruz’s main tourist attraction and a must-do on a trip to Santa Cruz with kids. Yes, it’s crowded. And yes, it’s pricey. But it is a uniquely Californian amusement park that is fun for kids of all ages. As with all theme parks, go early and on a weekday if possible!
The Boardwalk‘s anchor is the iconic Giant Dipper roller coaster. Constructed in 1924, the Giant Dipper is the fourth oldest continuously operating coaster in the country. My grandparents are among the millions of people that rode this coaster as teenagers, and I can’t wait for the day my boys join along for the ride.
Both the Giant Dipper and the Looff Carousel, installed in 1911 with hand-carved horses, are National Historic Landmarks. Other rides that are just as memorable (to me) are the good old Cave Train, the Riptide tilt-a-whirl, and the Sky Glider that lets you take in all the views from far above.
When you need a break from the crowds, head down to the beach for some playtime on the sand. We sometimes bring a picnic and let the boys run around and play a bit here. It can get dirty with all the foot traffic, so walk away from the Boardwalk and closer to the water for cleaner sections of sand.
Another great thing about The Boardwalk is that it’s open year-round. Even if all the rides aren’t running in winter, you can still sip hot chocolate beneath snow bubbles around the ice rink in December!
Located south of Santa Cruz proper, Capitola holds claim as the oldest seaside resort town on the Pacific Coast.
This little town has a Mediterranean flair with quaint shops in the village, beachside restaurants along the Esplanade, and of course, plenty of fun to be had on Capitola Beach. If you’re visiting in the summer, you can bring a picnic dinner and enjoy evening concerts on the bandstand or catch an outdoor movie. In winter, the annual Surfin’ Santa delights visitors of all ages.
The Capitola Beach waters have some of the mellowest waves in the area, making it a popular spot for first-time surfers. If you want to give surfing a try, sign up for a lesson with the Capitola Beach Company. You can also rent boards, wetsuits, and more here if you want to give it a shot on your own.
When you need a bite, there are plenty of restaurants and cafes to choose from in Capitola. You’ll pass the beloved Gayle’s Bakery on your way into town. This is a good spot to pick up sweet treats or picnic items to enjoy on the sand. If you’re visiting on a cool day, head up to Mr. Toots, located above Margaritaville. This has been one of my favorite spots for coffee or cocoa for well over 20 years.
4. SEYMOUR MARINE DISCOVERY CENTER
UC Santa Cruz’s Seymour Marine Discovery Center is a hidden gem the whole family will enjoy. Unlike a traditional aquarium, the Discovery Center encourages hands-on learning about scientific ocean research. Engaging activities like petting a swell shark can be found inside. Outdoors, volunteers run fun stations along the oceanfront Giants Discovery Trail. In short, it’s a perfect quick stop on a visit to Santa Cruz with kids.
Our boys love a good scavenger hunt. Though much was still closed during our visit, they had a great time finding clues and asking the volunteers lots and lots of questions. Visitors shouldn’t miss a photo op with Ms. Blue, the Center’s 87-foot blue whale skeleton, one of the largest of any kind on display at a museum.
As you loop along the perimeter of the Center, you’ll be treated to gorgeous views of the ocean below and can learn more about the history of this unique site.
Be sure to check hours before you go. The Center depends on volunteers to run its programs, and they are slowly rebuilding in 2021.
5. UC SANTA CRUZ ARBORETUM & BOTANIC GARDEN
Another UC Santa Cruz gem, the Arboretum & Botanic Garden is all about connecting people with plants.
This 135-acre living museum is filled with a rich and diverse collection of more than 300 plant families. The garden focuses on plants from Mediterranean climates. While many of these may be familiar, you’ll also find rare species not found in any other botanical garden in the country.
Even if you’re not a plant nerd, you can simply enjoy wandering through the lovely gardens. Multi-sensory areas like the Aroma Garden and the new Butterfly Garden are perfect for families to explore.
Visitors of all ages also enjoy the garden’s education programs. “Hummingbird Month” is a favorite! “Phenology walks” also introduce new ideas by drawing your attention to the garden changes each season brings.
6. FAMILY BIKE RIDE ON WEST CLIFF DRIVE
Enjoy a stroll or a scenic family bike ride along West Cliff Drive, a favorite activity of visitors and locals alike and a perfect way to spend a day in Santa Cruz with kids. This 3 mile-long oceanfront path offers gorgeous views of Monterey Bay at every turn.
Start at the Municipal Wharf and head past the Dream Inn. You’ll soon be in a residential neighborhood where visitors can get a sense of local Santa Cruz life. Pause for a family photo op with the Surfer Statue while you take in views of the wharf, the Boardwalk, and the surfing scene at Cowell Beach.
Soon you’ll arrive at Lighthouse Point. This area overlooks the famous Steamer Lane, considered one of the best places in the country to surf. Join the other spectators watching the surfers below, and then check out the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum in the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse.
The path ends at Natural Bridges, where you can explore tide pools or look for Monarch Butterflies before heading back toward the Wharf.
If you need some beach cruisers for your bike ride, check out Cruiser King, located a few blocks inland from the Wharf.
7. WILDER RANCH STATE PARK
As I’ve mentioned a few times already, Santa Cruz is home to some amazing California State Parks. Wilder Ranch has some of my favorite things to do in the parks: check out farm animals, go on nature walks, and breathe in the sea air.
The Ranch preserves the site of a nineteenth-century dairy farm. Visitors can learn about what life was like here over 100 years ago by exploring the homes, farm equipment, and barns. Paying a visit to the farm animals is always a highlight with kids.
If you have more time to explore, hike down the Old Cove Landing Trail to the Ohlone Bluff Trail to get to Fern Grotto Beach. The mix of rural land and ocean bluffs on the trail makes for some interesting kid-friendly wildlife watching. Spot squirrels and rabbits along the same stretch as harbor seals. Many have also spotted dolphins and whales along this route.
Around the 1.25 mile mark, take a spur trail down to Fern Grotto Beach. This sandy cove is named for a spectacular sea cave lined with spring-fed ferns. It’s one of Santa Cruz’s spectacular natural landmarks. Make sure to check times for low tide before you go!
8. HENRY COWELL STATE PARK
Located in the little town of Felton, about 10 minutes inland from Santa Cruz, Henry Cowell State Park is known for its 40-acre grove of giant old-growth redwood trees.
Visitors can explore these amazing trees via a 0.8-mile stroller-friendly flat loop trail. Stop by the Visitor Center for a brochure before you go. A highlight is the famous Fremont Tree, which you can actually crawl into. Make sure to bring a flashlight!
The San Lorenzo River is another reason visitors love this park when visiting Santa Cruz with kids. The stretch of San Lorenzo River through Henry Cowell makes for a perfect shady spot to cool down on a hot day. Follow the River Trail to Cable Car Beach for an afternoon of splashing and floating in the river.
The paved Pipeline Trail runs parallel to the River Trail. This is one of the few trails our pup Brody can join us on, and he loves it. And he’s not the only one. When we took Brody on the Pipeline for his “gotcha day” celebration, Bug described the scene as a dog parade!
If you like Henry Cowell, you’ll love nearby Big Basin State Park, with some of the state’s oldest and largest redwoods. Unfortunately, the park sustained tragic damage during the 2020 fire season and is still mostly closed at the time of writing. When it’s open, this legendary park is well worth a visit.
9. GET ON THE WATER WITH A SAILING CRUISE
After you’ve explored the beaches and the mountains, get on the water to see Santa Cruz from a different perspective.
Soon after we first moved back to California, my extended family chartered a private tour on the Chardonnay. Even with very young kids, Bug was still a baby and JJ was 3, we enjoyed an easy and relaxing sail. The Chardonnay offers a range of public tours, from pizza cruises to wildlife and ecology cruises. There’s a fun sailing experience for every type of family.
If a catamaran adventure is more your speed, O’Neil Yacht Charters offers exciting sails for all ages on their brand new luxury 65’ catamaran. Take in views of the Santa Cruz coastline while gliding through Monterey Bay. Choose from public afternoon cruises, sunset sails, wildlife tours, and other special experiences for an unforgettable outing.
10. EXPLORE DOWNTOWN SANTA CRUZ
While Santa Cruz is full of gorgeous natural beauty, it also has a quirky charm that’s fun to explore. This is on full display in Downtown Santa Cruz, a great stop if you want to explore the town’s art scene and unique character.
If you have a comic book lover in your family, you’ve got to visit this Comicopolis! The team behind this “oasis of awesome” has carefully curated a unique selection of comics and games. They even have a thoughtful selection of graphic novels for young readers.
EXIT Santa Cruz
EXIT is Santa Cruz’s only immersive escape room adventure. The onsite location had to close in March of 2020 due to COVID, but they are offering fun outdoor scavenger hunts until it’s safe to reopen.
With Clue Hunt, participants can explore downtown Santa Cruz as they complete silly challenges on a self-guided scavenger hunt. All you need is a phone with an internet connection and some teammates. EXIT has over one hundred scavenger hunt challenges, so you’ll never have to worry about playing the same game twice!
Bookshop Santa Cruz
I have a serious weakness for independent book stores. I can explore their carefully curated tables for hours. Bookshop Santa Cruz is run by a team of people who genuinely love what they do. Be sure to stop in and check out their outstanding children’s and travel sections when you’re in town!
11. SANTA CRUZ MUSEUM OF ART AND HISTORY
When the Santa Cruz County Museum of Art and the Santa Cruz Historical Society merged into the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, they did more than combine two museum collections. The museum became a community space where people are invited to connect through creativity and shared experiences. In addition to traditional exhibitions, visitors participate in performances, festivals, cultural celebrations, and unique education programs.
A quick glance at upcoming events revealed a family-friendly evening bike ride, a cemetery history tour, and a preschool storytime. If you want to experience a sense of Santa Cruz culture beyond the beach, stop by the museum and see what’s going on.
12. ROARING CAMP
My boys love Roaring Camp. Whether taking a ride on Percy during the “Day Out with Thomas” celebration, hitching a ride to the Boardwalk on the beach train, or strolling around after a walk in Henry Cowell, the first sight of the park’s Old West facades always gets them excited and ready to play.
The park was developed to preserve a slice of the 1880s when the area’s first railroad began carrying tourists to see the “Big Trees” and the beach. The land was purchased by the Clark family in the 1980s and remains in the family today.
Visitors today can hitch a ride through the redwood forest to Bear Mountain, continue on to the beach, or join in one of their many festivals and events.
There’s plenty to do here, even if you don’t get on a train. Kids can check out the hand car, pan for gold, make a candle, get their faces painted, and parents will find endless photo ops all around!
A day at Roaring Camp can easily be combined with a walk through the redwoods at Henry Cowell State Park, conveniently located right next door.
13. THE MYSTERY SPOT
Growing up in San Jose, I knew of The Mystery Spot by the ubiquitous bumper stickers that you’d see on every freeway in the area. You’ll probably spot at least one or two of the bright yellow stickers during your stay in Santa Cruz.
The Mystery Spot is marketed as a gravitational anomaly in the forests outside of Santa Cruz. Discovered in 1939, the Mystery Spot makes you feel like the laws of physics and gravity don’t apply here. People come time and again to experience the puzzle created by gravity, perspective, and height.
There have been many nutty speculations about the spot, including the idea that a spacecraft is buried deep under the cabin generating a magma vortex! Whatever the cause, it’s a fun place to visit for all ages. Much of it is outdoors, including a short hiking trail that visitors enjoy.
14. MOUNT HERMON ADVENTURES
For an outdoor adventure in Santa Cruz with kids, Mount Hermon Adventures is perfect for families with children who are 10 and up. The experiences are designed to connect groups and families through adventure challenges.
The Sequoia Aerial Adventure has a series of increasingly challenging obstacles suspended among the redwood trees. Conquering the challenges together helps build trust and create lasting adrenaline-filled memories.
The Redwood Canopy Tour is a more relaxing option. It features six zip lines and two suspension bridges. Tour guides share ecological and local knowledge as they wander with you through the canopy.
15. ELKHORN SLOUGH
About 30 minutes south of Santa Cruz along Monterey Bay, the Elkhorn Slough flows inland from Moss Landing State Beach.
Full of wildlife and natural beauty, the slough harbors the largest tract of tidal salt marsh in the state outside of San Francisco. The result is a biologically rich habitat for tens of thousands of birds and hundreds of sea otters. Harbor seals line the shores and sea lions can be heard barking throughout the spring.
The boys’ first kayak trip was down Elkhorn Slough with Monterey Bay Kayaks. The calm waters made for a perfect starter trip for our young kids (and my mom, who was more nervous than the boys!). It was a foggy fall morning, but we were still wowed by greetings from the seals and otters. We also got to spot a gorgeous Great Blue Heron. Our guide was a marine biology student who provided welcome context to our experience.
A few months later on a sunny spring Sunday, we took a ride in the Elkhorn Slough Safari boat. This time we made it all the way down the Slough on a slow and calm boat ride. Personally, I liked being on the water in a kayak, but the Safari is a good option for those who want to explore the Slough’s entire 7 miles.
WHAT TO PACK FOR A SANTA CRUZ GETAWAY?
You might have noticed that the boys are quite bundled up in a lot of our photos. When you visit Santa Cruz, you never know what the weather might bring. Summers on the beach are often foggy and cool in the mornings until the sun comes out, and mornings in the forest are almost always on the cooler side. Come prepared with layers, and don’t be fooled into thinking you can skip sunblock on a foggy day. Believe it or not, you can still get a decent sunburn through the mist!
The following are some of our must-haves for a Santa Cruz getaway:
- A Sunday Afternoons Sunhat. We rarely go anywhere outdoors without these. They are comfortable, light, and great for keeping the sun off the boys’ face and necks.
- We LOVE these wearable beach towels from Mini Boden. They make it easy for the boys to splash around and then get warm and comfortable quickly when it’s time to dry off. They’ve been wearing them for years.
- Both boys now wear these Keens Kid’s Newport hiking sandals all the time. They work great for a day on the trails or in the river. They also protect little feet from hot sand, and the boys can keep them on in the water if they want.
- I never go to the beach without this sunscreen stick. We use a mix of lotions and sprays on the rest of their bodies, but this is the only thing I’ve found for their faces that I can actually apply without them squirming all over the place!
GETTING TO SANTA CRUZ
An easy drive south of San Francisco or north of Monterey, Santa Cruz is easily accessible by car along California’s scenic Highway 1.
If you’re traveling from San Jose or the inland freeways, you’ll head south west to Santa Cruz via Highway 17. Highway 17 goes through the Santa Cruz Mountains and has a few sharp turns. Take your time and stay to the right if it’s your first time driving “over the hill.”
Because most people arrive by car, Santa Cruz is no stranger to traffic along Highway 17 and Highway 1. Try to avoid afternoon beach traffic or rush hour traffic when possible.
WHERE TO STAY IN SANTA CRUZ WITH KIDS
There are plenty of options for staying in Santa Cruz with kids. From retro-cool to luxury condos, your family is sure to find a perfect home away from home for your surfside getaway.
The Dream Inn
If you want to stay in the middle of the action, consider staying at the landmark Dream Inn. Each of the 165 guest rooms has ocean views and the hotel pool is steps from the sand. The Dream Inn is located on the site of Jack O’Neill’s first surf shop and is an easy walk to the Wharf, Boardwalk, and West Cliff Drive.
Seascape Beach Resort
Further south in Aptos, Seascape Beach Resort offers more space and a quieter beach experience. Every room in this all-suite resort has kitchens, fireplaces, and access to 17 miles of beach. Families love the two-bedroom villas. In addition to more rooms, they come with a washer and dryer, full kitchen, living room, and outdoor space! If your room is further from the beach, the resort has golf carts for guests so you don’t have to worry about dragging your gear to and from the sand.
Of the many resort activities offered at Seascape, the most popular is their beach bonfire service. Resort staff build and maintain the fire for you, and also provide the chairs and s’mores ingredients. Be sure to reserve well ahead of your stay!
If you prefer living like a local with a vacation rental, consider this Modern Surf Shack. Guests love the spacious outdoor patio with its terrific grill set up and fire pit. The owners also provide paddleboards and beach cruisers, so you can bypass the rentals.
With a location within walking distance to the beach and an easy stroll or ride to West Cliff Drive, this cozy surf cottage makes an ideal home away from home.
KID-FRIENDLY EATS IN SANTA CRUZ
This California town on the ocean has no shortage of family-friendly places to grab a bite. The following are some of our favorites, but it isn’t hard to find delicious meals anywhere around this town.
Marianne’s Ice Cream
What’s a beach town without ice cream??? Stopping by Marianne’s Ice Cream after a visit to the beach or my grandparents’ house was a family tradition for us growing up. I can still imagine the taste of my favorite blue bubble gum ice cream every time I drive by.
The original location at 1020 Ocean Street has been going strong since 1947. Today you’ll also find other locations serving up this local favorite around town.
Popular Harbor Cafe has been a community staple for more than 60 years. It’s all about brunch and is known for its great food and casual good vibes.
All are welcome here, even dogs on the outdoor patio. Know that they don’t take reservations and lines can take a while on the weekends. Come early or be prepared to wait a bit. Most agree that it’s well worth the wait!
A Capitola institution, Gayle’s Bakery has been known for its delicious baked goods and savory specials for decades. While the menu items rotate regularly, you’re guaranteed to find some yummy options for breakfast or a picnic on nearby Capitola beach.
Don’t forget to order a fresh-baked cookie, eclair, or slice of cake to complete the Gayle’s Bakery experience.
ITINERARY: FOUR DAYS IN SANTA CRUZ WITH KIDS
The following is a sample itinerary for a four-day extended weekend in Santa Cruz with kids that features many of the suggestions above. Of course, you should do as much or as little as you’d like. There’s something for every family and every pace in Santa Cruz.
Day 1: Get Settled and Unwind
When you’re spending a long weekend in Santa Cruz, everyone’s going to be excited to get to one thing: the beach! Drop off your things, settle in, and head to the coast to kick off your seaside escape.
Consider heading to Seabright Beach first. Known for its picture-perfect sunsets at Walton Lighthouse and firepit gatherings, this is an ideal place to kickstart your beach weekend. If you’re staying at Seascape, reserve the bonfire service instead to celebrate your first night in town. Take it easy, and let the resort do all the work while you relax, unwind, and get into vacation mode!
Another exciting option for your first afternoon and evening is a sunset cruise on the Chardonnay or O’Neill’s Catamaran. It’s a beautiful way to get a lay of the land and to spot some of your future destinations.
Day 2: Explore Santa Cruz’s Westside
Kick off the next morning with a family bike ride along West Cliff Drive. Leave time for plenty of stops. Take in the scene at Cowell Beach, snap a photo with the Surfer Statue, check out the surf action at Steamer Lane, and browse the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum.
End the first leg of your bike ride with a picnic at Natural Bridges State Beach. If you time it right, you can enjoy exploring Natural Bridges’ famous tidepools while you’re there. If you don’t want to pack up sandwiches before you leave, make a quick detour to Cafe Iveta on your way to the beach.
After making your way back to the Wharf and dropping off your bikes, head over to The Boardwalk. Take a spin on a ride or two, or hang out and play until the evening. The ambiance completely changes when the lights come on at night. I love taking a ride on the Sky Glider in the evening to take it all in. There’s plenty to keep you busy there for as long as you’d like!
Day 3: Head for the Hills
After a couple of days at the beach, it’s time to head to the mountains for an up-close view of California’s majestic coastal redwoods.
Start your day at Roaring Camp and enjoy chugging through the canopy on your way to Bear Mountain. Stay awhile to check out the little town, pan for gold, make some crafts, and grab a BBQ lunch.
Stroll over to the Henry Cowell State Park next door before you leave. Explore the Redwood Grove on the flat 0.8-mile trail that takes you through many of the park highlights.
On your way back to the coast, consider stopping off for one more mountain adventure. If you have older kids, explore the Redwood Canopy experience at Mount Hermon Adventures. Families with younger children might want to stop at the Mystery Spot to play with the laws of nature. Be sure to grab a souvenir bumper sticker on your way out!
Day 4: Breakfast on the Beach
Before heading home on your last day, swing by Gayle’s Bakery to sample their famous croissants and pastries. Bring your delicious breakfast with you to Capitola Beach to enjoy with a beautiful ocean view.
Wander through Capitola Village before you go. It’s the perfect place to pick up a souvenir to remember your awesome Santa Cruz weekend.