If you’re California dreamin’, then make Santa Cruz your destination with lots of fun things to do. Here’s a curated list of my favorite things I did while staying in nearby Felton, Calif. in a romantic and cozy A-frame Airbnb among towering redwood trees. Some of the top things to do in and near Santa Cruz include the coastal beaches, beautiful state parks, redwood forests, the iconic boardwalk, amusement park, pier, and more.
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List of the best things to do Santa Cruz, California
I am so in love with Santa Cruz with its beautiful beaches, fabulous coastal views, great surfing conditions, fun boardwalk and amusement park, peaceful butterfly sanctuary, towering redwoods, and hiking trails. Located about 70 miles south of San Francisco, Santa Cruz is a great day trip, long weekend getaway, or a vacation destination. Here is list of the top things to do in and near Santa Cruz, California.
Santa Cruz and Santa Cruz County offers nearly 30 miles of picturesque coastal beaches and more on California’s central coast. Here are just a few of the top things to do in the area.
Watch the ocean do its thing
If beaches are your thing, then Santa Cruz is your kind of place. You’ll find 34 beaches along 30 miles of sandy, rugged, and beautiful coastline in Santa Cruz County.
Are the beaches in Santa Cruz dog-friendly?
Here are some of the best dog-friendly beaches in Santa Cruz County, according to the Santa Cruz County Visitor Center.
- Lighthouse Field State Beach (aka Its Beach) is considered THE dog beach in Santa Cruz
- Mitchell’s Cove Beach in Santa Cruz allows your dog to romp around without a leash here.
- Seabright State Beach in Santa Cruz allows leashed dogs.
- Twin Lakes State Beach also allows dogs on leashes.
- Another dog-friendly beach (on leashes) is Sunny Cove Beach in Santa Cruz.
- New Brighton State Beach in nearby Capitola is a dog-friendly beach.
- Manresa State Beach in nearby Watsonville allows leashed dogs. As does Palm State Beach (with some restrictions).
The City of Santa Cruz, California also offers a list of the dog-off-leash areas.
Go surfing or watch the surfers or learn to surf
The beaches in Santa Cruz County, California offer great surf conditions for surfers or those who like to watch surfers. And you’ll also find surfing schools nearby. Although this day was a quiet day when I visited. Those black dots are surfers waiting patiently.
Play beach volleyball at one of the city beaches of Santa Cruz
You can rent one of the 18 beach volleyball courts on the Main Beach of Santa Cruz (located right next to the Santa Cruz Wharf and Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk).
Visit the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and amusement park
The iconic boardwalk of Santa Cruz offers something for everyone whether you’re solo, visiting as a couple, or as a family. The number one attraction in Santa Cruz offers:
- An amusement park with 11 thrill rides, 19 family-friendly rides, 8 kiddie rides
- Miniature golf
- Laser tag
- Fright Walk – haunted attraction
- And more
Check the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk website for hours of operations as they vary depending on the season.
Enjoy the sunset at one of the waterfront restaurants or bars
My friend and I enjoyed a sunset happy hour at Makai Island Kitchen – a waterfront restaurant and bar with a revolving floor. So every seat is a window seat.
You’ll find several restaurants and bars on the Santa Cruz wharf. Built in 1914, it’s the longest wooden wharf on the U.S. coast.
Dine al fresco on the beach
You’ll find many restaurants to dine al fresco on many of the Santa Cruz beaches with great waterfront views. Or pack your own beach-day lunch.
Rent a non-motorized boat in Santa Cruz
The main Santa Cruz beaches to launch your non-motorized boat include Main Beach, Cowell Beach, and seasonally from The Wharf. You’ll find boat rentals nearby.
Hike at one of the beautiful state parks in Santa Cruz County, California
You’ll find a dozen or so California state parks in Santa Cruz County – including Big Basin State Park, the oldest in California. Time only allowed me to visit three of the best state parks in Santa Cruz County: Wilder Ranch State Park, Natural Bridges State Park, and Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. I plan to return for more hiking adventures in and near Santa Cruz.
Alphabetic list of state parks in Santa Cruz County, California
Here’s an alphabetic list of the best state parks in Santa Cruz County, California.
- Ano Nuevo State Park
- Big Basin State Park
- Castle Rock State Park
- Castro Adobe State Park
- Coast Dairies State Park
- Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
- Lighthouse Field State Park
- Natural Bridges State Park
- New Brighton State Park
- Nisene Marks State Park
- Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park
- Wilder Ranch State Park
Wilder Ranch State Park offers stunning panoramic cliffside views
Looking for some stunning panoramic cliffside views? Then you’ll love your hike at Wilder Ranch State Park. This 7,000-acre park offers 34 miles of hiking, biking, and horseback riding trails through seaside bluffs, valleys, marshlands. I would love to return and explore the historic ranch that features a Victorian home from the late 1800s, an 1859 farmhouse, a water-powered machine shop, and other historic buildings.
Natural Bridges State Park – another beautiful beach with stunning views.
One of the best state parks in California is Natural Bridges. It features coastal scrub and grasslands, wetlands, a salt marsh, tide pools, and a wide and uncrowded beach – perfect for birdwatching and spotting whales, otters, and seals.
Take a peaceful nature walk at the Monarch Butterfly Nature Preserve
Natural Bridges State Park is also home to the Monarch Butterfly Nature Preserve. This is where thousands of monarch butterflies migrate to and winter at from October to mid-February every year. Sometimes they leave by January.
Plan on looking up a lot along the accessible boardwalk as you search for the monarch cities in the eucalyptus trees known as clusters. The only state monarch preserve in California, this area also offers a peaceful nature trail through the eucalyptus grove.
Check out my Monarch Butterfly Nature Preserve reel on Instagram, which currently has 12k+ plays (if the link appears broken, it’s not…it works – or you can follow my IG travel page @kmf_116).
Walk among the towering redwoods at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
For a beautiful nature walk under giant redwood trees, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in Felton, California is only 20 minutes from the Santa Cruz boardwalk. Here you’ll find a short, yet mesmerizing, trail (less than a mile) loop trail under magnificent redwood trees. An additional 15 miles of hiking and horseback riding trails take you through a variety of trees and also along the San Lorenzo River.
Ride a 100-year-old steam train at Roaring Camp
And since you’re in the neighborhood, head next door to Roaring Camp in Felton, Calif. Located next to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, you can ride a 100-year-old steam train at Roaring Camp. The 75-minute train ride takes you through redwood groves, to the top of Bear Mountain with conductors telling stories about the history of the camp and area.
Wanting a longer tour? Then consider the three-hour Santa Cruz Beach Train where you can purchase a reverse roundtrip ticket starting on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.
This historical and educational attraction is great for families visiting Santa Cruz. You’ll also find the train depot, a general store, a covered bridge, an 1880 barn-style hall, and lots of kid activities like panning for gold.
Visit nearby Capitola – the oldest beach resort in California
Enjoy the picturesque beach village of Capitola-by-the-sea, which is only 5 miles away from Santa Cruz. This seaside village features a wide beach, an esplanade, restaurants, colorful beachside cottages, and quaint shops. This charming and small coastal destination started as a lumber port and later became California’s first beach resort. Located on the Bay of Monterey, Capitola is located on the Monterey Bay National Bay Sanctuary Trail. It’s a popular destination for surfers, boaters, beachcombers, and those who love to fish.
Go wine tasting in the Santa Cruz Mountains
Visit any one of the 50 family-owned wineries in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Something I’ll need to add to my list then next time I visit. In fact, I’ve created a bucket list of many other cool things to do in Santa Cruz. Can’t wait to return!
When is the best time to visit Santa Cruz?
With its mild climate, any time is the best time to visit Santa Cruz. I visited the last weekend in November, and it was sunny and in the 60s and 70s. In the winter, average temps drop to the mid-50s. Summer temps in Santa Cruz average in the mid-70s with low humidity.
What is the closest airport to Santa Cruz, California?
I flew into the San Jose International Airport (SJC), which is about 30 miles away from Santa Cruz. Note that the roads are twisty and curvy so allow at least 45 minutes depending on weather and traffic. The San Francisco (SFO) International Airport is located 60 miles away and is also about an hour drive. If you take the scenic route along the coast, then it’s about 90 minutes.
I only spent a couple of days in the Santa Cruz County area so I plan to return and explore more of the beautiful state parks, hiking trails, and attractions. Please consider subscribing to my blog to see future posts.