Wilder Ranch State Park Santa Cruz oceanview
Wilder Ranch State Park offers stunning views along bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

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

Capitola Beach near 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

Wilder Ranch State Park Santa Cruz California

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.

Woman taking photo at Natural Bridges State Park
My friend Megan – my local tour guide when visiting the Santa Cruz area – captured this of me taking hundreds of photos: Natural Bridges State Beach and Park.

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

Surfers in Capitola near Santa Cruz California

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

Beach volleyball court in Santa Cruz California

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

Santa Cruz coastline at night
A view of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk at night from the Santa Cruz Wharf.

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
  • Bowling
  • Arcades
  • 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

Waterfront restaurant at sunset in Santa Cruz California

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

Sunset sail in Santa Cruz California

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

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in Felton near Santa Cruz 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

Wilder Ranch State Park offers a living museum as well as stunning views on its hiking trails overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

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.

Natural Bridges State Park Beach in Santa Cruz California
Natural Bridges State Park in Santa Cruz, California offers a beautiful beach and views – perfect for birdwatching.

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
Monarch Butterfly Nature Preserve in Santa Cruz California
The Monarch Butterfly Nature Preserve also features a nature trail.

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.

Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary boardwalk trail in Santa Cruz California

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.   

Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary sign in Santa Cruz California

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

Redwood tree at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in California
Nuture your soul with a breathtaking stroll through Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in Felton – just a few miles from Santa Cruz, Califonria.

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

Roaring Camp Railroad Felton, California
Go back in time at Roaring Camp in nearby Felton – adjacent to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park and just up the road from Santa Cruz.

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

Capitola Beach - the oldest beach resort in California
The picturesque seaside village of Capitola near Santa Cruz, 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.

Pin it – top places to visit in Santa Cruz

Wilder Ranch State Park Santa Cruz California

Best things to do in Santa Cruz California

Author

Twin Cities-based blogger sharing memorable emptynester, solo, family and girlfriend-getaway adventures, as well as my day hiking adventures (including all 66 Minnesota state parks), latest book reviews, and updates on my quest for the best adult mac and cheese. Also two WIPs: historical fiction and psychological thriller

43 comments

  1. Love your pics! The rugged coastal scenery in Santa Cruz is stunning! Your post has made me want to visit California! I’m saving it for later…

  2. It has been far too long since our last visit to California. The ocean would sure be a big draw for us to visit Santa Cruz. Although I would just be watching the surfers! Awesome to know there are so many parks close by for hiking. A ride on a 100 year old train sounds so fun. Need to plan to visit and stay in the area the next time we get to California.

    1. I hope you get the opportunity to visit Santa Cruz. I am so ready to return as there is so many more state parks I’d like to explore.

  3. Lovely area! I love this kind of destination that has such fabulous ocean views and incredible forests! It’d be fab to see the Monarch Butterflies if you visit at the right time of year …

    1. Thank you! The ocean views in Santa Cruz are amazing. And I was so mesmerized by all the monarch butterflies. So peaceful.

    1. Thank you! I hope you get the opportunity to visit Santa Cruz – so many great things to do in this coastal community in California.

  4. We were just in California for Spring Break. I loved Capitola and the cute colorful houses and we also walked through the redwoods. So much to see and love about California.

  5. Santa Cruz looks like such a great place to visit, especially because I love being outdoors! I would love to check out the beaches and the Monarch Butterfly Nature Preserve!

    1. Santa Cruz is one of the best places to visit in California. So beautiful and loved the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary – we went in late November and it was perfect timing.

  6. It looks like there are so many fun things to do near Santa Cruz! Hiking, watching the ocean and chasing sunsets sounds like a dream escape! I also love how colourful Capitola is! Thanks for the great guide!

    1. Thank you and my pleasure. Yes, so many fun thing to do in and near Santa Cruz, California. Chasing sunsets and watching the ocean waves was so relaxing. And loved colorful Capitola.

  7. Not sure I’m quite beach volleyball ready, but walking amongst the redwoods or going on a nice hike would be well worth a visit to this part of California. I think I could just about handle a sunset view and drinks too. Looks just blissful!

    1. Ha! I don’t think I’m beach volleyball ready either. But did love exploring the rest of Santa Cruz, California. Especially loved the coastline and hiking trails in the redwoods.

  8. This looks like an amazing area to spend a few days. I’d love to go on a hike along the coastline and take in the views at sunset.

    1. Thank you! Santa Cruz, California is an amazing place to hike and the coastline is perfect to take in the views at sunset.

    1. Santa Cruz offers so many beautiful places to explore. I loved hiking at the state parks along the coastline and in the redwood forest.

  9. I love Santa Cruz. There are some amazing restaurants and the ocean views are great. I used to live north of Santa Cruz and loved the drive along the coast, usually picking kiwifruit or buying trays of strawberries along the way.

  10. We have been planning a California road trip for what seems like forever! Santa Cruz was on our list before, but this just solidifies wanting to go there! Just gorgeous!

    1. So many beautiful trails and state parks in and near Santa Cruz, California. And the beaches and coastlines are stunning.

  11. Being on the east coast, California is always one of my favorite destinations. All the things there is to do including just soaking up a gorgeous sunset makes it such a great destination. I haven’t seen the redwoods yet but I am definitely going to take your recommendation my next trip!

  12. I’ve been to Santa Cruz a couple of times. But I have never seen all these destinations that you have mentioned. Next time I go back I’ll have to look for some of them.

  13. This looks like a picturesque and amazing destination. I would love to go. My top picks would be food and drink while watching the sunset, hiking the Redwoods, visiting the monarch butterfly park, and wine tasting. The weather looks perfect!

    1. The weather in Santa Cruz, California is perfect. I especially loved hiking the state parks in the redwoods and beaches.

  14. Lots of fun things to do in the Santa Cruz area! I have several California destinations on my list. I’ll have to add this one.

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