Things To Do In Santa Cruz
When you mention Santa Cruz, people are going to think of one of three things: Beaches, Surfing and the famous Boardwalk. But Santa Cruz offers so much more than just sun, sand and wild rides. There are so many activities for the entire family, though most people are there for the beaches and the surfing. And the Boardwalk. This really is an outdoor paradise. Santa Cruz was dedicated as a World Surfing Reserve in April 2012, so the importance of that sport and pastime (and obsession) cannot be overstated. But even if your contact with the water is limited to dipping a toe in the water then spending the rest of the day beach-combing and looking at tide pools, this it place for you.
When To Go:
The average annual temperature is 55°F. (13° C). The average annual high is 62°F (17° C) and the average low is 47° (8° C). Some people might say not to visit in the winter (November through February) when it can be windy and rainy, but you would have the Boardwalk to yourself if you visited then. Fall is a beautiful time to visit. Many of the Fall-related events and festivals take place in September, October, and November. Late Spring and Summer are, of course, the best times to visit this beautiful city. The temperature if warm, and the place is full of tourist and locals all looking for a good time in the sun.
Just be aware that this is Northern California, on the Pacific Ocean, so any day can be rainy, and any morning can be foggy. So there really is not a bad time to visit the area. It just depends on how wet you want to get. And, you need to be aware that, to get to Santa Cruz, you may have to drive in the fog.
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Here’s a List of the things to do in Santa Cruz…
The best thing about the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, besides the beach and the sand and the fun and all the free entertainment, is that it features both modern and classic rides. The famous wooden Giant Dipper roller coaster has been there since 1924 and is a National Historic Landmark. The Looff Carousel has been in operation since 1911! But there are still enough modern rides to get your heart pumping and your stomach churning. Admission is free to the Boardwalk itself, which is situated along a mile of beautiful warm sandy beach.
There are restaurants for proper meals, and all kinds of boardwalk-related eating stalls, for your dining and junk food pleasure. You can play miniature golf, go bowling, visit the video arcades – or just walk on the beach. During the summer months, the Boardwalk hosts the “Free Friday Night Bands on the Beach” concerts. (Note: the concerts can get rowdy and are probably not the best choice for the youngest members of your family). Check for hours. The Boardwalk is closed most weekdays during the winter and early spring months (October through March).
There are both municipal and State Beaches in the Santa Cruz area. Municipal (City) beaches are free to the public while State beaches have an admittance fee. California State Parks have annual passes that get you into all their parks, so if you are going to be going to a lot of parks, you should get one. Just be aware that they are pricey, costing almost $200. However, if you are only going to area beaches for the day (or for a few days) then the $10 day-pass will get you into all the State parks.
Municipal and City Beaches
The Santa Cruz Boardwalk Beach is the most well-know of all local beaches. You do not have to participate in all the crazy Boardwalk activity to enjoy this lovely strip of sand and surf. It is located at 400 Beach Street, but you can just follow the signs and the noise if you like. Parking at the Boardwalk itself is a bit expensive, so try to find an alternate spot.
The Santa Cruz Municipal Warf, at 21 Warf Street, was built in 1914 and is the longest pier on the West Coast. You can find gift shops, dining, boat tours, the fishing fleet, the fish market and sea lions! If you want to see (and hear) these entertaining, noisy critters, this is the place to go. It is the venue for the Woodies on the Warf event and also the City’s 4th of July Fireworks display.
Cowell’s Beach is located next to the Municipal Warf. It can be accessed by a stairway off of West Cliff Drive. It is known as a quality surfing area. Surfers tend to paddle in on their boards from the Warf to the beach.
Streamer Lane is the “most famous surfer spot” in Santa Cruz. It is just off West Cliff Drive. People who are not attracted to the large swells can watch the surfers from the cliffs. Otherwise, you can take your chances on the beach and in the water. The Santa Cruz Surfing Museum is located nearby. (Note: when visiting, remember: never turn your back on the ocean. Sneaker waves can be deadly).
Other East Cliff Drive Beaches (just keep driving – you will find them): Sunny Cove Beach, Seabright Beach, 38th Ave Beach, Moran Lake Park & Beach, 26th Street Beach, Pleasure Point Beach.
State Park Beaches
Natural Bridges State Park is located at Swanton Blvd & West Cliff Drive (the road ends at the park). It is named for the natural “bridge” formations that were created by millennia of water and wind action.
It is a fantastic place for families as it full of tide pools and sea critters (like seals and pelican). In fall, migrating Monarch butterflies hang from the eucalyptus trees at the beach. It’s inspiring to say the least. (Note: Remind your kids that “we do not bring any living things home with us”. The creatures will die, and really stink up our car/bedroom/suitcase).
Twin Lakes State Park (E Cliff at 7th Ave) is a mile of lovely sand, ideal for swimming and family picnics. As it is next to Schwan’s Lake, so it is a good area for bird-watching. .
Surfing and Surfing Stuff
Santa Cruz is referred to by locals (and the rest of California) as “Surf City”. Unlike other surfing areas up and down the coast, the waves in this area just naturally accommodate all levels of surfers – from beginners (or pets learning to surf) to lunatics who want to kill themselves in the big waves.
The trick is knowing which beach to try (please see our list of beaches for additional information). Fortunately, surfing is so important here that web-pages and hot-lines are available to give the dedicated surfer up to the moment information about conditions. And just in case the waves are not to your liking, you can visit the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum.
Located at Lighthouse Point on West Cliff Drive, the museum’s mission is to “protect and preserve our rich surfing heritage and to ensure historical artifacts are maintained and preserved for the enjoyment and education of current and future generations”. While this might sound a little strange to people who do not surf, it is hugely important in this area of the world. Check their website for hours of operation which are kind of …odd (maybe they are based on the tides).
The town of Roaring Camp was established in the 1830’s and was the first saw mill west of the Mississippi. It was such a wild and untamed camp that the Mexican authorities renamed the settlement “Roaring Camp” and the name stuck.
The town is only six miles from downtown Santa Cruz, but it is a world apart. There are old-time crafts like candle-making and blacksmithing. Visitors can pan for gold, have an Old-time photograph taken, and eat in one of the period-correct eateries.
Roaring Camp Railroad
There are two different routes that train buffs can try: when they want to ride this period steam train. You have the choice of either the Redwood Forest Steam Train and the Santa Cruz Beach Train. The Redwood Forest Steam Train costs $27 for adults and $20 children under the age of 13. It is a 1 hour 15 minute round trip from Roaring Camp, up Bear Mountain and back.
The Santa Cruz Beach Train costs $29 for adults and $23 for children under the age of 13. It is a 3 hour trip around Santa Cruz.
The Mystery Spot was opened in 1941. It has been there so long that it has its own road and its own special address: 465 Mystery Spot Road, Santa Cruz. The attraction claims that the laws of gravity (and physics) do not apply here, and they have hand-on demonstrations to prove it.
Of course, it is all optical illusions – or is it? It is such a popular attraction that it is highly recommended that you buy tour tickets in advance and arrive 30 minutes before your assigned tour time. On weekends and holidays, the tours sell out and the road has to be closed. You even have to pay to park! Now that’s a popular place!
Wineries and Breweries
Santa Cruz sits right in the middle of a huge wine-producing district of California. There are wineries right in the city and many more tucked into lovely valleys or on majestic peaks in the nearby Santa Cruz mountains. At the moment, there are at least 80 wineries and tasting rooms in the area in and around Santa Cruz. Some of the best wines in the world are being made right here, where there is a perfect blend of sun, rain and coastal breezes. Many of the local wineries are “themed” – built to look like French vineyards, or Tuscan villas. They often have lovely gardens as well, and all have elegant tasting rooms.
And, while you may fancy a ride in the mountains, through majestic redwood forests, the best (and probably safest) way to visit these lovely places is to go on a wine tour. Several local companies are available to do the driving for you. They know the best places to go, and they know how to navigate the winding roads. So you can go have a great time, get as silly as you like, and not worry about getting back home in one piece. You can rent a limo, a minivan, or a larger bus for larger parties.
If wine is not your preferred beverage, there are many mico-breweries and craft-beer brewers in the area. Once again, tours are available to take you to all the best spots. Since many of the breweries are up in the mountains, you get the added bonus of seeing beautiful scenery as well as getting to sip great beer and munch on great “pub grub”.
Monterey Bay Aquarium
Ok – the Aquarium is actually located in Monterey (800 Cannery Row) California, about 40 miles (64 kilometers ) from Santa Cruz, but it is the perfect day trip if you are in the area. It’s just a wonderful family adventure, featuring dolphins, otters, sea turtles, sharks, octopi, and hundreds of other kinds of sea life.
It costs a bit ($39.95 for adults and $24.95 for kids aged 3-12) but it is one of the best, most ecologically-responsible aquariums in the world. There are over 600 species of marine life to entertain and educate everyone in your family. Truth be told, just watching the otters play and cavort for a few hours is worth the price of admission.
Festivals and Events
There is always something going on in Santa Cruz. There are so many festivals and events, it’s just impossible to list them all. Ok, its’ not impossible, but it would take up a lot of space. So here is a short list of some of the best;
The Santa Cruz Chocolate Festival happens at the end of January. There are chocolate tastings, live jazz bands, chocolate workshops, and chocolate yummies to buy. And, once you have eaten your way into a chocolate stupor, you can feel good that the money you spent will go to a good cause: student scholarships at UCSC (University of California at Santa Cruz).
The Woodies on the Warf event celebrates that icon of all surfers: the Woody wagon. Every June over 200 of these wonderful classic vehicles cruise down to Santa Cruz to the joy and edification of the public. The event is accompanied by food and surfer-stuff for sale. So put on your best Hawaiian shirt and strike a pose in front of one of these classic beauties.
One of the best Greek Festivals in the area is held each fall in Santa Cruz. The Greek Cultural and Food Festival is held the weekend after Labor Day. There is so much great food that you just don’t know where to start, and, of course there is dancing, dancing and more dancing. You can buy all kinds of Greek goods and foods, and learn about the Greek culture. There are many Greek Festivals in other nearby cities but this one is known to be the biggest and the best in Northern California.
The Scotts Valley Art & Wine Festival is just a short ride up the hill from downtown San Jose. This two-day festival is held in August and has a juried art show, lots of food and local wines and craft beers. There are fun things to do for the entire family. It is held at the SkyPark in nearby Scotts Valley.
The Santa Cruz County Fair is held annually in the third week in September. This is a huge family event, with all the things you would expect to see at a county fair: Food, animals, rides, games, and local crafts and produce.
The O’Neill Coldwater Classic is a four-day surfing event for crazy people and crazy spectators. It is held in October, when the water and the weather is just about as cold as it can get.
The Holiday Light Train is a feature of the Roaring Camp Railroad. The train is decorated with lights for its holiday trip through the city. Carolers and hot cider are on hand to warm the hearts of chilly participants. Even if you are not riding the train, it is a lovely sight to see.
The Monterey Bay Birding Festival is a free event that takes place every fall in several venues throughout the area. Birders from all over California (and the rest of the world) come to Santa Cruz and the Watsonville-Elkhorn area (specifically the nearby Elkhorn Slough Estuarine Reserve) so see migrating and native birds.
And, of course, one would not want to miss the January Fungus Festival. Not to worry: this is a festival celebrating mushrooms, not disgusting molds that grow on the walls. Mycophilliacs (mushroom lovers) from all over the state come to Santa Cruz to celebrate “all things mushroom”. Hey, this is the place to get your chanterelle and witch’s butter fix. Yikes! But, seriously, it is a lot of fun with workshops and cooking demonstrations. And it has a really cool name: the Fungus Federation's Fungus Faire.
Santa Cruz is famous for its numerous seafood and fish-related eating establishments. But, with over 300 dining places in the city alone, you are bound to find something to suit your palette. As part of the farm-to-table movement, everything you eat is going to be organic and “fresh from the farm” or “fresh from the sea”. Plus the wines and beers are going to be from local wineries and breweries.
You can also find dog-friendly restaurants in Santa Cruz, so you can have a nice night out with your “best friend”. Because of the multi-cultural nature of the city, you can find any kind of ethnic food in Santa Cruz.
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