During the summer of 2018, I’ve had the privilege to spend an entire summer working in Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. It’s one of the best places on earth to work in! During the three months’ time, I’ve explored the attractions in Santa Cruz and around it. So what are the things to do in Santa Cruz California?
With the signature cold sea breeze during summer, Santa Cruz is often the getaway vacation spot for Californians. It’s literally a tourist town, where hotels and motels can be found everywhere near the coast. The whole town becomes alive during the summer when tourists flocked in.
No matter you’re a tourist or Work & Travel USA participants in Santa Cruz, this article is for you.
Excited for the things to do in Santa Cruz California? Let’s dive in!
- 1 Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
- 2 Wilder Ranch State Park
- 3 Santa Cruz Wharf
- 4 Take The Roaring Camp Railroads
- 5 Visit the Vibrant Downtown
- 6 First Friday Santa Cruz
- 7 Biking Along West Cliff Drive
- 8 Visiting Natural Bridges State Beach
- 9 East Cliff Walton Lighthouse
- 10 Go Kayaking in Monterey Bay
- 11 Take A Sailing Tour
- 12 Surfing
- 13 Drive to Big Basin State Park
- 14 Day Trip to Monterey
- 15 Greet Elephant Seals in Ano Nuevo State Park
- 16 Drive Along Pacific Coast Highway
- 17 Visit Seymour Marine Discovery Center
- 18 Question Gravity at The Mystery Spot
- 19 Penny’s Ice Creamery
- 20 Join Wine Tasting Tours
- 21 Dye Your Own Shirts
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
I have to put this on the very first. It’s one of my favorite places in the world, and I have great memories in this park. Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk has been around since 1907 (more than 110 years old), featuring one of the oldest roller-coaster in the world, Giant Dipper.
The amusement park operated full-day during the summer from morning until late nights. But if you’re visiting during the other seasons, make sure to check the opening time at the official website here. The arcades are opened all-year-long.
I’ve written a full review about How It’s Like Working in Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk if you’re interested.
Wilder Ranch State Park
Wilder Ranch State Park has been one of my first bucket-list destinations after I started working in Santa Cruz. I actually borrowed a bike from my friend and rode an hour there with high speed during my once-a-week off day from my two full-time jobs. It didn’t let me down.
There’s a parking lot there to park your car and a big map, showing you all the trails available. I took the shorter one-hour trail along the coast, and I went home with lots of good photos and memories. Most of the trails can be explored by a bike though. While you’re there, watch out for the coyotes.
Other than the trails, there’s a particular ranch area which is worth your visit too. It’s located just a few minutes’ walk from the car park. The map at the parking lot will give you the direction. The ranch houses were used for dairy productions centuries ago and were left there for public visits. Highly recommended!
Santa Cruz Wharf
Santa Cruz Wharf is one of the highlights of the town. Filled with seafood restaurants and souvenir shops, it’s a perfect place for visitors. It’s particularly popular for visitors looking for some places to satisfy their hunger, especially during the summer. If you live nearby, consider waking up early and go for a jog to Santa Cruz Wharf. You’ll have a great chance of encountering the sea lions at the platforms below.
Take The Roaring Camp Railroads
From Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, take the train to the Roaring Camp in Felton on the 3-hours round trip. The train operated by Santa Cruz Big Trees & Pacific Railway carries passengers and freight services on one of the oldest and most historic lines in California. During the summer, the train departs daily just in front of the Boardwalk. Feel free to visit the Guest Services in the Boardwalk for a flyer regarding the train service. Visit here for more information.
Visit the Vibrant Downtown
If you choose not to dine at Santa Cruz Wharf, Downtown Santa Cruz is probably the place you’re looking for. With a huge variety of restaurants, you’ll be certain to find the foods you’re looking for to satisfy your hunger. Located beside San Lorenzo River, Downtown is also particularly lively at the night during the summer when tourists flooded into the town. You’ll also find thrift shops, music instrument shops, bars, supermarkets, museums and a lot more here.
First Friday Santa Cruz
First Friday in Santa Cruz may sound like a single event, but it’s not. Every first Friday of every month, there are events happening all around Santa Cruz from morning to late night. Note that the events may be varied from month to month so be sure to check before attending to avoid awkward appearance! Head over to their website here to check out the details and events.
Biking Along West Cliff Drive
My favorite thing to do during my day off working in the Boardwalk is biking along the West Cliff Drive. It’s close, it’s free and it’s heavenly beautiful. If you prefer walking, that would be great. But if you prefer cycling and do not have a bike, check out JUMP Bike. Renting the electric bikes with their mobile app was easy and convenient, and the bikes are nearby most of the time. It’s charging at $1 per 15 minutes, not sure whether it’ll change in the future. Cycle all the way from the Boardwalk to Lighthouse Point and then to the following destination below.
If you’re going to stay in Santa Cruz for a while, consider cycling to the East Cliff Drive as well, and pay a visit to Pleasure Point Beach!
Visiting Natural Bridges State Beach
Yep, Natural Bridges State Beach is probably the perfect destination for your ride. Cycle all the way along West Cliff will bring you to the state beach, perfect to spend time chilling, having fun with your dog or sunbathing. There is no further road after Natural Bridges State Beach along the coast. Take a photo at the iconic bridge-structure boulder at the beach during sunset!
Check out these 8 unique beaches in California for your next summer vacation!
East Cliff Walton Lighthouse
East Cliff might not be impressive as its west counterpart and is always ignored. While you’re in Santa Cruz, consider visiting Walton Lighthouse located by the end of Seabright State Beach. You’ll enjoy observing the sea lions resting on the boulders down below without the crowds. It’s also one of the best places for a sunset photo too. Check out Betty’s Burger on your way back home too, it’s one of the best in town. Check out Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History too.
Go Kayaking in Monterey Bay
One of the must-do things in Santa Cruz is to go kayaking in Monterey Bay. Kayaks can be rented in Santa Cruz Wharf from around $35. Venture into the vast sea and you’ll have a great chance of being visited by sea lions swimming by. Who knows you might see a humpback whale too!
While it feels so cold there, don’t forget to apply some sunscreen to prevent sunburns!
Take A Sailing Tour
Sailing tours are popular among tourists who want to catch a glimpse of whales. Sailing tours are much relaxed and hassle-free compared to the whale-watching tours. O’Neill Yacht Charters and Chardonnay Sailing Charters are among the top tour providers in Santa Cruz.
130 years ago, three Hawaiian princes introduced surfing to the town. It did take some time for the surfing culture to popularize in Santa Cruz. Nowadays, Santa Cruz is often referred to as ‘surf city’. The waves in Santa Cruz are perfect to accommodate surfers of all levels. The one thing you should know beforehand is the extremely cold seawater. You might need a wetsuit for that. Not sure which beach to go to? Check out the surf spots in Santa Cruz.
Drive to Big Basin State Park
Big Basin State Park, the oldest state park in California is home to one of the world’s tallest trees, the Redwoods. The other similar state park would be the Redwoods State Park. The downside of visiting this park is that you’ll need a car due to its remote location.
Imagine being surrounded by hundreds of enormous Redwood trees. The state park has a lot to offer in terms of waterfalls and hiking trails like Skyline-to-the-sea trail. Camping is also available here but be sure to check and reserve early for the summer months. You might come across a banana slug!
Check out the best redwoods near San Francisco here.
Day Trip to Monterey
While there are plenty of things to do in Monterey, a full-day trip is enough for me. In the early morning, take the bus or drive all the way to Monterey. The free trolley service is super tourist-friendly and convenient. Visit the Cannery Row, Fishermen Wharf and Downtown.
Go for the famous whale watching tours if it’s your thing! If you have extra time, definitely visit 17-Mile Drive, which is the home for many luxurious houses and awesome sceneries.
Just a quick note, if you’re in for the whale watching tour, don’t expect the boat to drive to beside the whale for you to take photos. It’s against the law. While you might see whales humping their back beside the boats in the promotional videos, it’s only possible when the whales felt like doing so. Most of the time, you’ll be watching them from a far and safe distance.
Greet Elephant Seals in Ano Nuevo State Park
Año Nuevo State Park is located a bit further than most destinations stated in this article. It’s located 22.4 miles (36km) from the Boardwalk, about 30 minutes’ drive.
What makes it so special is that you can find wild elephant seals on the beach there, minding their own business. If you don’t know what are those, elephant seals are huge, earless seals with a small elephant-trunk-like nose. Once came close to extinction, the population of the elephant seals have been making a comeback in recent decades.
A must-visit if you never came across one of those in your life.
Drive Along Pacific Coast Highway
The most iconic highway in California. Also known as CA-1, the highway extended along the coastline all the way from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Driving along this historical highway will surely give you an unforgettable experience. With several interesting stops along the way, the highway provides flexibility to stop-and-visit. One of the most noticeable views is the Bixby Creek Bridge.
Check out all the other amazing destinations in this USA bucket list!
Visit Seymour Marine Discovery Center
An underrated destination for tourists. Seymour Marine Discovery Centre is a community-supported marine science education center of the University of California, Santa Cruz. With hands-on exhibits and interactive learning, it’s an awesome place to learn more about the marine life in the Monterey Bay!
Two complete whale skeletons (blue whale and gray whale) are on public display just outside the center. If you’re traveling with kids, pretty sure they will enjoy it to the point that they don’t wanna leave!
Visit their official website for more information.
Question Gravity at The Mystery Spot
The place which defies the law of physics, The Mystery Spot. Located in the redwood forests, the phenomenon was discovered in 1939 and opened to the public in 1940. Due to the popularity, booking in advance is needed for the visit. It’s fun for all ages, go ahead and experience the puzzling variations of gravity, perspective, and height!
Get more information here.
Penny’s Ice Creamery
The only ice cream shop in Santa Cruz making ice cream from scratch in the house. If you’re lucky, you might see the ice cream making process with your own eyes too. With all-organic ingredients, the ice creams here are probably your best choice in town to resist the summer heat. Head over to the Downtown to try it out yourself.
Join Wine Tasting Tours
If winery and brewery tours are your things, then you shouldn’t miss out these. There aren’t many tour operators providing the tours, as it’s a less popular activity in Santa Cruz. Check out The Santa Cruz Experience if you intend to join one. You’ll get to wineries typically not open for public too.
Dye Your Own Shirts
Folks in A Brighter World in Santa Cruz has been very welcoming as ever. If you’re in Santa Cruz, make sure to pay them a visit at their store. It’s one of the most awesome things to do in Santa Cruz California! There are a wide variety of tie-dye shirts to choose from and also options to dye your own shirt! Nothing’s better than crafting your own shirt, huh? Don’t know how a tie-dye shirt looks like, see the photo below!
Wrapping It Up
So there you go, 21 things to do in Santa Cruz California. Hope you find this article useful in planning your itinerary. Feel free to comment below if I missed anything and of course, subscribe to get more updates! See you around. Happy traveling and enjoy Santa Cruz!
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