Santa Cruz is one of my favorite places in the world. I’ve been going to a cabin in the Santa Cruz mountains since I was a few months old. I originally posted this blog post in 2017. Since then we’ve done a few new things that I wanted to add to this list.
Here are 25 of my favorite this to do, see and eat in Santa Cruz. But first lets’ talk about history and location…
WHERE IS SANTA CRUZ?
Santa Cruz, California is about one hour South of San Francisco in Northern California. Getting there requires driving over highway 17 from Silicon Valley, or you can drive down the coast on the 1. If you have time, the coastal drive is lovely and if you have even more time, I encourage driving even further south through Big Sur, but that’s for another post. In this post I’ll list activities in places like Felton, Capitola and Soquel. Don’t be thrown off by the names, these are little towns within Santa Cruz county and mere minutes from each other in most cases.
WHAT MAKES SANTA CRUZ SPECIAL?
Santa Cruz has a rich history, and is the home of the 12th California Mission founded in 1791. When most people think of Santa Cruz though, they think about the beaches and rugged coastline, surfing and the Boardwalk amusement park. But beyond the usual tourist traps of a California beach town, Santa Cruz offers incredible hikes, gorgeous state parks with miles of trails, mountain biking and more. Plus, Santa Cruz has some of the most amazing redwoods in the world.
HIKING & BIKING
The hiking trails in Santa Cruz are some of my favorites. The redwood trees, some, hundreds of years old are unlike anything else. My kids love hiking in Santa Cruz because many of the old redwood are big enough that they can crawl into the roots and hide. Warning: Santa Cruz is also home to Poison Oak. Its advisable to know what Poison Oak looks like – don’t touch it or you will end up with an extremely itchy rash that can spread (I say this from recent experience when I was trail running and not careful). Also, just be mindful of ticks. There are ticks in this area that carry Lyme Disease – so either wear pants or make sure you do a quick body check after hiking.
***Parent tip: If you have never seen a Banana Slug, get prepared; they are a sight to behold. Banana slugs are about 2-7 inches long and are a mustard yellow color. They are an important part of this environment’s ecosystem (and the mascot for UC Santa Cruz!). We like to bring M&Ms or jelly beans on hikes for “Banana Slug finding contests” it makes the hikes more fun for the kids as they look for the slugs.
***Safety tip: Friends who live in the area advise that its better to hike or trail run with a friend. If you enjoy solitary hiking just be mindful.
WILDER RANCH STATE PARK — 1401 Coast Rd, Santa Cruz, CA
Wilder Ranch is great for both long and short hikes. You can either walk the West side of the highway along the coastline or you can hike East of the road where there are a number of hiking loops. On the East side there are a few horses housed that you can pet. This is a big highlight for kids – they seem gentle (but of course use caution). The wildflowers in the spring are amazing. The trails are fairly flat here and there isn’t a lot of tree cover so wear sunscreen. The park also includes a 1897 Victorian home, and a 1896 water-powered machine shop. Bring a picnic to enjoy on the front lawn, and visit the farm animals. The park offers more than 35 miles of trails so you could spend all day exploring. To visit the state park site click here.
Safety tip: I once decided it was a great idea to veer off the trail and walk through some chest-high tall bushes to do a short cut to the car. Not smart. I noticed the first tick a few minutes after we got in the car and spent the rest of the drive back to the cabin freaking out about Lyme Disease feeling like I had ticks all over my body. I didn’t and I also didn’t get Lyme Disease. Stay on the trail people, and just do a quick tick check with you’re done.
FALL CREEK HIKE — Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, 1101 Felton Empire Rd, Felton, CA
To Fall Creek: Follow Mount Hermon Road until it ends at Graham Hill Road. Turn right onto Graham Hill Road. Go straight through the Highway 9 intersection continuing onto Empire Grade Road. Follow this road for approximately 0.5 miles and the entrance will be on the right side of the road. Fall Creek is one of my absolute favorite hikes in the area. There is a dirt parking lot you can park in and a few loops that you can do. The trail follows a creek with many bridges lined with ferns with a heavy canopy of redwoods overhead. The hike also goes to the remains of an old lime-processing area. If you’re a trail runner this is a great trail for a run. My good girlfriend who is a local has taken me on this trail run a number of times, its not easy and the whole way up I am huffing and wishing she would just take a break already, but she’s a local so of course she just powers up the mountain like its no big deal. But the way back down when I actually get to notice that creek and all those beautiful ferns, instead of worrying about tripping on a root, I feel like the happiest person on the planet.
ROARING CAMP AND HENRY COWELL STATE PARK— 101 N Big Trees Park Rd, Felton, CA
Some great hiking options for all levels here. Our kids are pretty small so we love the main mellow flat redwoods loop. Our kids love competing to find banana slugs. From the Henry Cowell Parking lot (there is a parking fee since its a State Park) you can also walk over to the Roaring Camp Railroad. At Roaring Camp there are a lot of fun things for kids to see and sometimes they have events like candle making, or they will have people dressed up from the 1800’s. You can also take a ride on the train either through the redwoods or down to the beach. If you are big on trains by all means check it out. We found it pretty pricey but enjoyed the ride up through the redwoods on the old steam train. Another fun thing to do is to go on a longer hike up through the trails up behind Roaring Camp you can usually see the train pass by and its fun to wave at the passengers. Also, if you are a fan of geocaching, there are lots of geocaches throughout Santa Cruz and the mountains. Again, be on guard for Poison Oak!
NISENE MARKS STATE PARK – Aptos, CA
Last summer we had so much fun mountain biking the fire trail in Nisene Marks state park. It was flat enough for our kids to enjoy but also provided a challenge. The redwood trees, and a creek running below the trail were gorgeous. I can’t wait to bike this again next summer. There are also amazing hiking trails throughout. You can either pay to park in the state park or park for free further up Aptos Creek Road by Epicenter Cycling.
EATING & DRINKING
MARIANNE’S ICE CREAM — 1020 Ocean St, Santa Cruz, CA
No visit to Santa Cruz is complete without a visit to Marianne’s. Open since 1947, this little shop is beloved for its vast array of ice cream flavors – 75 daily! One of the most popular is the “1020” named for its address on Ocean Street. When I first started coming here as a small child I would get the blue bubble gum flavor and my brother and I would compete for who could get the most bubble gum pieces. Today that blue bubble gum ice cream is still around but these days, I stick to flavors like chocolate mint, and 1020. Is Marianne’s the best ice cream you have ever had? I would venture to guess no, but it is really good and such a fun time capsule. Also, with 75 flavors everyone can find something they enjoy. Trust me, its so worth the visit. Tip: bring cash!
Photo source: http://www.montereybayfun.com/mariannes-ice-cream/
DISCRETION BREWING & TAP ROOM — 2703 41st Ave, Soquel, CA
My husband is a huge craft beer fan. As San Diego natives, one day we’re going to have to do a full post on San Diego beer which is amazing, but that’s for another post. During one trip not too long ago to Santa Cruz we were looking for a place with good beer AND good food. Until recently, this hasn’t been easy to find. Some friends recommended Discretion Tap Room and we went, our two small kids in tow. The big surprise was how GOOD the food was. I dare say it was my favorite meal I’ve had at a restaurant in Santa Cruz. The beer was good, not awesome (our bar is high, especially my husband), but the food/ solid beer combo makes this a great stop. According to their website, “Discretion serves beer-focused, farm-to-table comfort food made in-house.” Rather than standard pub food, Discretion’s menu is filled with items like roasted beets and asparagus salad, and pork meatballs with black rice and salsa verde. Plus its super low key, so for parents that’s a win! My son was totally ogling the Kylo Ren lightsaber of the five year old in full costume sitting at the next table. Its been a while since we’ve eaten here, but we have continued to hear about the popularity of this place and will definitely go back.
BONNY DOON VINYARD & TASTING ROOM — 450 Highway 1 Davenport, CA
I love stopping at the Bonny Doon tasting room. Its definitely off the beaten path up the 1, but its a gorgeous drive (and just a few miles from Wilder Ranch for a post hike sip of wine). I stop here pretty much every time I visit Santa Cruz. Bonny Doon’s tasting room is a really unique place. From the vast array of wine types, prices, and bottling artwork to the fun digital photo area complete with hats, and dress up gear for some hilarious photos to take home with you. But really, back to the wine, known for its Le Cigare Volant, an homage to Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Bonny Doon is also devoted to unique varietals, and innovative blends. I never leave without at least one bottle. Check it out, just the drive out to the tasting room is worth this trip.
HALLCREST VINEYARDS – 379 Empire Road, Felton CA
This little winery is so low key and mellow. Several times we’ve bought some baguettes and meat and cheese and stopped in and had lunch with a cool glass of wine. Most of the wines are organic and they are well priced. Since the winery is right across the road from Fall Creek, you could make a day of it by hiking in the morning and then stopping in post hike to taste some wine and enjoy the view of oak trees and an open field.
STORRS WINERY TASTING ROOM — 303 Potrero Street no. 35, Santa Cruz, CA
Storrs is known for their Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from grapes grown on the mountainsides of Santa Cruz County. Conveniently their tasting room is right in town so if you are in the mood to try some great wine I encourage you to check them out.
VERVE COFFEE ON 41ST — 816 41st Ave, Santa Cruz, CA
Verve coffee is popular for a reason. The 41st street location is perfect for grabbing a coffee and then walking down to the “Hook” to check out the surfing. You can also continue to walk along the E Cliff Dr. toward Pleasure Point making for a great morning activity. (Kids can scooter or bike too!)
WEST END TAP ROOM — 334D Ingalls Street Santa Cruz
West End Tap Room is a favorite restaurant of ours to visit when we’re in town. Formerly the space housed the Bonny Doon Tasting Room and restaurant, but a few years ago when Bonny Doon moved to Davenport, it was turned into the West End Tap Room. Calamari with herbs and peppers, and buttermilk sauce and fried jalapenos are a favorite. The portions are really large here, in fact the pizza on the kids meal is big enough for two kids to easily share. They also brew their own beer. As an added bonus, right next door to the restaurant is the Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing company where you can do taste some organic brews, and also some wine tasting rooms including the Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard.
HUMBLE SEA BREWING CO. — 820 Swift Street, Santa Cruz
A fairly new addition to the West Side, this brewery is great! I love the modern decor, the outside area is super kid friendly and the beer is great. We especially loved their food! The menu changes, but we had a steak sandwich and a salad — both were great. We will definitely make Humble Sea a regular stop when we’re in town.
SANTA CRUZ FARMER’S MARKETS — Multiple locations and days of the week
When we arrive at the cabin in the summer, one of my first destinations is to hit one of the nearby Farmers Markets. Some markets, like the Weds. market downtown are year round and some are seasonal so be sure to check out the Santa Cruz Farmers Market website for dates, times and details. The produce is out of this world, and I always leave with squash, tomatoes, herbs and other veggies. The stone fruits like local plums and peaches are also a particular summer favorite. Also, there are a few vendors who sell flavored almonds, honey and meats and eggs. I also love taking home a little bouquet of flowers to brighten up the cabin for our stay. Also, the markets have food vendors, so enjoy lunch or dinner while you browse. Farmers Market locations include Downtown, Felton, Scotts Valley and more.
photo source: Felton Farmers Market
BEACHES & ATTRACTIONS
SAN LORENZO RIVER
This place is incredible. To get there, we parked by Roaring Camp and walked down the train tracks (side of it) until we reached a trail down to the river. We walked a little ways down the river to find an incredible place to swim, float with our inflatables and catch crawdads.
THE SANTA CRUZ BOOK SHOP — 1520 Pacific Avenue Santa Cruz, CA
A downtown Santa Cruz staple for more than 50 years, this bookstore is special. The curated staff favorites and layout of the store make for hours of browsing entertainment. They also have a fantastic number of used books. I’ve been coming to this bookstore since I was a small child and now I bring my kids who love the children’s section where they can sit and read. Parking is fairly easy; there are a lot of parking lots downtown where you can park for a few dollars.
NATURAL BRIDGES TO SURFER’S MUSEUM WALK (OR SCOOTER!)
Nearly every visit we do to Santa Cruz includes this walk. Our kids scooter and we enjoy the incredible ocean walk view. Start at or near Natural Bridges State Park (we park on the street for free) and walk along the sidewalk for 2 miles until you reach the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum. We watch the surfers surfing Steamer’s Lane for a few minutes before turning around. This is truly an amazing walk and would make a great jog or run route as well.
THE SANTA CRUZ BEACH BOARDWALK
Is the Boardwalk touristy? Yes! But how can I not mention California’s oldest surviving amusement park? Built in 1907, The Boardwalk its one of the few seaside parks on the West Coast. For that reason alone its worth a visit, just to see a piece of California’s history. I have a lot of memories of riding the Big Dipper Roller Coaster with my dad as a kid and remember days spent walking the wood planked Boardwalk with the smell of saltwater in the air stopping to get ice cream or overpriced candy at the many shops. There are a variety of rides for all ages. After riding the attractions, walk out to the beach to enjoy the beautiful waves.
Safety tip: Sadly Santa Cruz has higher drug and alcohol problems than other areas of California. We have had a few run ins with some intoxicated folks that made us feel a bit uncomfortable – and there is a lot of panhandlers down near the Boardwalk. If you have small kids just beware and make sure to put your valuables out of sight in your car.
LOCH LOMOND RECREATIONAL AREA — 100 Loch Lomond Way Felton, CA
A few years ago we came across this place through a recommendation and brought our kayaks to the lake. It’s a beautiful small reservoir with picnic sites and hiking trails. They have had some trouble with invasive species of mussels and now restrict outside boats from the lake but you can rent boats, paddle boats and canoes for a reasonable hourly rate. The Nucanoe: $7.50/hr (2 hour minimum). Bring a picnic lunch and explore the lake. The only bummer is that swimming is prohibited (can I get a boo!?) I am pretty sure its because they are trying to keep drinking water clean. Still, Loch Lomond is a gorgeous place to explore just a few minutes from Santa Cruz.
THE WHARF— Beach Street, Santa Cruz, CA
The wharf is definitely what I would consider “touristy”. Buses with tourists piling out? Check, the shops filled with chachkies and mementos, “Santa Cruz” T shirts and shot glasses? Check, check, and check. The restaurants that all cater to the visiting crowd with overpriced mediocre food? You betcha (yes you can definitely get a bowl of clam chowder here). As much as I shy away from touristy places, there’s something about the Wharf that is charming to me. Maybe that its over 100 years old, (built in 1914), or maybe its those yelping seals that tend to gather under the wood wharf. Its fun to just walk out to the end, perhaps with a cup of coffee in hand and enjoy the view. From the Wharf you have a great view of the Boardwalk and the Santa Cruz coastline. And yes, you can get that shrimp cocktail or that satisfying cup of clam chowder. Go on, enjoy yourself!
WADDELL STATE BEACH — 17 miles north of Santa Cruz on Hwy 1
If you really want to get off the beaten path, head out on Highway 1 from Santa Cruz and head north. Civilization drifts away as you continue to travel up the coast. About 20-30 min outside of town you will come up on Waddell State Beach – a 1.5 mile stretch of wild beach. Depending on the time of year you might be alone on this stretch of beach, that is you and the seagulls – and perhaps a Great White Shark out in the water (ok that’s probably not true but it looks like they could be hanging out there). The last time I was there, I discovered a number of sanddollar pieces including one that was almost intact.
NATURAL BRIDGES BEACH & TIDEPOOLS — 2531 W Cliff Dr, Santa Cruz, CA
I tend to avoid the crowds at the Boardwalk when I want to go to the beach and head to Natural Bridges instead. I have been coming here since I was a kid. We would typically go to Santa Cruz in June when school got out and I remember many visits when we would get down to the beach and it was so cold and foggy. But my brother and I didn’t care. We were at the BEACH and we were going to enjoy it, goodbumps and all. We would jump waves in the 56 degree water as our parents covered themselves with blankets and sweatshirts and tried to read books. June Gloom aside, there are many beautiful days at Natural Bridges. The tidepools are a really fun option as well when the tides are low.
Capitola is California’s oldest seaside resort town and continues to be a popular destination. Capitola has a unique charm with its family-friendly beaches and historic and colorful architecture. Its fun to walk around a visit the boutiques, relax on the beach or have a glass of wine or a beer at one of the beach front restaurants. Capitola also boasts the Shadowbrook Restaurant at 1750 Wharf Rd, Capitola, CA. Open since 1947, this restaurant is truly one-of-a-kind. It has a cable car that takes you from the parking lot at the top to the bottom floor of the restaurant (the cable car is the best part). Sadly the food isn’t that spectacular and perhaps their service needs some sprucing and the interior is quite dated (wow I am really making you want to go, aren’t i?). But the view of the river, that cable car and the experience is worth a trip if you are interested in seeing a restaurant with a rich history.
DELAVEAGA DISC GOLF — 1468 Upper Park Rd, Santa Cruz, CA
If you haven’t played Disc Golf before, this would be a great opportunity. Disc Golf, as its name suggests includes throwing a small disc from hole to hole. Each hole has a metal cage that you must throw the disc into from various distances and terrains. Similar in scoring to golf (without the clubs, balls or pricey course fees [Score!]), you try to get your disc into the cages in as few throws as possible. DeLaveaga Disc Golf resides in a gorgeous park, a pine and oak tree covered ridge line that overlooks Monterey Bay, with expansive ocean views on a dozen holes including the most famous: “Top of the World” (hole 27).
ROARING CAMP RAILROAD — 5401 Graham Hill Road, Felton CA
If you have young kids, a visit to Roaring Camp is a must. Even if you don’t take one of the steam engine trains through the redwoods (which is pretty pricey) there are other fun things to see at Roaring Camp. Many weekends they have themed events such as A Day out with Thomas. Our son was a huge Thomas the Train fan when he was little, they put Thomas’ face on the front of the train and it looks just like him! Other events during the summer include Heritage Days where they have fun things for kids to do for FREE such as candle making, and watching a blacksmith make tools. You can bring a picnic, or enjoy some food there.
NEARBY DAY TRIPS
CARMEL BEACH, CARMEL-BY-THE-SEA, CA
So far I have stayed within the county, but I did want to list a recommendation for the day adventurer. If you are up for an hour drive south, make your way to Carmel, one of the loveliest seaside towns in the country. There is much to do in Carmel, just walking around the shops is great fun, but going down to the beach is stunning. Its a white sand beach, fine sand, almost like you are in Hawaii and on a clear day the water is a turquoise color. Its worth the drive and is a great place to enjoy a picnic and a warm day on the sand. If you feel so inclined, go see how the rich and famous live and view the spectacular Pebble Beach Golf Course with a trip down 17 Mile Drive. Also, the beach and the whole town is extremely dog friendly (like over the top dog friendly, it might be more dog friendly than people friendly). All the dog people out there just read that and went, “Honey! We need to go to Carmel!”
MONTEREY BAY AQUARIUM, Monterey, CA
This aquarium is world famous and for good reason. Its not cheap to go but your kids (and you!) will love the exhibits, the shows and feeding time for the animals. I would avoid going on the weekend because of crowds.
Well, there are so many more things to do in Santa Cruz but I hope this list gives you some ideas, and makes your experience more fun!
Be advised that all of these ideas are just my opinion.