Kids need vacations too (or so ours keeps telling us). So here is a handy list of kid-friendly activities in and around Santa Cruz year round that are fun for the whole family, in no particular order. Some require a bit of a drive while others are just a short walk away from your Beach Haven at Seabright vacation rental home.
Seabright Beach. Widely considered one of the best beaches in Santa Cruz and about a two minute walk away from Beach Haven. Home of Walton Lighthouse, this is a dog-friendly (on leash) beach complete with lifeguards in the summer months, bathrooms, amazing sunsets and fire rings for bonfires and s'mores at night. You might even see some dolphins, whales and a sea lion or two. (You can certainly hear them a short distance away at the Santa Cruz Wharf.) We provide beach towels and toys for sand castle making and overall lounging.
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Voted the Best Seaside Park in the World the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk has everything a kid of six or sixty could possibly want to spend an entire day, including the famous (and really old) Big Dipper Roller Coaster and many other great amusement park rides and games for all ages, mini golf, laser tag, lots of fried food, beer and wine for the adults, a vintage carousel, souvenir shopping and a killer arcade. There's also free classic movies and free concerts in the summer on the beach bandstand. Oh, and there's the beach! Just a seven minute walk from Beach Haven.
Natural Bridges State Park. This beach, known for its last remaining natural bridge, is an excellent place for viewing shore birds, monarch butterflies (winter and spring), and migrating whales, seals, and otters. You can't get close to the butterflies, but you can view them through a telescope and see them close-up that way. There's also tide pools to explore containing a variety of marine life including sea stars, shore crabs, tube worms, and sea anemones. (It's a bit of a climb though up and down some high rocks so be ready for that.) Bring a picnic lunch (tables, barbecues, water faucets and restroom facilities are available) but there is no camping on the beach at night, which closes at sunset. No dogs. Parking costs $10.
Ocean View Park. There area number of parks in the area (including a skate park) but Ocean View Park is a great one with eight super long super fun slides, half court basketball, picnic tables, restrooms and an off-leash dog park area with views of the Boardwalk and Monterey Bay. There's free residential street parking or you can walk to it from Beach Haven at Seabright in about seven minutes.
Get Some Ice Cream. Go on, the kiddos deserve it and so do you. Our personal long time favorite is Marianne's Ice Cream: serving up 105 flavors of the tastiest homemade ice cream in Santa Cruz since 1947. Not only are the ice creams delicious but the shop feels like vintage Santa Cruz. Located right on Ocean Street at its original location, it's easy to get to on your way in and out of town. The Penny Ice Creamery is another great option for delicious ice cream made from scratch, while featuring locally farmed, seasonal and organic ingredients. They have two locations: one one downtown and one in Pleasure Point. Why not try both options? You're here for a week, right?
Santa Cruz Beach Train. Take a ride on a Roaring Camp Railroads classic steam train departing the Santa Cruz Mountains and traveling through the Redwoods State Park, down the scenic San Lorenzo River Gorge, across a 1909 steel truss bridge and through a 1875 tunnel before arriving back at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Reverse round trips are also available. The train departs weekends during Spring and Fall, and daily in the Summer. You can also spend a day out with the kiddos and Thomas the Tank Engine with a tour through the Big Trees, including train ride, photos, tattoos you won't regret later, face painting, bouncy houses and more in late July and early August. In November and December you can celebrate the holiday season on the rails with a festive train ride on the Polar Express Train, Holiday Lights Train or Chanukah Train. All trains depart from the Boardwalk.
Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary. If you love nature and outdoor activities this protected sanctuary along Monterey Bay is the place to go for whale watching, paddle boarding, kayaking, tide pooling, fishing, or diving among the kelp.
Museum of Natural History. The museum (aka ‘The Whale Museum’) is located right across the street from Seabright Beach and highlights the region’s diverse plant, animal, and human communities with exhibits focused on the natural and cultural history of the region. You can't miss it – it's the one with the big whale in front.
Monterey Bay Aquarium. You may decide not to venture out too far or too often, but the Monterey Bay Aquarium is worth the 26 mile drive from Santa Cruz, especially with its new Viva Baja exhibit. Plus all the sharks, and otters and rays (oh my).
Petroglyph. A paint your own pottery studio in downtown Santa Cruz. If you have small kids you're probably already familiar with the concept. Who doesn't need another one-of-a-kind priceless masterpiece for their desk? Remember, it was made with love. They provide the ceramic pieces, paints, palettes, and brushes and will glaze your child's finished product so it lasts forever and ever. Soif Wine Bar is close by too while you wait for it to bake.
Go Roller Skating. Get your jamskate on and do the hokeypokey at Santa Cruz Roller Palladium. Located in Seabright just a few blocks away from Beach Haven it's easy to get to and get your skating on. Open in the afternoon every day, and some evenings, with Tiny Tots sessions (kids 8 years old or younger) on Wednesday mornings. No back blocking.
Take a Walk on West Cliff Drive. You can easily walk, run, ride your bike or drive along the paved West Cliff Drive from the Santa Cruz Wharf to Natural Bridges and back (four+ miles round trip) next to the ocean and enjoy amazing coastal views. Rated #1 of 80 things to do in Santa Cruz by TripAdvisor. Watch the surfers, dolphins and people passing by. Take the dog. Especially great at sunrise and sunset.
Take a Hike. There are a number of fantastic hiking trails in Santa Cruz County and if you want to go see some big red trees jump in the car and go to Big Basin Redwoods State Park in the heart of the Santa Cruz Mountains or Wilder Ranch State Park. Or you can try Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in Felton. Located in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the park offers 30 miles of trails and a variety of hikes among beautiful redwoods, ranging from quite easy to quite difficult. On the easy side is Redwood Grove Loop Trail, which is 0.8 miles long and the park's most popular attraction. It's wheelchair-accessible, with restrooms available at the half-way point. Dogs, bicycles and dogs riding bicycles are not allowed.
Seymour Marine Discovery Center. This community-supported marine science education center of the University of California, Santa Cruz, is a good rainy day excursion and a great way to learn about marine science and conservation. The Marine Discover Center offers hands-on exhibits and touch pools (you can touch sea stars, sea urchins, hermit crabs, sea anemones, a friendly swell shark and more), an aquarium with rock fish, eels, decorator crabs and jellies, life-size elephant seal replicas, a gray whale skeleton and an 87-foot blue whale skeleton (one of the largest in the world). Tours are available daily along with seaside crafts for the little ones. Open Tuesday through Sunday.
Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf. This 100 year-old wharf is the longest coastal timber pile wharf in the country, stretching out a half mile into the Monterey Bay with a ton of shops. seafood restaurants, amazing water views and barking sea lions. Get your fish & chips, clam chowder and fridge magnets here.
Of course, there are a lot more kid-friendly things you can do in Santa Cruz – this is just our own list of personal favorites. Let us know any activities that we missed, and what you like to do with your own family when visiting the area!
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