Seven Things to Do in Santa Cruz, CA with Kids

I don’t want to brag or anything, but I recently returned from a trip to California in which I survived not just one….not just two…but FOUR airplane flights. Like, not a single one of them crashed! I’m pretty sure that’s some kind of record. So, yeah, the least fun parts of our trip were the flying parts, but all the stuff in between was super fun, so I’ll focus on those parts.

We flew into San Jose on a Wednesday and the spent the first part of our trip staying at Nana and Grandpa’s condo in Livermore and doing things like going to the local pool:

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And seeing the longest burning light bulb in the world, and just generally hanging out with cousins and grandparents and aunts and uncles and whatnot.

Then on Saturday we drove to our rental house in Santa Cruz and spent a week there. I won’t do a blow by blow daily recap because 1. I tend to write short novels when I do that and 2. Most days would end with, “and then we hung out at the beach for awhile and went to bed,” so it would get kind of repetitive.

Instead, I’ll just talk about the individual things we did, utterly divorced from any sense of time or sequence! So crazy. But people like lists. I learned this from Pinterest.

1. Beaches

Santa Cruz, CA Beaches

Well. Duh.

But I actually wasn’t sure about how much time the kids would spend in the water, because I knew the water temperatures in central California are quite chilly. Oddly, my kids have only been to beaches in California and on Cape Cod in Massachusetts….even though we live much closer to warmer beaches in the southeast. So they really don’t have much concept that the ocean can be warm, and that served them well here. The water is a little colder than Cape Cod in summer (and too cold for ME), but the kids happily spent tons of time playing in the waves. I actually kind of like that the water’s too cold for real swimming (although we did see people doing it), because trying to keep track of 4 kids in the ocean makes me super anxious.

Our rental house was just a couple of minutes walk from Twin Lakes State Beach, and our part of it was never crowded because there was no public parking close by. So we spent most of our time there; our general pattern was to go on some kind of outing in the mornings, come back and hang out at the house (while Abe napped, often) in the afternoons, then do dinner and the beach in some order in the evenings. Going to the beach at sunset is my favorite because it’s lovely and also because I don’t have to worry about slathering sunscreen on everyone.

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Even old and jaded Ari played in the waves!


One day we met some friends at Natural Bridges State Beach. There’s a small visitor center here (we didn’t make it over there) and….tidepools! Fun!

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Here’s the natural bridge. You can’t actually walk on it or anything.


2. The Boardwalk


Whenever I tell someone we went here, they bring up The Lost Boys, which I know I watched about 50 times when I was a kid, but I remember very little about it now. Anyway, it features the Santa Cruz Boardwalk prominently.

But we didn’t encounter any vampires there at all, so far as I could tell.

Amy was a little concerned that my Disney veteran kids would not be impressed with the Boardwalk’s offerings, but they loved it. We ended up spending almost all day here one day and then coming back again for a few hours another day. There are a whole bunch of rides there…mostly your standard off the shelf amusement park/carnival rides, but then there’s also a wooden coaster that dates to 1924 and a 1911 carousel. And there are all the expected overpriced games and greasy food, too:


There’s no general admission charge; you can wander around for free and then you can either buy a wristband to get unlimited rides all day or you can put money on a card and pay by the ride. It was tricky to figure out the cheapest way to do things. Amy and Craig and family have season passes. And their four season passes came with four wristbands to share with a friend, so we were lucky enough to have all four kids covered with unlimited rides our first day there (I think they’re around $32 if you buy them). Dave and I bought a card and used it to take turns riding things with Abe (rides are between $3 and $6 each). The second day we bought wristbands for the older kids and then paid by the ride for Abe and us. We were nervous we wouldn’t get our money’s worth with the wristbands, but the lines were short that day and the kids rode a ton of stuff.

So our analysis is that for older kids and adults you’re almost certainly better off buying the wristbands if you plan to stay more than a couple of hours. If you have a toddler with you, particularly if you’re not sure how they’ll do on rides, you might come out better paying for individual rides.

Oh, also, they run specials on some weeknights….so the first day we went, we came back in the evening for dollar rides (and drinks and cotton candy), but it was much more crowded than it had been earlier in the day.

My older kids will ride pretty much anything, and they spent most of their time off with their cousins riding roller coasters and spinny rides and whatnot.

Abe’s ride experience (except when he was at Disney World when he was four months old) was limited to the carousel and train at the zoo before this, so we weren’t sure how he’d do. Turns out he loves rides! All the rides, more or less. He even went on the log flume ride with Dave and a scrambler type thing with me. I was impressed with how many rides there were that he could do (and there were several more that he missed the cutoff for by maybe half an inch, so an older and/or taller toddler would have even more options).

I took lots of pictures at the Boardwalk. I will try to restrain myself. A little:


“Eat up, Daddy! It’s only a DOLLAR!”


Benjamin is not as into posing for pictures as Milo and Gus are.


I think he’s having fun:


Abe was lucky that Louis is just young enough to still be willing to go on some kiddie rides with him:


Abe’s first roller coaster (and that’s Louis and Craig behind him and Dave)!


3. Roaring Camp Railroads

Roaring Camp Railroads

Roaring Camp is actually a few minutes away from Santa Cruz, in Felton. This is one of the things we had planned well in advance. Amy told us about it and that she’d been wanting to go for years but had never gotten around to it. You can take one of two train rides here: one goes to the Boardwalk, and the other up a mountain and through a redwood forest. We took the redwood train. Everyone had a good time with this; the train ride was short enough not to tax Abe’s attention span (I think it was about an hour and a half round trip, with a short stop at the top to get off and look around and use the bathroom), but interesting enough for the older kids. The trains are open air, and there’s a guy narrating the whole way telling you about train stuff and redwood stuff. So it was a good outing for our mixed ages group.


The whistle was loud:



4. Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park:

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is adjacent to Roaring Camp; you can walk between the two. We planned to arrive early enough at Roaring Camp to go check out the park before our train left. And we did….sort of. There’s a short loop trail right next to the railroad, and we started to walk around that, but then we started to get a little nervous about missing the train, so we bailed partway through (our train ended up leaving about half an hour late, so it would have been fine, it turns out). But then Dave, Abe, Ari, and I came back after the train ride (and a lunch stop in Felton) to finish the Redwood Grove Trail and check out the visitor center.

The visitor center is small, but nice, with a short video on the history of the park and some exhibits about the redwoods and other plants and animals in the area. The Redwood Grove Trail is a short, easy loop, but there was tons to see. Like lots and lots of redwood trees. We also saw deer grazing near the trail. And there’s the General Fremont tree, which is hollowed out and big enough for several people to go inside and stand up in. You can buy a brochure by the visitor center that tells you about the stuff you see along the way.


Milo was very unhappy about something at this point. He wouldn’t tell us what. We still don’t know.

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The General Fremont tree (the story is that he camped in here one night). I took pictures of Dave and Ari in here, but they were blurry. So just imagine it with people inside.


5. Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History:

Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History

This is where Dave and I took Abe while the rest of our group was on the whale watch. It was a small museum, but we had a great time there. Admission is only $4 for adults, and kids up to 18 are free. It has an exhibit on the indigenous Ohlone people, assorted exhibits on wildlife native to the area, a nice little kids’ area with puppets and puzzles and books, and then a big whale to climb on outside. Abe was scared to sit on the whale. But he wasn’t scared to grind acorns:


The museum is right across the street from Seabright Beach, so you could combine trips and make a day of it (I wouldn’t think you’d need to spend more than an hour or so at the museum). Parking was a little tricky. There are spaces on the street that are supposed to be reserved for museum visitors, but when we were there every space was full even though the museum was nearly empty. It seems that the museum only parking rule is not strictly enforced. We found on street parking a couple of streets over, though.

6. Whale Watch:

Santa Cruz Whale Watch

Dave, Abe, and I did not go on the whale watch (2 1/2 year old + on a boat for 4 hours=no thank you), but it was a big hit with everyone else in the group. Amy set the whole thing up in advance with Stagnaro Charters. There’s a naturalist on board to talk about all the animals you see, and word is they saw a lot. Whales, dolphins, otters, sea lions! I’m very excited about when Abe is older and we can do this, too. Craig had his zoom lens along, so I’ve stolen a few of his pictures to share:

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7. Seymour Marine Discovery Center:

Seymour Marine Discovery Center

This is part of UC Santa Cruz, and it’s sort of part museum and part aquarium. There are a number of exhibits about oceans and marine life:


and a shark touch tank:


and included with admission ($8 for adults, $6 kids, students, and seniors) you can get a guided tour of the lovely grounds, including a government facility complete with dolphins (no pictures allowed of the dolphin. sorry). And, as you can see up there, there’s a giant blue whale skeleton outside. A lot of the tour takes you along a pretty but slightly terrifying bluff, with dramatic drops down into the ocean. We didn’t lose anyone:


And there are, like, whale bones and whatever that you can hold.


Overall we had a great trip. The beach and boardwalk would have been plenty to entertain the kids for the week, but there was no shortage of other stuff to do. There were several things we wanted to get to but ran out of time for. So I guess we’ll need to go back!

Family trip to Santa Cruz, CA, and 7 great things to do there with kids



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