This summer you don’t need to go far to feel like you’ve traveled to paradise. With sandy beaches, magnificent redwoods, delicious and fresh food and the famous Boardwalk, Santa Cruz is a dream destination for families. Read on for our favorite spots and then hit the road!
1. Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
One of the major draws of Santa Cruz is its prime location on the beach and access to the Beach Boardwalk. Ride the massive wooden roller coaster, The Giant Dipper, or try your luck on the fairway games. Summer brings movie nights and bands on the beach for even more fun. Come on Monday or Tuesday after 5 p.m. and you can enjoy retro prices which include $1.50 rides. You can even camp out here on special nights throughout the summer.
2. Berry Picking
Nearby Watsonville and Davenport are berry picking hot spots and the summer is the time for this fun-filled activity. Gizdich Ranch is a family favorite and it will give you loads of picking opportunities with pie for sale to enjoy in the garden or take home. Another fun spot is Live Earth Farm. They don't have set hours but host a number of picking opportunities throughout the summer as the crops allow.
3. Roaring Camp Railroad
Head over the mountain on 17 and before you reach Santa Cruz you'll reach the town of Felton. Here you can find this steam engine railroad that has been taking kids on a train adventure through the woods for years. Ride the train to the Boardwalk and back, or visit for one of their special events like Thomas the Train's arrival in late July.
4. Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary
Just a few steps down the road from the Dream Inn, you’ll find this wonderful marine education center which is free and perfect for kids of all ages. You’ll learn about the local coastal community and all the creatures that depend on it. Kids will also learn how to operate an underwater robot and participate in many hands-on activities.
5. Natural Bridges State Beach
This beach is especially good for families as it has protected waters and lots of parking. In addition to spending your day on the sand, here you can visit migrating Monarch butterflies and check out some amazing tide pools.
6. Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is located in the Santa Cruz Mountains and is most famous for the 40-acre grove of towering old-growth redwood trees. Its historical significance and spectacular scenery draw travelers from around the world. Visitors can enjoy hiking, horseback riding, picnicking, swimming and camping on more than 4,650 acres of forested and open land.
7. Santa Cruz Wharf
The Santa Cruz Wharf juts out into the Pacific right between the Boardwalk and The Dream Inn. Along with a number of great restaurants (we like Woodies Cafe for its good food and laid-back vibe), there are spots to go fishing and souvenir shops aplenty. Kids will love checking out the sea lions that make their home there. You can check out the viewing holes at the end of the wharf or head to the lower deck area across from Bonnie's for some up-close viewing. They also host awesome events like Woodies on the Wharf on June 22.
8. Martinelli’s Complimentary Cider Tasting
Martinelli & Company, founded in 1868 and still specializing in non-alcoholic apple juices, has a company store and tasting room in Watsonville where the business is headquartered. Visitors can sample Martinelli’s Gold Premium juices, sparkling ciders, sparkling juices, mulling spices and limited edition products. During prohibition, the company grew exponentially, encouraging consumers to “drink their apple a day.” Today, visitors to the tasting room can also learn about the history of the Martinelli’s juice brand through a collection of historical photos and archival machinery.
9. Santa Cruz Children’s Museum of Discovery
If the kids need a break from the sun or the weather turns cool, this is a great spot to take them. Full of hands-on exhibits, the Santa Cruz Children’s Museum of Discovery includes kid favorites like a train table and dinosaur exhibit. Check out our full review here.
10. Sunday Farmer’s Market at Live Oak
Don't leave without checking out this amazing farmer’s market where you will find an excellent selection of organic produce from local farms, tree ripened fruits, dried fruit and nuts, baked goods, pastries, seafood, pasture-raised organic meats and more. The market is also the epicenter of the clean food movement, showcasing amazing Sunday brunch offerings like smoked, pastured-raised local pork and egg street tacos and cook-to order custom traditional Michoacan Mexican dishes using fresh organic ingredients. This is your Sunday destination.
11. Hit the Water on a Kayak
Summer is a great time to take the kids out on the water to explore via a kayak. You can rent your two-seater from Venture Quest Kayaks at the Santa Cruz Wharf or from Kayak Connection at the Santa Cruz Harbor. Another nearby spot that's particularly family-friendly is the Elkhorn Slough. Kayak Connection offers family adventure tours for kids as young as three and hourly rentals if you want to explore on your own.
Stay: The Dream Inn
When it comes to the Santa Cruz area, you've got plenty of choices but for the only hotel in Santa Cruz directly on the beach, you can't beat The Dream Inn, This historic hotel was recently renovated and has a fun retro vibe and large rooms that are perfect for families. All the rooms have ocean views and access to the gorgeous pool deck with hot tub and fire pits for cool summer nights. Look for happy hour specials, a taco cart and even yoga on Saturday mornings as part of their summer programming. Kids 4-13 can even sign up for a free two-hour studio maker class on Saturdays that coincides with the yoga session. The class is free—sign up at the front desk when you check in.
Grab dinner after a day in the sun at Jack O’Neill Lounge & Restaurant where seafood is king and the views can't be beat. Try the Lost Boys Bouillabaisse for a real treat or the Corralios sausage sample that's perfect for sharing.
The Dream Inn
175 West Cliff Dr.
Santa Cruz, CA
Stay: Santa Cruz/Monterey Bay KOA Holiday
If you have never brought the kids to a KOA for camping then you are in for a real treat. This spot near Manresa State Beach and the Santa Cruz Boardwalk offers Deluxe Cabins with bunk beds or a sleeping loft for the kids and brand-new Glamping Cabins that are perfect for a romantic getaway. Just in time for summer, the Santa Cruz/Monterey Bay KOA Holiday underwent a renovation of its activity park that includes an outdoor ping pong table, climbing statues, KOA jumping pillow and a new pool.
Perhaps the best part of a KOA is that there are loads of activities for kids that are hosted by on-site counselors (translation: parents can relax). Ride the KOA Express Fun Train around the property, get strapped in to climb the coconut palm trees, watch movies under the stars and enjoy s'mores without the cleanup! Weekends bring extra fun with pancake breakfasts, giga balls and more.