World-class water sports, spectacular hiking and biking, and abundant marine life, beaches, and redwood forests make it easy to understand why Santa Cruz, Calif., locals are loath to drive “over the hill” (the Santa Cruz Mountains directly to the east) for anything.
Indeed, this popular seaside destination some 70 miles south of San Francisco offers plenty of fun for everyone.
“There’s so much to do; you have to be careful about packing your days too full,” says Carolyn Hauck, a freelance copywriter in Portland, Ore., who visits family in Santa Cruz a few times each year with her son, Silas.
Hauck has learned to pace her activities by balancing beach playtime with her 6-year-old, visits to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, half-day hiking trips in the redwoods, and less-ambitious adventures in one of the many parks and preserves.
How to fit it all in? Here’s a three-day itinerary to get you started:
Day 1: Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
This classic beachfront amusement park, which opened in 1907, has been updated to keep kids (young and old) entertained for hours. Two of the park’s rides — the Giant Dipper wooden roller coaster and the Looff Carousel, with its famous ring toss — are registered historic landmarks. But there are plenty of contemporary thrills and games, too.
Free admission; rides start at $4; all-day passes start at $36.95. www.beachboardwalk.com
Natural Bridges State Beach and West Cliff Drive offer an alternative outdoor experience. You can wander trails among monarch-butterfly habitat and walk to the beach to view natural bridge formations carved by the Pacific.
Back on West Cliff Drive’s biking and running path, make sure to look for passing dolphins or whales as you make your way to watch the surfers at Steamer Lane and visit the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum and Lighthouse Point.
Mitchell’s Cove Beach is a popular spot to let four-legged friends enjoy the surf and sand. Accessible via a path from West Cliff Drive, about halfway between Natural Bridges and Lighthouse Point. Dogs can be off-leash before 10 a.m. and after 4 p.m. every day.
The nearby Santa Cruz Wharf is a favorite resting place for Monterey Bay sea lions (you’ll hear them from a half-mile away!) and plenty of (touristy) restaurants and gift shops.
Locals’ tip: For a very cool, but mellow, adjunct to the big fun of the Boardwalk, check out the NHS Skate Museum in the hip Seabright neighborhood. This obscure gem provides a killer history of skateboarding.
Tours by appointment only.
Facebook: NHS Skate Museum
Day 2: Santa Cruz Mountains
Part of the Pacific Coast Ranges, they’re home to expansive old- and new-growth redwood forests and quirky little mountain towns.
Solve the Mystery Spot. This funky roadside stop about five miles outside of Santa Cruz is a must-see. Whether you believe any of the alien-vortex-electromagnetic-field theories or just find it a puzzling and silly architectural gem, it’s worth an hour of your time. $8 for ages 3 and up; parking is $5 (cash). www.mysteryspot.com
Roaring Camp Railroads. In the 1880s, narrow-gauge steam locomotives hauled giant redwood logs out of the mountains. Today, Roaring Camp’s restored steam engines take passengers on an hour-long ride through the old-growth forest. You can even take a train all the way down to Santa Cruz Beach.
Cost: Forest train is $22/kids (ages 2–12), $29/adults; RT beach train is $25/kids (ages 2–12), $31/adults. www.roaringcamp.com
Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
Marvel at the majestic redwoods as you enjoy hiking, exploring, and picnicking along 15 miles of trails.
Cost: $10 per car (seniors: $9)
Leashed dogs are allowed on some trails and in picnic areas within the park. www.parks.ca.gov
Day 3: Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey, Calif.
Considered the best research aquarium in the world, this state-of-the-art exhibit space in historic Cannery Row showcases 550 species, offering open-sea galleries and education programs focused on the marine creatures that call the two-mile-deep Monterey Bay home. $29.95–$49.95. www.montereybayaquarium.org
Where: Santa Cruz, Calif.
Perfect for: Adults, kids, teens, grandparents, and Fido.
Why go: This idyllic seaside community provides year-round fun.
Best time of year: Summer is beach season, but it’s also when you’ll find the crowds — and fog. Try late fall to avoid the hordes, enjoy gorgeous sunny weather, and perhaps experience the annual monarch-butterfly migration (mid-October to mid-January).
Don’t miss: The boardwalk.
Pack: Layers. It can be warm and sunny at the coast — or the fog can roll in and cool things down in a hurry.
This originally appeared as “Family Classics” in the September 2017 print issue of Experience Life.