**Updated September 2022**
Santa Cruz has become one of our go-to spots for epic day trips from the Bay Area. The most widely known attraction in Santa Cruz is undoubtedly the famous Beach Boardwalk, but that’s just one of the many epic things to do in Santa Cruz!
Located 70 miles south of San Francisco, Santa Cruz not only has 29 miles of coastline with amazing surfing & beaches but it’s also surrounded by the Santa Cruz mountains. It really has something for everyone – from beaches & gorgeous coastal views to hiking and other outdoor adventures in the redwood forests. Here are some of the best things to do in Santa Cruz with kids & teens.
Santa Cruz Beaches
There is no shortage of Santa Cruz beaches. What are the best beaches in Santa Cruz? It depends what you’re looking for. Some are great for surfing & boogie boarding others have fabulous tide-pooling while others are perfect for playing volleyball or frisbee.
Natural Bridges State Beach
Named for its natural bridge, Natural Bridges State Beach is one of our favorite Santa Cruz beaches. It’s a great spot for surfing, boogie boarding, swimming, spotting whales & otters, flying kites, and tide pooling. It’s also known for its yearly migration of Monarch Butterflies (mid-October through late January).
Santa Cruz Hiking Trails
Home to multiple state & county parks, there is some amazing hiking in Santa Cruz.
Maple Falls is one of the best hikes in Santa Cruz. Located in the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park, this 8-mile hike begins along a fire road and then begins weaving through second- and third-growth redwoods, ferns, bright green moss, and creeks. It is magical. We crossed a creek around 15 times, balanced on logs, hopped across streams, and scrambled up rocks until we reached 30′ tall Maple Falls – one of the best waterfalls in Santa Cruz! My 11yo compared the latter half of this hike to a parkour course.
January – March is a great time to do this hike (or anytime after a good rain) to hopefully see the falls in full force. We went in February and it was pretty muddy in places so hiking shoes are a must. There are lots of other trails in the Forest of Nisene Marks I hope to check out – this one would be hard to beat!
Maple Falls Details
- Distance: 8 miles
- Elevation: 950’ gain
- Our rating: Moderate
- No dogs; no strollers
- Parking: $8 park entrance fee
- Restrooms: Yes
Wilder Ranch State Park – Old Landing Cove Trail
Wilder Ranch State Park is just north of Natural Bridges State Beach off Highway 1. Take the 2.4 mile Old Landing Cove Trail. It’s an easy loop trail with stunning views of the ocean, wildflowers, and wildlife like pelicans, harbor seals, and maybe even a migrating whale! There are several beaches to hike to and a hidden fern grotto. It’s a great place for biking, trail running, hiking & picnics.
Old Landing Cove Trail Details
- Distance: 2.4 miles
- Elevation: 100’ gain
- Our rating: Easy
- No dogs
- Stroller/Bike Friendly
- Parking: $10 parking day-use fee (as of 9/2022)
- Restrooms: Yes
West Cliff Drive
From the entrance of Natural Bridges State Beach, pick up the trail to walk along West Cliff Drive. It’s a well-trafficked dog-friendly trail with bikers, joggers, and walkers, but we felt like we had plenty of space. The trail is a total of 4.8 miles out and back with a turnaround point at Lighthouse Field – I would definitely consider this a “walk” and not a “hike”. We only went about halfway and then turned around. We were there on a cloudless day and the views were over the top. We saw surfers and kayakers. While we didn’t see any whales this time, it would be a great place to spot them!
Santa Cruz Swimming Holes
Is there anything better than a swimming hole? How about one with a rope swing? We are always on the lookout for epic Bay Area swimming holes that we can hike to and then spend the day swimming, floating, and sunning! Here are some of our favorite swimming holes in Santa Cruz.
Big Rock Hole
Big Rock Hole in Santa Cruz is a beautiful hike in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park with redwoods and river crossings. We planned to hike the entire 5-mile loop (Big Rock Hole -> Redwood Grove -> Ox Trail Path) but never made it past the swimming hole along the San Lorenzo River about three-quarters of a mile from the trailhead.
We brought a picnic lunch, blankets, and floaties and enjoyed one of our best summer days. We went early on a weekday in an effort to avoid crowds – we stayed for a couple of hours and saw groups heading down the trail with floaties as we were hiking out.
This great swimming hole on the River Trail (also in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park) is just steps from the picnic area parking lot (and Roaring Camp). It was more crowded than Big Rock Hole likely due to its accessibility. There was a lot of space to spread out plus 3 rope swings along a relatively shallow section of the San Lorenzo River. Kids were wading through the river with nets hunting for fish & crawdads, floating toy boats, lounging on floaties, and playing with beach balls.
About a mile down the River Trail is an area called Cable Car Beach. It appears to be another area to swim & hang out and would likely be less crowded. We planned to check it out but never made it past the first swimming hole!
Garden of Eden
The Garden of Eden swimming hole is more popular than the ones above and we’ve actually never been, but it’s worth mentioning. We first spotted this stunning spot years ago while riding the train from Santa Cruz to Felton and made a note to visit. It gets extremely crowded on summer weekends. So if we ever find ourselves on an unseasonably warm off-peak weekday with nothing to do we’ll check it out. Otherwise, we’ll keep seeking out the less crowded spots. The best way to reach this spot is to park on Highway 9 and follow the Ox Trail Path to the Garden of Eden. It’s about 1.5 miles roundtrip.
Santa Cruz Activities & Adventures
In addition to beaches & hiking, there are endless adventures and activities in Santa Cruz to check out!
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
Santa Cruz is home to the famous Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. It was founded in 1907 and is California’s oldest surviving amusement park. The historic wooden roller coaster, the Giant Dipper, which opened in 1924 is perhaps the boardwalk’s most well-known landmark! There are lots of rides & games for all ages and it’s right on the beach so it’s easy to spend an entire day here!
Santa Cruz Boardwalk Hours & Ticket Prices
During the summer, the rides are open daily, but in the off-season, they operate on a limited schedule. Be sure to check here for current ride & arcade hours. The Boardwalk offers season passes, daily unlimited ride passes, as well as a Boardwalk card that is good for individual rides, games & attractions, can be shared, and never expires.
As of the 2022 season, prices are as follows:
- Season Pass: $99.95
- Daily Pass: $49.95 – $69.95
- Boardwalk Card: $1/point (bonus points for buying a $50 or $100 card)
A visit to Roaring Camp in Felton is a top thing to do near Santa Cruz!
Roaring Camp Trains & Events
We first visited Roaring Camp to see Thomas the Train when our kids were toddlers. Older kids will love the Redwood Forest Steam Train and the Santa Cruz Beach Train. We loved taking the train through the redwoods in Henry Cowell State Park all the way to Santa Cruz. The Beach Train departs daily in summer. Read more about our Beach Train & Boardwalk adventure here.
Roaring Camp hosts many additional events throughout the year like the Great Train Robbery, Father’s Day Brew Train and drive-in movies.
Santa Cruz Holiday Lights Train
If visiting near the holidays, try the Holiday Lights Train! Sing holiday carols and sip spiced cider as the train rolls through the streets of Santa Cruz in cars adorned with thousands of colorful lights. Our kids always love the moment it starts “snowing”! This is very popular so book early to get your preferred time.
The Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz is certainly the most unique thing to do in Santa Cruz. What is the Mystery Spot? It’s a gravitational anomaly located in the redwoods. Or is it a hoax? My 11yo and I took the 45-minute tour determined to find out. We were dazzled by our guides who demonstrated puzzling variations of gravity, perspective & height: we watched a ball roll uphill, climbed a ladder that should have been physically impossible, and learned the history behind this mysterious spot. In addition to the guided tours, there are also trails to explore.
Mystery Spot Tickets
We bought our tickets online here. Tickets at the door are also available but note that they only accept cash/check if purchasing at the door. As of September 2022, tickets are $10 each online (children 3 and under are free). Parking is an additional $5.
Mt Hermon Adventures
Set among the redwoods in Felton (about 7 miles from Santa Cruz), Mount Hermon Adventures has two options: a Canopy tour or an Aerial Adventure which includes suspended rope & timber obstacles as well as 2 zip lines. We chose the Sequoia Aerial Adventure which lasted about 2 hours and had obstacles that got progressively harder (and progressively higher off the ground!). My kids, who were 16, 14, and 11 at the time, flew through this course with no fear – including leaping off platforms and trying to grab ropes suspended in the air. There are multiple paths through each course so one can opt-out of certain obstacles (like I did!).
Mount Hermon Reservations
Advance reservations are required and they do book out a bit. As of September 2022, the price is $90/person. Note that this course requires kids to be at least 10+ years old, taller than 54″, and at least 75lbs. The canopy tour is $110/person and has the same age/weight requirements though the minimum height is only 52″.
We would definitely do this course again although we’d like to try the canopy tour as well! We felt like we had plenty of time to enjoy the aerial course, had plenty of thrills, and the redwood forest backdrop is simply stunning. This is one of the coolest things to do in Santa Cruz!
Where to Eat in Santa Cruz
Start your day with breakfast at casual Walnut Ave Cafe in downtown Santa Cruz voted the “City’s Best Breakfast” by Sunset Magazine. They offer indoor & outdoor dining and have delicious scrambles! Then pick up sandwiches & cookies at Emily’s Good Things to Eat and enjoy a picnic on the beach or take it along on a hike. For an afternoon treat, head to The Penny Ice Creamery where all their ice cream is made from scratch in-house. They have traditional and creative flavors that change with the season and feature locally sourced organic ingredients. There are 2 locations in Santa Cruz and one recently opened in Scotts Valley (stop here after visiting Roaring Camp or Mount Hermon Adventures).
Where to Stay in Santa Cruz
While we typically make Santa Cruz a day trip, there are many overnight options from rental homes to hotels. I think one of the best Santa Cruz hotels on the beach is The Dream Inn. This beachfront hotel on West Cliff Drive is just steps from the boardwalk, all rooms have an ocean view, and there’s an outdoor pool just steps from the sand. We booked this hotel to start our Highway 1 road trip a few years ago and then had to cancel due to the pandemic. I am still looking to find a weekend to stay here!
Extend Your Trip
Just north of Santa Cruz along Highway 1 is the tiny coastal town of Davenport – check out things to do in Davenport here.
What Am I Missing?
Admittedly, we still have much of Santa Cruz to explore and I’ll update this list as we do! Am I missing one of your favorite spots? Let me know in the comments below!