Surfing has been an integral part of life in Santa Cruz, California, since all the way back in the 19th century when this charming coastal town became one of the first places on the mainland United States to embrace the sport. The laid-back surfer lifestyle has gone on to influence every aspect of life in Santa Cruz, making it a perfect place to enjoy a relaxing vacation. If you're looking for more than just hanging out at the beach, don't worry. Santa Cruz has plenty of other things to do as well.
No visit to Santa Cruz would be complete without a visit to its historic boardwalk. This festive area has been operating as an amusement park for more than 100 years, and it features two rides that are designated as National Historic Landmarks. It also features many more modern rides and games, as well as classic carnival foods like corn dogs and cotton candy. The boardwalk is free to enter, but rides and games have additional costs.
After you've chowed down on carnival foods, you might want to take a stroll to work off some calories. Head over to West Cliff Drive, a three-mile path that overlooks the ocean. The flat, well-maintained pathway is great for walking or biking, and you can stop off in the numerous scenic overlooks whenever you want a break. It begins at Santa Cruz Wharf and ends at Natural Bridges State Beach, so it's worth it to do the full six-mile round trip for a truly scenic experience. Be aware that it can get crowded on weekends, so consider a weekday trip.
You don't have to be a surfer yourself to get in on the fun. Steamer Lane is one of the most popular surfing spots in Santa Cruz, and the surrounding beaches offer plenty of vantage points where you can enjoy watching surfers as they ride the waves. Competitions are held there regularly, but even on off days, you'll find plenty of skilled surfers to watch. While you're there, visit the nearby Santa Cruz Surfing Museum to experience the history of the sport. If you're feeling bold, there are plenty of beginner-friendly surfing schools that will help you try it out for yourself.
Located in Wilder Ranch State Park, the Old Cove Landing Trail offers some of the most spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean in the area. It's a fairly easy 2.5-mile walk with numerous viewing opportunities from the bluffs. Visitors regularly spot whales, dolphins and other marine life swimming in the area. Bring your binoculars for a better look. The park also has plenty of hiking and biking trails as well as historic Victorian homes preserved as museums, so it's great for an all-day visit.
Nestled among the redwood forest just outside of Santa Cruz is a quirky little roadside attraction called the Bigfoot Discovery Museum. Whether you're a true believer or rather skeptical about the existence of this legendary creature, you can explore exhibits about the lore and sightings surrounding Bigfoot. There is also information on local history and geography with a Bigfoot focus, as well as information into modern research techniques that Bigfoot believers are using to try to prove the existence of the creature.
If you're in the mood to pamper yourself, head over to the Santa Cruz Wharf for some world-class dining and shopping. You can find just about everything you'd want to eat and drink here, ranging from old-fashioned family diners to upscale wine bars. Be sure to sample some of the fresh seafood dishes for a delicious local experience. There are also numerous quirky local boutiques scattered along the wharf, making it a great place to pick up some Santa Cruz souvenirs or pick out a new swimsuit for the beach.
The Seymour Marine Discovery Center brings out the inner marine biologist in everyone who visits. Touch tanks let you handle amazing animals, including starfish, sea urchins, and even a friendly shark. Take a picture beside one of the museum's full whale skeletons as a fun memento, then take a tour of the Joseph M. Long Laboratory to watch marine researchers work with dolphins, seals, and sea lions. This non-profit center is great for all ages.
If you want to spend a day at the beach but feel like getting off the beaten path, plan a visit to Shark Fin Cove. This stunning cove gets its name from a dramatic rock formation shaped like a shark fin and features a sandy beach along with crystal clear waters and a hidden sea cave that is sometimes exposed enough to explore on foot. The hike down to the beach is a little steep and narrow, so it's best for older kids and physically fit adults. Be sure to bring all the food, water, and other necessities you'll need for your visit.
Step back into the past with a ride on an old-fashioned steam train modeled after the ones loggers used to move giant redwood logs during the 19th century. This gorgeous open-air ride takes you over winding tracks, and narrow wooden trestles as guides provide information about the history and ecology of the area. For a bit more variety, hop on the beach train to see both redwood forests and beautiful coastline, as well as a chance to ride through a historic tunnel that was built in 1875.
If you visit during the fall or winter, be sure to plan a trip to Natural Bridges State Park. This stunning park is home to a peaceful sanctuary that thousands of monarch butterflies flock to every year. Even if you miss the butterflies, Natural Bridges is worth a visit. It gets its name from a spectacular natural arch over the ocean. Head up to bluffs to watch for whales and dolphins playing in the ocean, or stroll along the beach to see what life in the shallow tide pools is like. The park features a mix of accessible boardwalks and more challenging trails, so it is suitable for everyone.