Summer in Santa Cruz: The Perfect Beach Town for Families

May 25, 2019

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For generations of Californians, Santa Cruz has been synonymous with beach town, thanks to its long stretches of sand, colorful boardwalk and host of family-friendly activities. Today the sleepy seaside town’s retro appeal and laid-back vibe are drawing a new generation of families who come as much for the area’s scenic beauty as for the old-fashioned summer fun. Located about an hour south of San Francisco, here are the top things to do in Santa Cruz for kids (and parents) of all ages.

Visit One of the West Coast’s Most Beloved Boardwalks

Like its East Coast counterpart, Coney Island, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk has lured revelers for more than 100 years and boasts two rides that are bona fide National Historic Landmarks. But the Looff Carousel, with its colorful hand-carved horses, and the Giant Dipper, one of the most famous wooden roller coasters in the world, are just the beginning. The park boasts more than 40 rides, along with all the classic games and food booths.

(Photo by JHVEPhoto / Getty Images)
(Photo by JHVEPhoto / Getty Images)

The family-owned boardwalk is distinctive for the number of rides for little ones, from classics like Kiddie Cruzers, Speed Boats and Jet Copters to newer specialties like Bulgy the Whale. Many other rides, like Bouncin’ Buggies, Convoy and the Beach Swing, allow kids under 36 inches to ride with a chaperone. A favorite is the colorful Sea Dragon, which rises gently in the air and has space for parents to share the seat. The fun continues at night with a free Friday night concert series, Bands on the Beach, from June 14 to Aug. 30. Families set up lawn chairs and spread out blankets to listen to nostalgia acts, like The English Beat, Foghat and 10,000 Maniacs, and dance to Motown and ’50s bop.

There are ways you can ensure a successful day at the boardwalk and cut costs at the same time by being an early bird. Arrive between 9am and 10am and not only will you avoid crowds, but you’ll also receive a free $10 My Boardwalk card when you purchase an all-day-ride wristband. The family-run boardwalk’s website also features a whole sheet of coupons offering three-for-the-price-of-two on popular boardwalk treats, like hot dogs on a stick, cotton candy and pretzels. If you think you’ll be coming back multiple days, the season pass is good value.

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Sing Along With Sea Lions

As you approach the historic Santa Cruz Wharf, a long wooden jetty near the boardwalk with stunning views of the bay, you may hear some gorgeous creatures before you spot them. Look over the edge, and you’ll see the highly social mammals flopping, wriggling and playing all along the pier’s wooden supports. Their loud whoop-whoops may annoy locals but visitors can enjoy their antics for hours.

Sea lions in Santa Cruz. (Photo by Tony Xia / Getty Images)
Sea lions in Santa Cruz. (Photo by Tony Xia / Getty Images)

Try Surfing or Boogie Boarding

With famous surf breaks like Mavericks and Steamer Lane, Santa Cruz is known worldwide by big-wave riders. But only some area beaches feature strong surf; those in the more protected coves and Santa Cruz harbor itself are gentle and perfect for first-time boarders. Wet suits are required as the northern California Pacific is chilly, even in summer. Surf School Santa Cruz offers private and group lessons, with children under 12 assigned their own one-on-one instructor. (A two-hour private lesson for two people starts at $250.)

For kids 8 to 12 who find themselves hooked, Adventure Out leads budget-friendly, three-day surf camps from June through August that get high marks for supportive atmosphere and are a bargain at $260 for nine hours of instruction and practice. Even little ones can learn at Cowell Beach just north of town, where Cowell’s Beach Surf Shop offers lessons to any child who’s comfortable in the ocean away from the shore. Boogie boarding is an easier alternative to surfing that doesn’t require standing on the board.

Teach Kids About Sea Life With Tide Pooling

Natural Bridges State Beach, oft-photographed for its natural arch formation, features a long rock shelf at the north end where pockets in the rock form mini-aquariums full of sea anemones, hermit crabs, starfish, limpets and other sea life. Tip: Go at low tide; you can find tide tables on weather apps or consult the tide table charts posted at the visitor’s center.

Natural Bridge State Beach. (Photo courtesy of littleny / Getty Images)
Natural Bridge State Beach (Photo courtesy of littleny / Getty Images)

Kid-Friendly Marine Research Center

Near Natural Bridges you’ll find the Seymour Marine Discovery Center, a working marine lab run the University of California, Santa Cruz. The center has a small but fun aquarium with two touch tanks. In one, kids can pick up sea stars and other creatures that would be off limits at the beach; in the others, they can touch a real-life swell shark, which looks scary but is entirely gentle. There are even resident dolphins and a seal. The main attraction is a fully assembled blue whale skeleton, the largest one in the world at 87 feet long. From Tuesdays through Saturdays, you can take a 30-minute guided tour starting at 11am. Admission is $9 for adults, $7 for kids 3–16 and children 2 and under are free.

Ride a Train Through the Redwoods

The Roaring Camp Railroad, a vintage 1880s steam train, departs from the boardwalk and zigzags up through towering redwoods to the re-created mining town of Felton. During a one-hour stopover, kids can pan for gold, watch a blacksmith smelt iron and experience life as it was lived in California’s Wild West. Tip: Book in advance and get there early to grab coveted seats in one of the open-air cars. At $34 for adults and $23 for kids (those 2 and under free), this one’s a bit of a splurge, but I use my Bank of America® Customized Cash Rewards credit card or another cash-back credit card to bank points for future expenses.

(Photo courtesy of Roaring Camp Railroads)

Eat Out in Santa Cruz

Home to almost 20,000 college students, as well as many young families, Santa Cruz is awash with affordable dining options, among them retro-fun Betty’s Burgers, which has three locations and surf-themed Pizza My Heart, a local chain with locations in Santa Cruz and nearby Capitola. You family can even roll its own sushi at Mobo Sushi downtown. And don’t miss breakfast at the classic Silver Spur, where the kids menu includes cowboy cakes (pancakes), pigs in a blanket and PBJ. For the required ice cream stop, you’ll be hard-pressed to choose between The Penny Ice Creamery and Mission Hill Creamery, both of which make their own frozen treats with locally sourced cream. I always pay for meals with my Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, which pays 3 points per dollar on dining. There are many more (even more rewarding) dining card options for saving money or earning bonus points on meals.


Find a Family- and Points-Friendly Hotel

Santa Cruz has no shortage of points hotels with perks for families. In the Marriott family, there’s the Fairfield Inn & Suites and the Hotel Paradox, an Autograph Collection hotel. Both are Category 5 properties. Spend from 35,000 points a night or use your up to 35k free-night certificate that comes with the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card.

(Photo courtesy of Hotel Paradox)
(Photo courtesy of Hotel Paradox)

Other hotel options include the Holiday Inn Express & Suites Santa Cruz (from 40,000 IHG Rewards Club points) and Hyatt Place Santa Cruz (from 15,000 World of Hyatt points), which opened in 2017 and is a top choice for its location on the town’s scenic west side. Remember that Hyatt Place offers free breakfast, but only if you book the hotel directly through Hyatt. As a Category 4 property, you could use a Category 1 – 4 award night from the World of Hyatt Credit Card to cover a night of your stay.

Bottom Line

Santa Cruz is one of those places where it doesn’t take days to plan a trip. Families can be footloose and have a relaxed beach vacation with marine adventures and carnival rides thrown in. Head there soon and let us know what you think.

Featured photo of the Santa Cruz boardwalk by Mitch Diamond / Getty Images.


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