Things to do in Santa Cruz.
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24 AWESOME Things to Do in Santa Cruz

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There are so many things to do in Santa Cruz; it just might be our favorite city in the state!

With miles and miles of beautiful beaches, a buzzing downtown, plenty of tourist hotspots, and plenty of stunning natural parks to help you escape city life, would we be too forward in saying that Santa Cruz has it all?

Maybe, but there is no denying there is a lot packed into this coastal gem.

You could be hitting the waves on a surfboard one minute and sipping on some local brew the next, climbing a mountain in the morning, and browsing a museum in the afternoon.

Relax or adventure; the choice is yours! Here are our favorite things to do in Santa Cruz.

1. Discover Giant Trees at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park Trail

If you can bear to tear yourself away from the coast, visit Henry Powell Redwoods State Park.

The mystical woodland is nestled in the Santa Cruz Mountains, replacing sea views with towering redwoods, some 1800 years old, 285 feet tall, and 16 feet wide.

Nina walking along Redwoods Grove Trail besides a huge redwood tree.
Nina feeling small next to a giant redwood tree.

If you are short on time and want to see what it offers, take the Redwood Grove Loop Trail. This is the most popular trail, letting you see the giants up close as you enter the old-growth grove.

Ferns cover the ground, and in the forest, the air is nice and cool and silent, pierced only by the Roaring Camp trains making their way to the coast. Speaking of which…

2. Take a Train Journey

Head back in time at Roaring Camp Train Depot, a whole town that will make you feel you have been transported to the 1880s.

The town has a general store, covered bridge, barn, Georgie’s Cook House, Chuckwagon BBQ, and the Train Depot itself. It is one of the best things to do in Santa Cruz.

A steam train locomotive driving through the Roaring Camp Train Depot.
Why not jump on the steam train?

Although the town is great for wandering around, the train ride is the real highlight.

There are two different train ride options. You could take the Redwood Forest Steam Train, which will take you through the towering redwoods, over trestles, and up to the summit of Bear Mountain.

On the other scenic ride, the Beach Train takes you through Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, down the San Lorenzo River Gorge, and to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

3. Hit the Trails at DeLaveaga Park

Home to incredible trails, views, a golf course, and some pretty epic picnic spots, DeLaveaga Park is a Santa Cruz gem.

Often overlooked by people heading to the beaches and coastal parks, DeLaveaga has a lot to offer.

View from a bench across the tree covered DeLaveaga Park in Santa Cruz.
The view over DeLaveaga Park.

There are miles of winding trails, beautiful picnic areas, ballfields, playgrounds for the children, a golf course, an archery range, a disc golf course, and more.

The trails here are multi-use, so you’ll have to look out for cyclists enjoying the varied terrain, or you could jump on a bike and join them.

4. Enjoy a White Sand Paradise at Twin Lakes State Beach

If you are looking for an expensive white beach, look no further than Twin Lakes State Beach.

The sand stretches for a mile and is a popular spot for swimming, picnicking, and general beaching. Sailing boats bob out to sea, and inland, Schwan Lagoon is a bird-watching hot spot.

Sunbathing tourists and windsurfers at Twin Lakes State Beach.
Enjoy an activity day on Twin Lakes State Beach.

Several trails will help you explore the area, but we don’t blame you if you just want to sit on the beach and do nothing. Honestly, this is what we did!

We found the parking here a bit chaotic. You have to pretty much park wherever you can find a space at the side of the road.

5. Cruise Along On a Scenic Drive

You don’t have to head out on the trails to see what Santa Cruz offers. You’ll be able to see some incredible sights from the comfort of your car.

East Cliff Drive County Parkway hugs the coast from Pleasure Point Park to Pleasure Point Parking and is the ideal way to take in Pleasure Point Beach and gaze out over the blue Pacific.

Cyclists on a cycle path in Santa Cruz while a campervan passes them on a palm tree-lined road.
Our VW Bus Lucy along the East Cliff Drive.

West Cliff Drive has similar vibes and takes you from Santa Cruz Wharf around the coast, past the surfing museum and Steamer Lane, to Natural Bridges State Beach.

You’ll be next to the coast the whole way, passing beaches, bluffs, and natural wonders like the West Cliff Drive tide pools and Whale Point.

Aerial view over a coastal suburban Santa Cruz along the West Cliff Scenic Drive.
The view over the West Cliff Scenic Drive.

We highly recommend walking these routes to get better views without risking a fender bender, but these scenic drives are great if you don’t have a lot of time!

6. Spend Some Time at Lighthouse Point

Lighthouse Point has a little bit of everything. Let’s start with the lighthouse itself. Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse stands in memory of Mark Abbott, who sadly drowned near the point.

Today, the lighthouse houses the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, where you can view and learn about the vibrant Santa Cruz surfing life.

Few tourists walking along Lighthouse Point Beach in Santa Cruz.
Lighthouse Point Beach.

The Point is also home to the famed Steamer Lane, an iconic surfing spot known for its huge waves, so even if you are not up for surfing here, watching the experienced surfers on challenging waters is worth a visit.

A girl walking along the promenade next to a red brick lighthouse along Lighthouse Point Trail in Santa Cruz.
Along Lighthouse Point Trail.

Then, to top it all off, you have winding trails along the fields, incredible viewpoints, and a beautiful dog-friendly beach; what more could you want when it comes to things to do in Santa Cruz?

7. Hit the Beach (Most Popular Thing to Do in Santa Cruz)

Although there are some incredible things to do in Santa Cruz, there is no denying that one of its biggest draws is its beaches, and there are plenty to choose from.

Santa Cruz main beach and Boardwalk theme park on a sunny day.
Check out the main beach and Boardwalk!

Most people tend to head to Main Beach, which is right in the center of town with easy access, facilities, attractions like Santa Cruz Wharf and Santa Cruz Boardwalk, and a great vibe.

However, there are other Santa Cruz beaches to consider if you seek a quieter option.

Just a short distance away is cute Capitola Beach, backed by its colorful houses. Lighthouse Field State Beach is a popular dog-friendly beach near Lighthouse Point, perfect for a stroll with a four-legged friend.

Tourists going about their day in the sun on New Brighton State Beach.
Imagine New Brighton beach with a twilight bonfire…

When the sun sets, there is nothing like sitting on the beach with friends and a roaring bonfire. Manresa, New Brighton, and Sunset Beach all have fire pits available for prime marshmallow roasting.

READ MORE: 12 BEST Beaches in Santa Cruz

8. Surf the Waves

There are plenty of places in Santa Cruz to put your board in the water and hit the waves.

One of the most popular spots is the Cowell Surf Access Stairway, just west of Santa Cruz Wharf.

Surfers on the ocean with a kayaker besides a busy Cowell Beach in Santa Cruz.
Cowell Beach is a great place for surfing lessons!

If you want to learn to surf in Santa Cruz, there is arguably no better place, with shallow water and gentle waves. This area has several surf schools—you can book a lesson here.

Steamer Lane is another surfing hot spot, but it couldn’t be more different from Cowell Beach. The waves are impressive, and the bluffs are often busy with those wanting to watch the surfers at work.

Surfers waiting for the next wave at Pleasure Point.
Waiting for the next wave at Pleasure Point.

Pleasure Point is another great surfing spot, and it sees beginners and experienced surfers hitting the waves. The waves can be gentle and easy to access, making it a good all-rounder.

9. Step Back in Time at Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park and Plaza

You will find Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park and Mission Plaza at the top of Mission Hill. If you are into history, the park is home to the only building left from the 12th California Mission, restored to its original looks.

Don’t just check out the building from the outside; a nice little museum is inside. There are exhibits, wall-sized projections, and guided tours, so it is well worth stopping in.

Santa Cruz Mission church framed by trees in the Mission State Historic Park.
Perfect for a sunny day!

Outside, you will find Mission Plaza, which has a small garden with a fountain, another small church in the background, and beautiful views of the city.

10. Take a Hike

There are some seriously incredible hikes in the Santa Cruz area. We have a whole post of Santa Cruz hikes of all shapes and sizes, but these are some of the best.

  • Bonny Doon Beach and Shark Fin Cove Loop – See some of the best beaches in the area on this epic hike that snakes down onto the sand of beautiful Bonny Doon and up the bluffs, providing stunning views of Shark Fin Cove Beach.
Three tourists and a fisherman on Shark Fin Cove Beach.
Enjoy the day at Shark Fin Cove.
  • Redwood Grove Loop Trail – See some of the most majestic trees in Santa Cruz on this trail, which is located in Henry Cowell State Park. It starts a little busy, as everyone loves those redwoods, but you’ll find some peace and quiet as you go further into the forest.
  • West Cliff Drive – Take a stroll down West Cliff Drive, one of the most scenic roads in Santa Cruz, and enjoy expansive views of the ocean, wharf, and boardwalk.
Two small beaches besides suburban Santa Cruz houses along the West Cliff Drive.
West Cliff Drive is super scenic.
  • Old Landing Cove Trail – As well as sea views on this trail that passes right along the Pacific in Wilder Ranch State Park, you’ll get an insight into history. The route takes you around historic farmland, where antique cars and farming machinery still stand today.

RELATED: 9 TOP Hikes in Santa Cruz

11. Go on a Hunt for Seals

You will most likely be able to hear the loud cry of a sea lion before you see these majestic creatures, and there are plenty of chances to see them when visiting Santa Cruz.

The Santa Cruz Wharf seems to be a popular sea lion hangout, and you may even be lucky and find a sea otter sunning themselves along with the sea lions. If they are not lazing on the dock, check out the viewing areas outside The Dolphin restaurant.

A sea lion basking in the sun at Pleasure Point.
There’s nothing better than spotting sea lions!

Although Año Nuevo State Park is best known for its elephant seal viewing, it is also rich in other marine life.

Both Steller Sea Lions and Californian Sea Lions take to the rocks here, especially on Año Nuevo Island. This is our favorite spot for wildlife spotting (more on this in a sec)!

Elephant seals basking on the beach in Año Nuevo State Park.
Spot the elephant seals in Año Nuevo State Park.

Another slightly more adventurous way to see the sea lions is to head out on a kayaking excursion. There are some tours, like those offered by Kayak Connection, that offer specific wildlife tours, so you have a great chance of spotting some.

12. Spend the Day at Coast Dairies State Beaches (Our Fav Thing to Do in Santa Cruz)

The Santa Cruz main beaches in town are far from the only beaches in the area worth checking out.

An empty panther beach on an overcast day in Coast Diaries State Park.
A very empty Panther Beach.

The Coast Dairies State Beaches may lack the amenities and attractions that surround the main beaches, but they more than make up for this in natural beauty and lack of crowds, plus if you tire of one beach, just move on to the next.

Each beach has something different and special to offer. For example, Panther Beach has a hidden beach called Hole in the Wall Beach that can only be reached at low tide.

Rough cliffs and blue ocean water at Bonny Doon Beach on a sunny day.
Bonny Doon Beach on a sunny day.

Bonny Doon is visually stunning, backed by high cliffs and dunes, while Shark Fin Beach is home to an impressive rock formation that looks remarkably like, you guessed it, a shark fin.

We wandered these beaches, coves, and the trail above them for ages! This area is one of our favorite things to do in Santa Cruz.

13. Traverse the Trails of Wilder Ranch State Park

With 34 miles of hiking within its 7000 acres, Wilder Ranch State Park offers scenic coastal terraces and valleys waiting to be explored.

Head out on foot or bike and traverse the landscape, stopping for a break and a snack on some of the scenic pocket beaches en route.

Nina hiking along a coastal path besides wildflowers on a sunny day in Wilder Ranch State Park.
Hike or bike, it’s your pick!

Many trails traverse the bluffs, tide pools, and sea caves, while others wind through the hills inland, up to the 1800-foot peak of Ben Lomand Mountain. We, personally, love the coastal trail, of course!

It’s not just the incredible natural environment that sets this state park apart from others, it is also packed with history.

Cyclist pushing a bike along a path towards a restored building in Wilder Ranch State Park.
Check out the restored village!

Thanks to the restored buildings, farming machinery, tours, and living history demonstrations, you’ll learn about the early ranchers and farmers who made a living along this part of the central coast.

14. Check Out an Incredible Nature Arch

Is there any guessing how Natural Bridges State Beach got its name? The mighty namesake, natural rock arch, sits just offshore and is an impressive 15-foot wide.

Man standing in front of rock arch formation which is covered in seagulls at Natural Bridges State Beach.
The arch that bequeaths the name.

One of the best views of the arch is from the overlook high above the beach, so make sure you check this out before heading down onto the sand. It’s a great place to snap some photos, especially at sunset.

Although the park is the perfect destination for a full-on beach day, you could also check out the colorful marine life in the tide pools, or during fall and winter, thousands of monarch butterflies head to the eucalyptus grove.

Tourists going about different activities on a sunny day at Natural Bridges State Beach.
The actual beach itself.

This is such an easy and cool park to explore, we spent half a day here just wandering around and basking in the sun.

15. Visit Colorful Capitola

Enjoy a rainbow of colors if you go for a stroll around the quaint beach town of Capitola, the first beach resort in California.

Brightly painted shops and restaurants line the bayfront promenade, and the tiles along the beach wall are colorful.

Colorful houses lined up along the edge of a seagull covered Capitola Beach.
Didn’t think it would be this colorful, did you?

Rent boogie boards, SUPS, deck chairs, and umbrellas, and make a day of it, finishing up with a bite to eat in one of the quaint eateries in the town.

Head up the hill to explore the quaint boutique shops and pick up some delicious baked treats from the local bakery to enjoy in the evening by the shore.

16. Stroll Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

You won’t want to miss a visit to arguably the biggest attraction in Santa Cruz, the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, the number one thing to do in Santa Cruz.

Admission is free, so once you are inside, you can pick out what rides speak to you—they range from heart-stopping to family-friendly.

The colorful entrance to Boardwalk theme park in Santa Cruz.
The Boardwalk is great for all ages!

As well as rides like wooden rollercoasters and carousels, there are also classic games and several indoor attractions, like Lazer Tag and Boardwalk Bowl.

Put it this way: you won’t be stuck for things to do, especially if you are looking for fun, affordable entertainment with incredible views out over the beach and bay!

17. Get Cultural at a Museum

Santa Cruz may not seem to be full of fascinating museums, but there are some hidden gems.

  • There is the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, which is lovingly dubbed MAH by the locals. This vibrant museum always seems to have something going on, whether that’s love music or community collaborations, and connects you with the stories and lives of the people of Santa Cruz.
  • Then, there is the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History, which showcases the diverse animal, plant, and human communities that live from the peaks of Santa Cruz Mountains down to Monterey Bay.

18. Head to Año Nuevo State Park for Prime Elephant Seal Viewing

There are not many places in the world where every year over 10,000 elephant seals make their way to the shore to rest and raise their pups, but you’ll be able to witness this spectacle at Año Nuevo State Park.

A colony of elephant seals sleeping on a beach covered in seaweed.
The elephant seal colony napping on the beach.

Covering 4000 acres of wildness, the park certainly has a lot to offer, with hikes that take you around colossal sand dunes, through thick groves of trees, including giant redwoods, between freshwater marshes, and along wild, wind-wept cliffs.

The most well-known trail is the Año Nuevo Point Trail, which is the one that takes you to the elephant seal viewpoint.

This hike will leave you in awe no matter the time of year. Whether you are in time to see the blubbering seal babies or the angry roar of the males during mating season, you are in for a treat.

Nina walking along a boardwalk on Franklin Point Trail in Año Nuevo State Park.
Hiking along Franklin Point Trail.

This spot is well worth the detour out of Santa Cruz, not just for the seals but for the coastal views and even the epic surfing beach!

19. Taste Some of The Local Brews

There is no better thing to do in Santa Cruz than have a cold pint in the sun, and this town has you covered.

Two men sitting in the cosy interior of Woodhouse Brewery in Santa Cruz.
Nothing beats relaxing in a good brewery.

The city is home to many craft breweries, most of which are run by locals who have a passion for brewing good beer. Some are tiny and hidden, while others are more established, with an open patio and vast menu.

You can’t go wrong no matter which venue you choose, but a few notable mentions include Steel Bonnet Brewing Company, Woodhouse Blending and Brewing, and Seabright Social.

Beer barrels with decorated with letters spelling 'Woodhouse' in the garden of a brewery in Santa Cruz.
Woodhouse Brewery is a great place to start!

If you can’t choose and fancy ditching the car, why not hop aboard the Brew Cruz?

Jump on the vintage bus that runs through town and enjoy some tours and tastings of some of the best venues. One of their bus options is an old-school VW Bus, just like our Lucy!

20. Admire Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park

Almost teetering on the edge of a rocky outcrop near Pescadero, you’ll discover Pigeon Point Light Station and the natural beauty of the historical park surrounding it.

Huge swells pound consistently at the rocks surrounding the tall building, making it easy to see why it was placed there.

Slightly dirty white lighthouse in Pigeon Point Lighthouse Station.
Pigeon Point Light Station.

Check out the interpreter center housed in the Fog Signal Building, which lets you get up close and personal with the incredible original Fresnel Lens.

Combine your visit to the light with a bluff side stroll and admire the fierce power of the water at this part of the coast.

21. Discover Davenport Swing

A not-so-hidden gem and a bit of a photographer’s dream, you have to go on the hunt for Davenport Swing when looking for things to do in Santa Cruz.

Just north of Santa Cruz, you will find the town of Davenport, which is the home of an abandoned pier, which is little more than the concrete posts that used to hold the pier up.

A view from a cliff down to the old Davenport Pier swing.
The remnants of Davenport Pier.

The foundation arches stretch out into the water, with one accessible in the sand, and it is on this last post, you will find the swing.

Whether you’re capturing the perfect shot or just swinging out into the seemingly neverending waves, you can’t deny this is better than most swing sets you’ll come across.

A rope swing hanging from a support arch from the old Davenport Pier.
It’s sort of like a ghost swing…

TIP: The trail down to the swing is notoriously sketchy, so wear good shoes and only descend if you are confident in your abilities. Also, watch for the waves that can come crashing down on the swing!

22. Find Peace at Forest of Nisene Marks State Park

When walking the thick wooded trails of The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park, surrounded by oak and redwoods, you would never guess that in 1983, no trees stood in the area.

The forest is a dense second and third-growth forest, with over 30 miles of trails to enjoy.

Bright green foliage within Aptos Creek surrounded by the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park.
The vibrant greens of the Forest of Nisene.

You could stick to the flatter paths or explore some of the trails that climb and wind up into the coastal mountains, providing the perfect escape from busy town life in Santa Cruz.

In the park’s cool, quiet, and damp interior, you’ll feel miles away from the world outside. Stop for a picnic with friends and family using the on-site BBQ pits, or hike up to see Maple Falls, a scenic waterfall deep in the forest.

23. Attend an Event

No matter what time of year you visit, there is sure to be something going on in town. Santa Cruz has an active events scene, so whether it’s an art festival or foodie event, just take your pick.

Here are some notable events in Santa Cruz to align your visit with:

  • Run the Wharf to Wharf
  • Open Studios Art Tour
  • Santa Cruz Country Fair
  • Woodies on the Wharf
  • Fourth of July
  • Santa Cruz Film Festival
  • Redwood Mountain Faire

24. Visit the Impressive Walton Lighthouse

Everyone loves a lighthouse, and Walton Lighthouse is particularly scenic, standing tall and proud on its jetty. For over 50 years, it has protected the entrance to Santa Cruz Harbor, built to withstand the elements.

A surfer carving a wave in a golden hour glow with a backdrop of a lighthouse at Seabright Beach.
Walton Lighthouse at Seabright Beach.

Interestingly, Walton Lighthouse uses a green signal light that flashes every 4 seconds instead of the flashing white light that lighthouses are known for.

The majestic light sits at Seabright Beach, the less crowded neighborhood of Boardwalk Beach. It’s a fun beach to enjoy to escape the crowds, with fire pits available for nights on the sand, and it is dog friendly, so your furry pal can join in the adventure.  

👉 Accommodation in Santa Cruz

Final Thoughts on Things to Do in Santa Cruz

Phew, that was quite the list! Again, we can’t stress this enough—Santa Cruz is such a vibe! It’s so laid-back, the food and art scene is thriving, the boardwalk is iconic, and the nature is unmatched.

Oh, and let’s not forget it has some of the nicest beaches in California, and the locals are incredibly friendly, too! We love visiting Santa Cruz, and we’re sure you will too.

 We hope this list of things to do in Santa Cruz helped you plan your visit!

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