10 Things to do in Santa Cruz County, California

Cover: Santa Cruz, California
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media
Article by Kim Hull


Well-known as one of the top surfing spots in the world, Santa Cruz is also a vibrant community along the California central coast with great hotels and resorts, restaurants featuring dishes crafted from fresh local ingredients, fabulous hiking trails amidst the area’s natural beauty, amazing wildlife viewing, and beautiful beaches.

Santa Cruz Harbor, Santa Cruz, California
Santa Cruz Harbor, Santa Cruz, California
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Situated along scenic Highway 1 just 70 miles/112 km south of San Francisco, Santa Cruz is the perfect spot for a quick getaway or a longer retreat. The warm sun, low humidity, and plentiful activities attract visitors from both the region and the world to the scenic destination.

Santa Cruz: Where to stay

Chaminade Resort & Spa, Santa Cruz, California
Chaminade Resort & Spa, Santa Cruz, California
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

With a wide selection of lodging options from quaint coastal lodges to luxury resorts, Santa Cruz has something for every vacation style and budget.

Our choice when visiting the area is Chaminade Resort & Spa. Recently renovated, Chaminade is the perfect combination of quiet retreat, with top amenities, numerous on-site activities, a full-service spa, great food, a super staff, and gorgeous views of the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Monterey Bay. Learn more about Chaminade Resort & Spa »

Chaminade Resort & Spa, Santa Cruz, California
Chaminade Resort & Spa, Santa Cruz, California
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Santa Cruz: Things to do

1. Stroll the Santa Cruz Wharf

Santa Cruz Wharf, Santa Cruz, California
Santa Cruz Wharf, Santa Cruz, California
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Located between Santa Cruz Main Beach in front of the Boardwalk and the popular surfing spot, Cowell Beach, Santa Cruz Wharf is the longest wharf on the west coast of the United States at a length of 2,745 feet /836.68 meters.

Built in 1914, the Wharf today is a hub of activity with shops, restaurants, boat tours, kayak rentals, fishing, and a great spot for watching sea lions.

Santa Cruz Wharf, Santa Cruz, California
Santa Cruz Wharf, Santa Cruz, California
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

2. Play at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk

Santa Cruz Boardwalk, Santa Cruz, California
Santa Cruz Boardwalk, Santa Cruz, California
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

The famous seaside amusement park, the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, is just down the beach from the Wharf and is home to the Looff Carousel built in 1911 and the Giant Dipper wooden roller coaster, which dates back to 1924. Both are National Historic Landmarks, as is the entire Santa Cruz Boardwalk, which has been operating since 1907.

Admission to the amusement park is free, with small fees charged for rides. In addition to the rides, the Boardwalk has the largest selection of games in Northern California and a wide variety of food choices ranging from corn dogs to deep-fried artichokes.

Santa Cruz Boardwalk, Santa Cruz, California
Santa Cruz Boardwalk, Santa Cruz, California
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

3. Shop or take in a movie in downtown Santa Cruz

Downtown Santa Cruz, California
Downtown Santa Cruz, California
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

An eclectic shopping area centered around Pacific Avenue, downtown Santa Cruz has over 100 boutiques, restaurants, movie theaters, and art galleries, attracting a diverse mix of patrons in an outdoor mall atmosphere. The pedestrian-friendly small town is a great place to grab a coffee or ice cream and people watch, visit the weekly farmer’s market, or browse the monthly Santa Cruz Antique Faire.

4. Visit the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center

Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center, Santa Cruz, California
Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center, Santa Cruz, California
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Established in 1992, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary stretches along the coastline from San Francisco to Cambria and is one of the United States’ largest marine sanctuaries, with a vast array of wildlife including seals, sea lions, sea otters, and whales.

Located near the Santa Cruz Wharf, the Sanctuary Exploration Center features a variety of displays and interactive exhibits for visitors to explore to gain a better understanding of the marine sanctuary and how they can help protect this underwater treasure.

5. Explore the Santa Cruz Harbor area

Santa Cruz Harbor, Santa Cruz, California
Santa Cruz Harbor, Santa Cruz, California
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

The Santa Cruz Harbor area is a great spot to take a walk along the beach, have lunch, visit the Walton Lighthouse and watch the boating activity in the harbor.

Santa Cruz Harbor, Santa Cruz, California
Santa Cruz Harbor, Santa Cruz, California
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

With over 800 permanent slips, the Santa Cruz Harbor also serves as a launching point for kayaks and paddleboards. Bring a camera and stroll along the harbor area as a kaleidoscope of colorful boats and pleasure craft navigate the harbor.

Adjacent to the harbor on the east side of the water, is Santa Cruz Harbor Beach, a popular spot with volleyball courts, kayak rentals, restaurants, and shops.

Santa Cruz Harbor Beach, Santa Cruz, California
Santa Cruz Harbor Beach, Santa Cruz, California
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

If visiting on a Saturday morning, grab a coffee at the Java Junction and enjoy the music of the Ukulele Club of Santa Cruz, a talented group of locals that have a great time playing tunes on the beach.

Ukulele Club of Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, California
Ukulele Club of Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, California
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Time your visit near mid-day, then head to The Crow’s Nest for lunch. Located on Harbor Beach and frequented by locals and visitors alike, The Crow’s Nest has been serving great food with spectacular views since 1969.

The Crow's Nest, Santa Cruz Harbor, Santa Cruz, California
The Crow’s Nest, Santa Cruz Harbor, Santa Cruz, California
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Across the harbor are Walton Lighthouse and Seabright Beach.

Seabright Beach, Santa Cruz, California
Seabright Beach, Santa Cruz, California
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

A paved walking path leads out to the Walton Lighthouse, also known as Santa Cruz Breakwater Lighthouse, built in 2002 on a jetty at the harbor entrance has been the site of a light station of some form since 1964.

Santa Cruz Harbor, Santa Cruz, California
Santa Cruz Harbor, Santa Cruz, California
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media
Walton Lighthouse, Santa Cruz, California
Walton Lighthouse, Santa Cruz, California
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Huge waves crash along the jetty, which is lined with tetrapods, structures that look like giant concrete jacks. Tetrapods, which in Greek means four-legged, dissipate the force of the waves, allowing water to flow around the structures, rather than against it.

Walton Lighthouse, Santa Cruz, California
Walton Lighthouse, Santa Cruz, California
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

The view from the lighthouse back to the coastline is beautiful in both directions, with great views of Santa Cruz Harbor, Harbor Beach, Seabright Beach, Santa Cruz Main Beach, Santa Cruz Boardwalk, and the Santa Cruz Wharf in the distance.

Santa Cruz, California
Santa Cruz, California
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

6. Watch the surfers

Surfing, Santa Cruz, California
Surfing, Santa Cruz, California
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Nicknamed “Surf City,” Santa Cruz consistently nears the top of all surfing destinations lists.

Surfing, Santa Cruz, California
Surfing, Santa Cruz, California
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

While donning a wet suit and grabbing a board may not be on your to-do list, heading to one of the popular spots around Santa Cruz County to watch the skilled surfers is an activity not to be missed.

Top spots to check out the surfing action are Pleasure Point, Manresa State Park, Steamer Lane, Waddell Creek, and 26th Avenue.

Surfing, Santa Cruz, California
Surfing, Santa Cruz, California
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

7. Kick back at the beach

Santa Cruz, California
Santa Cruz, California
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

29 miles of coastline along Santa Cruz County provides a wide selection of beaches to choose from.

Whether you are looking for a quiet place for a picnic, a dog-friendly beach, or the perfect spot for some volleyball or water sports, there’s a beach in Santa Cruz County that will fill the bill.

Santa Cruz, California
Santa Cruz, California
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

8. Sip some wine

Santa Cruz wineries
Santa Cruz wineries
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Home to over 70 wineries and tasting rooms, the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA is mostly well-known for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon varietals.

One of the oldest wine growing regions in the United States, wineries range from small, boutique locations to larger operations including David Bruce Winery in Los Gatos, Ridge Vineyards’ Monte Bello Estate in Cupertino, Bonny Doon Vineyard in Davenport, Byington Vineyard in Los Gatos, and Bargetto Winery, which has a tasting room in Soquel. Many wineries in the region offer visits by appointment only or only on specific days of the week, so call ahead before visiting.

9. Take a hike

Hiking, Santa Cruz, California
Hiking, Santa Cruz, California
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

The abundant natural beauty of Santa Cruz beckons one to get out and hit the hiking trail. The only question in Santa Cruz County is which one.

From the popular Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park with its giant Redwoods to California’s oldest state park, Big Basin Redwoods where you’ll find the largest continuous stand of Ancient Coast Redwoods south of San Francisco, Santa Cruz County’s 14 state parks has a hike for everyone. Find yours by visiting the California State Parks website – just select “Find by County” and choose “Santa Cruz” for a great list of options.

10. Pay a visit to Capitola Village

Capitola Village, California
Capitola Village, California
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Founded in 1869, charming Capitola Village sits beside the sea, drawing visitors with its colorful buildings, beach, boutiques, antique stores, galleries, restaurants, and wharf.

Capitola Wharf, Capitola Village, California
Capitola Wharf, Capitola Village, California
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

The oldest seaside resort town in California, Capitola Village is home to outdoor movies in the summer, numerous festivals throughout the year and the Capitola Historical Museum.

Capitola Wharf, Capitola Village, California
Capitola Wharf, Capitola Village, California
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Know before you go

Climate: Average daily high temperatures in the winter and early spring months (November – March) range in the neighborhood of 60°F, with daily highs from April to October reaching into the 70s. Nighttime temperatures drop into the 40s in the winter and 50s in the summer, so a sweater or light jacket is a good idea for evenings year round.

Driving: In northern and coastal areas of California, it normally takes longer than in other areas due to winding rows and heavy traffic. Allow extra time. Upon arrival, do not leave any valuables in your car and watch out for pedestrians.

Poison oak. When hiking, be aware that poison oak is prevalent in the Santa Cruz mountains.

Conserve water. California is in a historic drought, so re-use hotel towels and conserve water whenever possible. Restaurants generally do not bring water to tables without it being requested, so don’t think its bad service – simply ask the server for a glass.


Disclaimer: The content & opinions expressed are entirely our own. We received no compensation for this article. Reviews are opinion only and Chasing Light Media accepts no responsibility for how the information is used.