Beach to Boardwalk: A Family Getaway to Santa Cruz
One of the great things about living in Northern California is the fact that there's no shortage of fantastic places to visit that are only a short drive away. A destination we love to visit for its beaches, stunning views, laid-back attitude, and world-famous Boardwalk amusement park is the seaside town of Santa Cruz.
The quintessential California beachside town, Santa Cruz is an ideal place for a family getaway for a long weekend, with plenty for everyone to do. We also love the fact that Santa Cruz is only about two hours away by car—a road trip distance that everyone can manage without getting too cranky or rambunctious.
The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
The big attraction for visitors to Santa Cruz is the famous Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. This venerable seaside amusement park has been delighting families since it opened back in 1907. It's California's oldest amusement park, and features a variety of rides and attractions both classic and modern.
I used to visit the Boardwalk often when I was young, so it's a nostalgic experience for me. It also features prominently in one of my favorite '80s movies, the Brat-Pack teen vampire flick The Lost Boys. In fact, visiting the Boardwalk is kind of like stepping back into the '80s or '90s, but in a good way.
The Boardwalk is anchored by the classic wooden Giant Dipper roller coaster, which has been thrilling riders since 1924. Our favorite ride is another classic: the 1911 Looff Carousel. This historic carousel is one of only a handful of Looff carousels left in existence, and is surrounded by antique mechanical band organs that provide an appropriate musical accompaniment while you ride.
It's also one of the few carousels anywhere that has a brass ring dispenser. This device — which gave rise to the saying "grab the brass ring" — lets riders on the outer ring of carousel horses grab a small metal ring as they ride past. You can then try to throw the ring into a target in the shape of a clown's mouth.
Other rides include the Haunted House, the Cave Train, Ghost Blasters, the Logger's Revenge flume ride, and the family Sea Serpent roller coaster. There a plenty of hair-raising thrill rides for those so inclined, as well as gentle but fun kiddie rides for the little ones.
In addition to rides, there's the large Casino Arcade in the old Cocoanut Grove building, midway games of skill, and plenty of carnival-style food. (Deep fried Oreos, anyone?) Don't miss the Neptune's Kingdom indoor amusement area, which includes the pirate-themed Buccaneer's Bay miniature golf course. This two-story 18-hole course features three neat black light holes, too, and is a lot of fun. The entrance to Neptune's Kingdom is presided over by the original Laffing Sal from San Francisco's long-gone Playland at the Beach amusement park.
The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is not exactly Disneyland, but it's closer, much less expensive, and has an old-fashioned charm of its own. Admission to the Boardwalk itself is free — you can come and hang out all day if you want — but you buy tickets ($1) for the rides, which cost between 4 and 7 tickets each. You can also get a wristband ($39.95–$59.95) that entitles you to unlimited rides all day long.
During the summer the Boardwalk often presents free concerts and movie screenings on the beach. My kids had a blast at the Boardwalk, and wanted to go back every day to experience it again.
All-day parking at the Boardwalk lots costs $20 Monday–Friday and $25 on weekends and holidays, but street parking is available in the area, too.
Other Things to Do
If you get tired of the Boardwalk, check out some of Santa Cruz's other sights and experiences. Just west of town is Natural Bridges State Beach, which offers beautiful beaches and amazing rock formations. Along the way, you'll see walking paths that are perfect for a seaside stroll, as well as the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, housed in an old lighthouse.
The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary operates a visitor center at 35 Pacific Avenue, with state-of-the-art exhibits and interactive displays that highlight this amazing underwater environment. Admission is free, and it's open Wednesday–Sunday from 10 am–5 pm. (It's currently closed due to COVID; check their website for updates.) UC Santa Cruz operates the Seymour Marine Discovery Center, a hands-on marine science center that's currently open outdoors only on Saturdays.
Other fun Santa Cruz experiences for the family include the Mystery Spot, a classic roadside attraction in the redwood forest where the laws of physics seem to go haywire, and the Roaring Camp Railroads in nearby Felton, which offers steam-engine-drawn train rides through the redwoods as well as excursion trains that travel to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. (And don't forget the annual Day Out with Thomas event returning for summer 2022.)
Family Dining & Lodging in Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz offers too many options for family dining to list, but here are some of our favorites. For an inexpensive meal, we like the local chain Pizza My Heart, which offers pizza by the slice or whole in a fun surf shack atmosphere. We also love Hula's Island Grill, a laid back, family-friendly spot for Hawaiian-style fare and tropical cocktails in a cool retro tiki bar setting. It's also fun to check out the seafood places on the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf, like Stagnaro Bros., a classic old-school Italian-American fish house with a neat nautical decor.
If we plan to stay in town for a few days, we like the beachside Dream Inn, which has a cool mid-century modern surfing vibe, a great pool, and direct access to Cowell Beach. We also like the Sea & Sand Inn next door. Both are within easy walking distance of the Boardwalk.
If You Go
Santa Cruz is approximately a two-hour drive from Marin. Take Highway 101 south across the Golden Gate Bridge and turn off onto Highway 1 at the Park Presidio/19th Avenue exit. Take 19th Avenue to Interstate 280, which you'll follow down the Peninsula toward San Jose. Exit onto Highway 85 in Cupertino and follow it until you get to Highway 17, which you'll take south up over the Santa Cruz Mountains. Highway 17 will merge with Highway 1, which you can take into Santa Cruz.
Make sure you pack swimsuits, beach towels, sand toys, swim goggles, sunscreen, hats, and other supplies for fun in the sun. Because of Santa Cruz's unique south-facing location on Monterey Bay, it's often warmer than other coastal areas in Northern California. It can also get the typical California coastal fog, so don't forget the sweatshirts and fleece jackets, too.
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