15 Fun Things to Do in Santa Cruz, CA With Kids [2022]

Last Updated on March 18, 2022 by Jess Grigsby
things to do with kids santa cruz, ca

So, you’re thinking of taking the whole family to Santa Cruz, CA – great choice! 

As locals in the area, we know all the ins and outs of Santa Cruz, and the most popular things to do with kids that will be fun for everyone.  

In this blog, we’ll share fifteen of our top suggestions for family-friendly fun – from kayaking on the water to places where your kids can pet a real, live shark!

Let’s get started.

15 Fun Things to do in Santa Cruz with Kids

Whether you’re staying for a week or just in town for a quick weekend, these family-friendly attractions have something to offer families with babies, toddlers, preteens, and teens:

1. Go Kayaking!

kayaking santa cruz

Kayaking is the perfect way to see everything the Santa Cruz coastline has to offer. Head into Monterey Bay to explore the open ocean or stay in the calm waters of the harbor. Paddling into the Bay offers the chance to see whales, dolphins, sea lions, sea otters, jellyfish, and stunning kelp forests.

Beginners, meanwhile, can explore Elkhorn Slough, our second tour location. Our favorite part of this biodiverse location is that it’s home to dozens of friendly, playful sea otters that we often see on our tours.  

Where to Rent Kayaks

Here at Kayak Connection, we offer one-hour, 2.5-hour, and half-day rentals that are perfect for beginning kayakers and paddle boarders alike, and we love teaching kids about the ocean and marine conservation.

Ready to plan your fun and memorable day on the water? Check out our kayak rental options now. 

Recommended Age Groups

Kayaking is a fun activity for kids of all ages. Kids ages 2-5 will love the calm, safe waters of the Santa Cruz Harbor, while preteens and teens can paddle their own kayaks and paddleboards in many of our other tour locations.  

2. Visit Capitola Village

capitola village

Image: Henry Zbyszynski  via Flickr / CC by SA 2.0

With its bright houses and enviable location along Capitola Beach, Capitola Village looks like a seaside town in Europe. No matter what you like to do, you can find a bit of all of it in Capitola Village.

The village itself is home to dozens of unique shops, full of everything from toys for young kids to clothing and art for the rest of the family.

Anyone who likes fishing can drop a line (no permit required) from the Capitola Wharf and wait to see what bites.

When YOU’RE ready for a bite, take the family to one of the many local eateries to fill the tank. We recommend visiting Gayle’s Bakery, which is known for its yummy delights and open-air patio seating.

Stop for a pastry in the morning before your adventures begin, or swing by for one of their delicious sandwiches or salads for lunch. Gayle’s also offers an extensive selection of grab & go pasta, entrees, and more – perfect for taking with you on a picnic!

Recommended Age Groups

There’s something for kids of all ages in Capitola Village.

The beach is known for its gentle waves and safe swimming conditions, which make it ideal for younger kids and beginning surfers. The Village, meanwhile, has kids’ attractions galore at places like the Capitola Historical Museum and local parks.

3. Go Hiking at Nisene Marks National Park

nisene marks hiking

Nisene Marks Forest offers a cool, verdant retreat amid ancient redwoods, just off Highway 1 near Santa Cruz.

Known for its natural beauty and its ample assortment of family-friendly hiking trails, this is the perfect destination for a picnic and some time in the great outdoors. 

Where to Go

While there are dozens of hiking trails in the park, families with kids love the easy Loma Prieta Grade Small Loop (just under 6 miles), the three-mile trail loop, and the popular, one-mile Vienna Woods Trail, which runs through a redwood grove and along a scenic little creek.

Recommended Age Groups

Nisene Marks National Park is the perfect out-of-doors destination for families with kids of all ages.

Even young kids will love running along the easy, accessible path that makes up Vienna Woods Trail. For older kids or more experienced hikers, paths like the 11-mile, moderate-intensity Bridge Creek Trail to Maple Falls are an excellent option. 

4. Visit Wilder Ranch State Park

Image: Richard Masoner via Flickr / CC by SA 2.0

Wilder Ranch State Park covers 7,000 acres, with 34 miles of well-maintained trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding.

Families visiting the area can enjoy scenic, easy walks along the Pacific Ocean, guided horseback riding tours, mountain biking, and more. 

Recommended Age Groups

The Wilder Ranch State Park area has something to offer kids of all ages.

Families with toddlers and young children can tackle one of the family-friendly loop trails, while families with older kids can go mountain biking, horseback riding, or take a guided tour of the many historic buildings on the property. 

5. Head to the Beach

If you want to plan a family beach day, Santa Cruz has dozens of excellent beaches to choose from. Get ready for some fun in the sun!

Where to Go

Get out in the sun and enjoy some quality time at Natural Bridges State Beach. This stretch of pristine coastline offers a welcome escape from the hustle and bustle of the city and is a great place to spread out and enjoy some solitude. 

Want to spend the day swimming?

There’s a lifeguard on duty, so you can feel comfortable sending even young swimmers into the water. When you’re not splashing in the ocean, pick your way around the park’s tide pools, which are full of anemones, shore crabs, and starfish. 

Capitola Beach (which sits in a small, protected cove and is excellent for swimming), and Seabright Beach are also great places to take the kids. New Brighton Beach, meanwhile, is a great place to see amazing fossils from cliff erosion, or hunt for sand dollars along the shore.

The Santa Cruz Main Beach is another perfect place for a family beach day. Kids will love the soft, pristine, sugar-white sand and parents will love the shade of the towering palm trees, the nearness of the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, and the stunning blue of the ocean. 

Pack a picnic and an umbrella for an all-day adventure or take a midday break at any of the nearby eateries, ice cream shops, and cafes that line the boardwalk behind the Santa Cruz Main Beach.

Recommended Age Groups

Santa Cruz’s beaches are great for families with kids of all ages. Older kids can enjoy paddle boarding, fishing, kayaking, or beach volleyball, while toddlers and younger kids will enjoy splashing in the shallows or playing in the sand.  

6. Go Whale Watching

whale watching in santa cruz, ca

Each winter, 20,000 California Gray Whales pass through the Monterey Bay area on their way to the warm waters along the Baja Peninsula.

That means that, if you’re in Santa Cruz between December and April, your chance of spotting one of these breathtaking gray giants is good.

Where to go

For the greatest chance of seeing whales, we recommend taking one of our wildlife tours leaving from the Santa Cruz Harbor. During our Monterey Bay Wildlife Tour, we’ll set you and your family up in stable, hard-sided kayaks and head out to explore the kelp forests in Monterey Bay. 

This tour offers the chance to see sea otters, sea lions, harbor seals, dolphins, gray whales, and other residents of the Santa Cruz Coast. Perfect for the entire family (no prior kayaking experience is required), this tour also offers views of Seal Rock, the Santa Cruz Wharf, the Boardwalk, and the Walton Lighthouse.

Don’t forget your camera!

Recommended Age Groups

Whale watching can be fun for the whole family, but we don’t recommend bringing infants or babies. Toddlers and young kids can hop in a kayak with a parent, and teenagers and pre-teens can paddle their own kayaks. 

7. Visit the Arboretum & Botanic Garden at UC Santa Cruz

botanical gardens santa cruz, ca

Looking for a family-friendly day trip that will be both enjoyable and educational? Look no further than the Arboretum & Botanic Gardens at UC Santa Cruz.

The Arboretum & Botanic Garden at UC Santa Cruz offers 135 acres of beauty containing more than 300 rare and unique plant families from New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and – of course – California! 

Take a guided tour through the arboretum, explore the butterfly garden, view the rare bird species that live in the area, and indulge your senses in the aroma garden. 

When you need to rest your feet, enjoy lunch in the group picnic area on the edge of an ancient redwood grove. Don’t forget to make a stop at the gift and garden shop before you leave. 

Recommended Age Groups

This activity is perfect for kids of all ages. The paved path makes it easy to push babies around in strollers, and there are plenty of sights and smells to keep toddlers and older kids busy.

The gardens are open each day, and children under 6 get in free.

8. Take a Stroll on W. Cliff Dr.

west cliff drive santa cruz

Image: Richard Masoner via Flickr / CC by SA 2.0

West Cliff Drive is a stunning, 3-mile walking and bike path that runs along the Pacific Ocean. Enjoy sweeping views of Monterey Bay, the surf breaks at Steamer Lane, and Santa Cruz’s iconic surfer statute.

Pack a picnic and lounge in the grass at Lighthouse Point. Bring your pooch and let them enjoy the off-leash dog park at Mitchell’s Cove. Pack the binoculars to catch a glimpse of whales and dolphins surfacing among the breakers or sidle up to the guard rail at Steamer Lane to watch some of the world’s best surfers shoot the tubes. 

No matter what your interests may be, West Cliff Drive is a perfect way to spend a lazy summer day with your family in Santa Cruz. 

Recommended Age Groups

Ideal for pushing a baby in a stroller or letting toddlers ride their bikes alongside, this scenic path offers plenty of sweeping vistas and lots of peaceful places to stop for a rest. 

9. Grab Some Ice Cream at the Penny Ice Creamery

penny ice creamery santa cruz

Image: John Loo via Flickr / CC by SA 2.0

As the only ice cream shop in Santa Cruz making its ice cream in-house and completely from scratch, The Penny Ice Creamery is a must-stop for anyone traveling to Santa Cruz with kids. 

The shop’s flavors change according to the seasons and the ingredients that are available locally, so you can expect unique offerings like Bourbon Persimmon, Gonzo Grape, Black Tea Plum, Apricot Shortbread, and Fresh Mint Chip. 

Recommended Age Groups

Any kid that can eat solid food will LOVE The Penny Ice Creamery. There’s truly no age limit on the joy of a cold ice cream cone on a hot summer’s day.

No matter what you’re getting up to in Santa Cruz, cooling down with a sweet treat at The Penny Ice Creamery is the perfect way to end a perfect day. 

10. Hit the Boardwalk

santa cruz beach boardwalk

Image: David Blaikie via Flickr / CC by SA 2.0

The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is one of Santa Cruz’s most famous attractions. Start by catching a thrill on one of the family rides, like Cave Train (a perennial boardwalk favorite), Ghost Blasters (test your aim and enjoy a friendly competition as you blast ghosts on this trip below the boardwalk), or Logger’s Revenge, which features a water track and is a great way to cool off on a hot day. 

When it’s time for lunch, browse the boardwalk’s selection of food options, ranging from crepes to tacos. Finish the day with some miniature golf or a visit to one of the Boardwalk’s arcades for some laser tag. 

Recommended Age Groups

Perfect for teens and toddlers alike, the boardwalk is a tourist hot spot filled with family fun for all ages. 

If you’re traveling with young children, there are plenty of kiddie rides to keep toddlers entertained and enthralled.

Be aware that some rides do have height limits, so you may need to measure your little ones before you climb aboard. Don’t miss the classic Big Dipper ride (which is also the oldest in the park). It’s a real rite of passage for kids that FINALLY get tall enough to ride it! 

11. Learn About Santa Cruz’s Marine Life

seymour marine discovery santa cruz

Image: Jay Galvin via Flickr / CC by SA 2.0

Santa Cruz is home to an amazing variety of marine life, with an estimated 34 species of marine mammals, more than 180 species of seabirds, and a dizzying 525 species of fish calling the area home.

If you’re making a trip to Santa Cruz, don’t leave without learning about the unique coastal ecosystems the area is famous for. 

Where to go

Learn about the history, and some of Santa Cruz’s watery native inhabitants, at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center

Offering a 20,000 square-foot visitor center, the Discovery Center is the perfect place to spend a nice day as a family. Indoors, kids can pet a live shark (don’t worry – it doesn’t bite), explore man-made tide pools, and learn about the geological history of the Santa Cruz area. 

When you venture outside, you’ll come face-to-face with Ms. Blue – one of the world’s largest blue whale skeletons. From there, take a leisurely walk along the bluffs and through landscapes full of native grasses. 

Discover a gray whale skeleton, life-size elephant seal sculptures, and more. Don’t forget to keep an eye out for otters, dolphins, whales, and seals frolicking just offshore!

Recommended Age Groups

This kid-friendly attraction is perfect for little ones of all ages. Push the youngest in a stroller while the older kids run ahead to see the sights.  Kids two and under get in free. 

12. Learn About Santa Cruz’s Surfing Legacy

santa cruz surf museum

Image: Dennis Jarvis via Flickr / CC by SA 2.0

Santa Cruz is famous as a hotspot for surfing and has churned out some of the most talented athletes the sport has ever known.

Whether you’re an avid surfer yourself, just getting started, or you’ve never set foot on a board, you can’t leave Santa Cruz without learning about its rich surfing history.

Where to Go

Overlooking world-class surf spot Steamer Lane, and housed in the historic Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse, the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum features photographs, surfboards, and other memorabilia that tell the story of Santa Cruz’s 100 years of surfing history. Swing by if you’re already planning a walk along West Cliff Drive!

Recommended Age Groups

Young kids and teens will love the sweeping views of the ocean just outside the museum, and the fun surfing-inspired books, toys, and trinkets in the gift shop. 

13. Defy Gravity at the Mystery Spot

santa cruz mystery spot

Image: Richard Masoner via Flickr / CC by SA 2.0

The Mystery Spot is a gravitational vortex that sits in Santa Cruz’s scenic redwood forests. The circular area is about 150 feet in diameter and allows visitors to witness events that defy the laws of physics and gravity. 

Watch a ball roll uphill, for example, suddenly become taller than your tallest companion, and watch items support themselves in mid-air. 

When you’ve experienced all the gravitational phenomenon The Mystery Spot has to offer, take a leisurely walk through the butterfly garden, and then grab a burger at the onsite snack shack. 

Recommended Age Groups

Kids of all ages love the fun exhibits, and the banana slug fingers available in the gift shop! Teens, meanwhile, will be amazed at the gravity-defying exhibits the Mystery Spot offers. Kids 3 and under get in free. 

14. Spend an Afternoon at a Local Park

san lorenzo park santa cruz

If you’ve got an afternoon to burn, consider heading to one of Santa Cruz’s beautiful municipal parks. Well-maintained, green, and shady and cool even on a hot summer’s day, these parks are the perfect place to let kids stretch their legs and use up some energy. 

Where to go

San Lorenzo Park is one of Santa Cruz’s most beloved urban parks. Try your hand on the artificial-turf lawn bowling green and enjoy a spin down the slides with your little ones. When you’re all tired out, place a blanket in the beachlands greenbelt and enjoy a leisurely family picnic. 

Recommended Age Groups

The playground and duck pond are perfect for younger kids, while the disc golf and soccer facilities will keep older kids busy for hours. 

15. Explore the Wharf

santa cruz wharf

Image: Aleksandr Zykov via Flickr / CC by SA 2.0

The Santa Cruz Wharf extends out into the Pacific from the Boardwalk. If you’re looking for a great place to spend a day and see the sights, the Wharf is an excellent option. 

Grab lunch at one of the many delicious, family-friendly seaside eateries, rent some poles and go fishing, or go shopping at the boutiques and gift shops that line the Wharf. 

Whatever you do, don’t leave before heading to the sea lion viewing holes at the end of the wharf and snapping a few pictures of the lovable sea lions that live there. 

Recommend Age Groups

The wharf truly has something to offer everyone. Young kids and teens alike will love viewing the sea lions, while the shops along the wharf contain everything from cool clothes to teens and tweens to seascape-inspired toys for younger kids.

Santa Cruz, California: the Perfect Kid-Friendly Family Destination

Whether you love exploring the outdoors, walking along the Pacific, or browsing museums and botanical gardens, Santa Cruz is the perfect destination for families traveling with kids. 

If you’re thinking of heading over, we want to help you plan a unique, family-friendly adventure you’ll remember for years.

Contact us to learn more about our harbor tours and kayak rentals, or head to our website to book your tour today

Author: Jess Grigsby

Since 2012, Jess has co-owned and operated Kayak Connection together with her husband Dave. She is a lawyer, coach, avid kayak enthusiast and mother of two teenage girls. At Kayak Connection, Jess oversees a team of experienced kayak guides who are all CPR certified, with many holding advanced Wilderness First Responder (WFR) certifications. Our team is composed of environmental educators, naturalists and classroom teachers with experience working with all kinds of visitors, from school groups to large corporate teams.