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Top 11 Things to Do in Santa Cruz This Winter [2024]

Last Updated on January 12, 2024 by Jess Grigsby

In This Article

things to do in santa cruz this winter
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is an oceanfront amusement park in Santa Cruz, California.

Are you looking for a weekend getaway this winter? Why not check out Santa Cruz? While the area is beautiful all year round, the winter offers unique attractions, fewer crowds, and lots of natural beauty.

In this blog, we’ll discuss why Santa Cruz is such a great winter getaway destination and what you must do during your upcoming trip.

Is Winter a Good Time to Visit Santa Cruz?

Yes! Winter is an excellent time to visit Santa Cruz. 

Because winter is the “off-season” for tourism, the area is quieter and less crowded, but no less beautiful, during the cooler months. 

During the winter, temperatures are moderate, with highs in the low 60s. While fog can be thick during summer, it’s rare in winter. 

The days are calm, windless, and perfect for anyone who wants to explore the great outdoors.

In short, winter is a great time to experience Santa Cruz like a local and take advantage of some of the area’s best attractions, from world-class surf to monarch butterfly migrations, whale sightings, peaceful kayaking, and wildlife sightings. 

Winter in Santa Cruz: 11 Must-Do Activities

Visiting Santa Cruz this winter? Make time for these unforgettable activities:

1. Rent a Kayak in Santa Cruz Harbor

kayaking santa cruz harbor

If you’re planning to visit Santa Cruz during the winter, plan to rent kayaks and head out on the Santa Cruz Harbor

Winter kayaking is peaceful and quiet and offers an excellent opportunity to enjoy calm waters and wildlife sightings. 

During winter kayaking in Santa Cruz harbor, you’re likely to see harbor seals, sea lions, bat rays, sea birds, and much more. 

As you paddle out into Monterey Bay, it’s possible to see gray or humpback whales, dolphins, porpoises, and sea otters. 

For more information about winter kayaking and how to prepare, check out our guide

Best For: This activity is excellent for families, couples, teens, and older kids. 

Why We Chose This: The Santa Cruz Harbor is one of our “must-sees” all year, but winter is particularly special. 

The harbor is quiet and calm during the off-season, and you won’t have to worry about crowds as you paddle along. 

Winter is also a great time to see wildlife, especially migratory birds and – if you’re lucky – a group of whales!

2. Holiday Lights Kayaking Tour 

holiday lights kayaking tour

Get in the holiday spirit with a Holiday Lights Kayak Tour at Kayak Connection

Starting on December 3rd of each year, we guide festive weekly tours (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings) to view the holiday lights in the Santa Cruz Harbor.

This tour is an excellent opportunity to gather the family and experience the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor in all its seasonal glory. 

Enjoy beautifully lighted boats, paddle through calm waters in decorated kayaks, and warm up with hot chocolate as you drift along. 

If you’re in the area, consider checking out the Lighted Boat Parade! This contest of Christmas lights takes place on the first Saturday of December and is a great way to enjoy some awesome photo opportunities. 

Best For: This is a great option for the entire family – even younger kids!

Why We Chose This: Winter is the ONLY time we offer this tour, so it’s definitely a unique Santa Cruz experience. 

While most of us have seen Christmas lights from our cars or in our neighborhoods, few people have had the experience of paddling through a beautifully lighted, festive Yacht Harbor. 

It’s an excellent way to get in the Holiday spirit, make great memories, and enjoy a unique (and seasonal) side of Santa Cruz. 

3. Whale Watching

whale watching boat tour

Have we mentioned that winter is a great time to see whales? 

In fact, the California gray whale migration is one of the biggest things that draws people to Santa Cruz in the winter. 

For a short period each year, an estimated 20,000 gray whales pass through Santa Cruz on their way from the warm water of their nursery lagoons in the South to their chilly, food-rich hunting grounds in the Arctic. 

The gray whales that migrate through the Santa Cruz area in the winter are mostly moms and calves, which means they stay close enough to the shore to provide excellent viewing opportunities. 

Don’t forget to bring your camera!

Best for: This is another great family-friendly option. You can bring everyone – the kids included – to Wilder Ranch State Park to catch a glimpse of surfacing whales or head out in kayaks in hopes of viewing them from the water.

Why We Chose This: Whale watching is a unique Santa Cruz experience. 

Since you can see whales from the water or land, Santa Cruz also makes it uniquely accessible for people of all ages and abilities to catch a glimpse of the migrating giants. 

4. Visit the Santa Cruz Wharf

santa cruz wharf
Image: Ying / CC by SA 2.0

The Santa Cruz Wharf is a 2,745-foot-long structure that extends into Monterey Bay. 

An excellent spot to eat, drink, shop, play, and see wildlife, the Wharf is a great place to experience what makes Santa Cruz unique and vibrant. 

Whether you’re looking for breathtaking views, want to catch a glimpse of the surfers at Steamer Lane, or are looking for some fresh seafood in a family-friendly setting, the Wharf has something for you. 

Best for: People of all ages can find something to love at the Wharf. 

Kids will love a chance to grab an ice cream cone or gelato while watching sea otters play in the water, and adults will enjoy browsing the Stagnaro Bros. Restaurant and Fish Market. 

Why We Chose This: The Santa Cruz Wharf is a great place to experience the excitement and history of Santa Cruz. 

Constructed in 1914, the wharf is home to local gift shops, history and nature displays, various seasonal events, and more. 

If it’s wildlife sightings you’re after, the Wharf is also one of the best places in Santa Cruz to view sea lions!

5. Watch the Sunset at West Cliff Drive

west cliff drive
Image: Richard Masoner / CC by SA 2.0

As the sun sets, grab a picnic and head out to West Cliff Drive – a stunningly beautiful, 3-mile walking and biking path that runs along the Pacific Ocean. 

The path starts at the Santa Cruz Wharf and extends to Lighthouse Point, a grassy area that offers beautiful views of the surf breaks at Steamer Lane. 

Best for: Couples, families, groups, and teens.

Why We Chose This: A walk down West Cliff Drive is a great way to experience many of Santa Cruz’s top attractions, including the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse, and more. 

The area is home to many iconic Central Coast attractions and is a must-see during the quiet winter months.

6. Visit Natural Bridges State Park

natural bridges state park
Image: Henry Zbyszynski / CC by SA 2.0

Natural Bridges State Park and beach are great places to see shorebirds, migrating whales, and other wildlife – like seals and otters. 

The area is also home to tidepools full of sea stars, crabs, anemones, and more. 

However, the park is most notable because it’s home to a Monarch Grove, which provides a temporary home for thousands of migrating monarch butterflies, who fill the area each fall and winter. 

Best for: Families, groups, and individuals.

Why We Chose This: Monarchs are a major attraction for wintertime visitors in Santa Cruz, and Natural Bridges State Park is one of the best places to see them. 

The monarch migration starts in mid-October, and the butterflies are usually gone by mid-February. 

7. Visit the Natural History Museum

The Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History sits just above Seabright Beach and is a great place to learn about the region’s plant, animal, and human history. 

Enjoy hands-on exhibits for little kids and a trip through the Museum Store, which features a wide selection of natural history books, field guides, and more.

Best for: Families and individuals. The museum is small, and reservations are required for groups of 10 or more. 

Why We Chose This: The Museum is a great place to spend a down day in Santa Cruz and provides a unique opportunity to learn more about the area and its history. 

8. Seymour Marine Discovery Center

seymour marine discovery center
Image: Tané Tachyon / CC by SA 2.0

Seymour Marine Discovery Center is an excellent place to learn about the aquatic creatures that call the Santa Cruz area home. 

Offering more than twenty tanks filled with various species native to Monterey Bay, the Marine Discovery Center also houses seasonal exhibits and interactive indoor and outdoor attractions.

Best for: Families with young kids.

Why We Chose This: Seymour Marine Discovery Center offers a few attractions you can’t see anywhere else. Namely, Ms. Blue – one of the largest blue whale skeletons on display anywhere in the world – and touch tanks where kids can feel swell sharks and more!

9. The Holiday Lights Train

Each year, Santa Cruz offers a seasonal Holiday Lights Train that takes riders through the city streets and past the homes of the city, all decorated for the holidays. The train offers live music, hot cider, and a feel-good experience for the whole family.

Best for: Families with young kids

Why We Chose This: This is a great way to enjoy the holiday season in Santa Cruz, and get a view of the city that you can only experience during the winter. 

10. Boardwalk Winter Wonderland

Celebrate the holiday season at the Santa Cruz beach boardwalk with Boardwalk Winter Wonderland

Running from November 23-December 31st, this fun holiday festival offers a selection of boardwalk rides and games, plenty of beautiful holiday decorations and lights (including a Christmas tree that’s almost three stories tall), family photos with Santa, seasonal boardwalk treats and delicacies, and lots of holiday shopping!

Best for: Families.

Why We Chose This: If you visit Santa Cruz in the winter, you may as well take advantage of the unique seasonal attractions you can’t see any other time of the year. 

This is one of them! 

It’s also a great way to keep the kids busy, do some unique holiday shopping, and find something delicious to eat along the way – all with the bonus of a beautiful beach view. 

11. Winter Art Market

The Santa Cruz Winter Art Market takes place at the Tannery Arts Center. 

The Market is a great place to discover local artists, tour more than 20 open art studios and maker spaces, and enjoy live music and delicious food and drinks.

Best for: Everyone

Why We Chose This: The Winter Art Market offers something for everyone. There are free craft activities for all ages, public art bingo, printmaking stations, and more!

What to Know Before You Go

  • Ensure a successful trip by packing layers – especially if you plan to go kayaking or head out for a hike. We recommend sweat-wicking base layers, sturdy, waterproof shoes, and additional layers like a fleece jacket, sunhat, and raincoat since the weather can be variable during the winter. 
  • Bring your camera, sunscreen, and anything else you need for a fun day of outdoor adventure. 
  • Book all accommodations and tours early to ensure availability and give yourself plenty of time to plan. 

Santa Cruz: Your Destination for Winter Adventures

If you’re considering visiting Santa Cruz in the winter, rest assured that this is an excellent time to enjoy everything the area has to offer. 

Enjoy unique seasonal attractions, natural beauty, and, best of all, no crowds!

Ready to start planning your Santa Cruz getaway? Contact Kayak Connection today to book your kayak tour or learn more about our kayak rental program. 

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.