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Santa Cruz, California Family Vacation Ideas – Surf Camp, Fossil Digs, and an Awesome Beach Boardwalk. Santa Cruz Boardwalk Combine majestic redwood forests, miles of great family-friendly beaches, lighthearted people, and an array of fun activities – your next family vacation is ready made.

Here’s the scoop. I like the Santa Cruz area for all of the reasons mentioned above plus the weather, terrific market fresh food options, and wine. So in my opinion it is one of America’s best beach communities and ideal for families. Then add to the list the fact that Santa Cruz County also has 14 state parks (hello Mother Nature!), and a classic Boardwalk for atmosphere. We have assembled a short list of family vacation choices to support our “Best Family Beach Community” claim.
Ride the "Giant Dipper" at the Boardwalk. For almost a century the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk has been providing families with carnival rides, seaside fun, and entertainment. In 1924 "Giant Dipper" launched its first thrilling wooden roller coaster run – updated for safety, it is still providing thrills for visitors. Less thrilling and more artistic, the 70 hand-carved horses on the Looff Carousel still provide entertainment and music from the original 342-pipe organ.  This is the site of the annual Clam Chowder Cookoff and a launching spot for plenty of day adventures including sailing excursions. Bonus Points: Take your beach chairs - every Friday night from the end of June to the end of August and enjoy “Bands on the Beach” free concerts. Need to know: Starting in Septemeber the rides are only open on select days and weekends so make sure to check the website for the full calender. (Santa Cruz Boardwalk 400 Beach Street, Santa Cruz, 95060. (831) 423-5590 or

Discover how the sea works. Just look for Ms. Blue, the awesome 87- foot blue whale skeleton and you will know you are in the right place for discoveries. Located on the west side of Santa Cruz, Seymour Marine Discovery Center at Long Marine Lab replicates the atmosphere of a working marine laboratory including visitors in daily activities using the everyday tools of scientific exploration. The bayside complex is an accredited research facility which offers opportunities for families to engage in touch tank marine exhibits, search seawater tables, view aquariums, and participate in family programs. Take a docent-led tour behind-the-scenes and see the lab’s facilities and Younger Lagoon Natural Reserve. Bonus Points: They have a shark and ray pool that provides visitors with a chance to see and touch. Need to know: There are several Fridays through out the year where the Center offers free admission. (Seymour Marine Discovery Center 100 Shaffer Rd., Santa Cruz, 95060. (831)459-3800 or Santa California Cruz Surfing Lessons

Visit famous “Steamer Lane”. With the popularity of surfing in the area it is not surprising that it is also the home of Santa Cruz Surfing Museum. Located at the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse the museum displays redwood-plank surf boards from the earliest days of the sport to modern high-tech designs, plus early wetsuits.
Just off the point from the lighthouse is the internationally recognized surfing site “Steamer Lane”. Watch surfers or surf yourself – if you dare.   Bonus Points: As of April 2012, Santa Cruz is now a World Surfing Reserve.  (Santa Cruz Surfing Museum 701 West Cliff Drive Santa Cruz, 95060 or
Catch a wave. Santa Cruz is the home of Club Ed International Surf School and one of the best places in California for families with teens to learn to surf together. According to experts the area is popular because the sea serves up consistent waves with a wide variety of surf breaks. Club Ed offers wide variety surfing programs from first-time daily lessons for individuals to Surf Camps. Just as the lessons vary by skill set, the locations vary because of wind and tides. Each season they conduct All-Ages Summer Surf Camp along Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary.Santa Cruz Beach Surf Lessons Bonus Points: Participants get the chance to surf with seals, sea otters, and curios dolphins. (Club Ed International Surf School on Cowell's Beach, Santa Cruz. (831)464- 0177, toll-free 1-800-287-7873 or  

Dig for fossils or watch honey bees. At the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History more than 100 years of the area’s unique history is displayed and explained. From its earliest residents and the founding of the city to its strong connections to the land and sea there are stories to be discovered. A large mural provides a backdrop to an Ohlone village depicting life before Europeans. Real mortar and pestles are provided to visitors wishing to try their skills at grinding acorns for a meal typical of early residents. Museum also has exhibits representing the ecosystems and animal life in the region. Watch a working honeybee hive; observe "chocolate phase" king snake; listen to local songbird’s calls; see the recreated skull of a mastodon or investigate sea creatures in the touch pool. Bonus Points:  Dig for 10 million year old sand dollars in the fossil dig onsite.  (Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History 1305 East Cliff Drive Santa Cruz, CA 95062. (831) 420-6115 or

Ride the rails or tromp the forest. Roaring Camp Railroads in Felton runs 90-minute steam train excursions through awesome redwood forests to the top of Bear Mountain. The Beach Train takes riders on three-hour tours of redwood forests, across a century-old steel bridge, and through an 1875 tunnel. Roaring Camp Railroad lets visitors take a nostalgic ride aboard 110-year-old steam locomotives. And a museum in FeltonSanta Cruz Watsonvile Wetlands houses a collection of factoids arguing the existence of Bigfoot. Bonus Points: They offer themed trains through out the year including The Great Train Robbery and The Halloween Ghost Train. (Roaring Camp Railroads Felton, 95018. (831)335-4484 or

Go on a pontoon safari. Located just a little north of Santa Cruz, Elkhorn Slough is one of California's largest wetlands and part of a National Estuarine Reserve.  Truly wet and wild, the slough weaves inland more than seven miles making a safari by pontoon boat easy. Along the route passengers will see energetic sea otters, docile harbor seals and hundreds of species of waterfowl and migratory shorebirds. The two- hour boat cruises include a naturalist guide with plenty of facts and stories to share. The boat tour is ideal for families providing special activities for children onboard. (Elkhorn Slough Safari at Moss Landing, 1(831)633-5555 or
Eat your mushrooms. While most people think of the beach and boardwalk when I think of Santa Cruz, I think of mushrooms. Where else can you sample luscious yellow foot chanterelles? Yup, in Santa Cruz and it is never too early to expand a child’s palette.  Therefore I am mentioning a terrific annual event (held in January) - the Fungus Festival kid-friendly and parent-friendly at the same time. Take their Mushroom 101 class with your teen or forage through the forest with a guide - best of all sample, sample, and sample. Bonus Points: During the weekend festivities you will find a range of hands-on activities for young children including clay mushroom building, face painting, storytelling, fungi explorations, and how to dye silk with mushrooms  (For details (831) 684-2275 or
Make it happen. For more information on the area Santa Cruz County Conference and Visitors Council 303 Water Street, Suite 100 Santa Cruz, CA 95060. Toll-free 1-800-833-3494, (831) 429-7281 or

Content researched and posted by Nancy Nelson-Duac Curator of the Good Stuff for the Family Travel Files. Images provided by Santa Cruz Tourism and Club Ed International Surf School. Updated copyright updated 2015.

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