A Day Out in Santa Cruz

by Melanie Haiken
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This seaside town, 75 miles south of San Francisco, is so closely associated with old-fashioned summer fun. After all, Santa Cruz Beach and Boardwalk is one of the country's oldest and most venerable amusement parks, featuring the Dipper, a classic wooden rollercoaster built in 1924. And kids will also know it as the setting for the still-popular 1980s teen vampire thriller, The Lost Boys. But the boardwalk's only the first of many reasons families flock to Santa Cruz; they also come to soak up the sun, ride the Roaring Camp trains, and sightsee in a town that has offers sea views, great food, and up-close visits with rambunctious elephant seals.


Melanie and her teenage daughters, Linnea and Melia

Why families love it:

Breathtaking beaches, scream-inducing rides, boardwalk people-watching, and a fun, hip atmosphere make Santa Cruz the quintessential California beach town.

How to get there:

From San Francisco, you can head south on either 280 or 101; if 101 then cut over to 280 on one of the east-to-west arteries. From 280 south exit right on 85 south towards Gilroy, then exit right again onto 17 west. Stay on 17 until it connects with Highway 1, which runs south-north right through downtown Santa Cruz. Wilder Ranch is one mile north of town on Highway 1, and Ano Nuevo State Park, with its famous elephant seal breeding beach, is 18 miles further north, also on Highway 1.

Melanie's Santa Cruz picks:

1. Santa Cruz Beach and Boardwalk

400 Beach St.
Santa Cruz, CA 95060

Roller coasters, cotton candy, and the sound of seagulls — make you feel nostalgic for good old-fashioned summer fun? That's what's to be had at Santa Cruz Beach & Boardwalk, which features one of the last and greatest wooden roller coasters in the country, The Big Dipper. You'll be humming "Under the boardwalk, down by the sea…" all day as you watch your kids go crazy enjoying all the sun and fun activities of a classic beach boardwalk. 

2. Roaring Camp Railway

Santa Cruz, CA 95060 

If the call of "all aboard!" and a train whistle doesn't get kids excited, nothing will. But what if the termination of the one-hour ride was an amusement park? That's the lure of the "beach train" ride offered by Roaring Camp Railway, a historic passenger rail that's been in operation since 1875, taking pleasure-seekers down from the Santa Cruz Mountains to the Pacific. Not only do you chug through towering redwoods and cross a dramatic trestle bridge, you don't have to deal with parking down at the boardwalk! 

3. Año Nuevo Beach and Elephant Seal Rookery

Highway 1, 18 miles north of Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz, CA 95060

Elephant seals are the Laurel and Hardy of the animal kingdom; their antics will have you laughing so hard you can't hold your video camera steady. Kids love them because they're playful, silly, feisty, greedy, and competitive — when they slap their flippers and throw sand on each other, you know exactly how they feel. 

4. Wilder Ranch State Park

1401 Old Coast Road
Santa Cruz, CA 95060 

This huge and unique state park, encompassing 34 acres of beach, marshland, and grassy hillside, is just a mile north of town yet seems worlds and centuries away. Once one of the area's original ranch homesteads, Wilder Ranch is the perfect place to give kids a sense of California's farming history. The beach, which is used as a nesting ground by snowy plovers, is closed to the public to protect the nests, but there are miles of hiking and biking trails with dramatic cliffside views.

5. Walnut Avenue Café

106 Walnut Avenue
Santa Cruz, CA 95060 

Don't be put off by the line hovering out the door, the friendly, efficient staff at Walnut Avenue Café won't let you wait too long. And the generous meals plated up at this local favorite are worth the wait, whether the kids are begging for waffles or you're craving a healthy omelette. For lunch, you can't go wrong – the soups, salads, sandwiches are all fresh and creative. 

6. Kianti's Pizza and Pasta Bar

1100 Pacific Ave.
Santa Cruz, CA 95060

The owners of Kianti's love kids and fun, and it shows. Not only does this charmingly offbeat Italian restaurant offer a kid's menu and the requisite crayons and coloring kit, they also bring out fresh squishy pizza dough for the kids to play with, and serve drinks in colorful, kid-friendly cups so parents can spend a relaxed mealtime not worrying about spills. 

7. Dream Inn

175 West Cliff Drive
Santa Cruz, CA 95060

Santa Cruz is sadly infamous for a string of truly awful motels in the area close to the boardwalk. One of the rare exceptions is the Dream Inn, newly opened by the hip Joie de Vivre group of boutique hotels. Don't be put off by the West Cliff drive address; while it may look far by car, a handy footbridge connects the handful of hotels on this waterfront road with the boardwalk area across the water. 

Freelance writer Melanie Haiken is based in the San Francisco Bay Area, but travels whenever she gets the chance. She has written about many destinations, both national and international, including San Francisco, New Orleans, Nashville, Costa Rica, the Bahamas, and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. She lives in San Rafael, California with her two daughters, Linnea, 13, and Melia, 16.

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