What To Do On A Day Trip To Santa Cruz, California

Day trip to Santa Cruz California Rock arch

I have the rather jolly fortune of spending a part of 2015 in California, which has given me plenty of opportunity to explore some of the highlights of the area.

From San Francisco, an easy day trip is to pop across to the gorgeous town of Santa Cruz, famed for its boardwalk, laid back vibe and surfing opportunities galore. I took advantage of this fact and headed there recently to see what I could find to do, and of course to wander around and take some pictures.

Here are some of the things I found to do on my day trip, plus some extra ideas, resources and links to prepare you for your day (or longer!) visit to this lovely spot.

Naturally, all the photos in the post are mine – as you can see, I had rather wonderful weather, even though it was February when I visited!

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What to do for a day in Santa Cruz

Walk on the Wharf

Certainly one of the most popular activities to do in Santa Cruz is to take a walk out on the west coast’s longest pier. It’s just celebrated its centenary, and offers gorgeous coastal views, not to mention sea lion spotting opportunities.

It’s also offers up a good variety of places to eat, many of which specialise in seafood of course. The takeaway fish and chips is a popular option, just watch out for hungry gulls…

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Visit the amusement park and beach boardwalk

Back on dry land and just next to the wharf is another classic attraction, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. This is California’s oldest amusement park and is free to enter, with payment on a per ride basis.

Sure, you won’t get the white knuckle thrill rides of some of the larger parks in California, but there is a wooden roller coaster and numerous more classic fairground attractions to keep you entertained.

Visit the surfing museum on West Cliff Drive

Actually, all of West Cliff Drive is worth visiting, as it offers excellent views of the pier and city, not to mention giving you the chance to watch the surfers playing in the waves of “Steamer Lane” down below.

If you want to learn a bit more about the history of surfing though, you should take a moment to drop in at the Santa Cruz surfing museum in the Mark Abbott Mermorial lighthouse, found on Lighthouse Point. This is around a 15 – 20 minute walk from the pier, and features all kinds of information on the history of surfing, from its origins in Hawaii as well as the 100 years or so of surfing history in Santa Cruz itself.

surfer museum santa cruz california



If a surfing museum sounds a bit dry (sorry) for your tastes, then just hop into the water below, at the aforementioned Steamer Lane surfing hotspot, which is just below the lighthouse.

Access is easy to this well known spot – it’s believed that the modern day surfing wetsuit and leash were developed here by Jack O’Neill, who had his shop just nearby. Beyond Steamer Lane, there are 10 more locations you can surf at in Santa Cruz, including the legendary Pleasure Point, so you certainly aren’t going to be bored, whatever your level.

surfer statue santa cruz california


Take in the sunset at Natural Bridges State Beach

Ok, so this was my favourite thing to do in Santa Cruz. Because I like sunsets, natural beauty, and taking pictures of both of those things.

If you continue along the West Cliff Drive Road for a couple of miles, you’ll come to the Natural Bridges State Beach National Park. This is a 65 acre national park, with the highlight being that natural bridge out in the water, which is coated in birdlife, including pelicans and comorants.

There’s an excellent view of the sunset from the vantage point carpark above the beach, but my favourite spot was down on the beach itself looking at the arch, with the sun setting off frame. Bring a neutral density filter for some great long exposure opportunities!

Rock arch santa cruz sunset california-2


And more!

There is of course a lot more to do in Santa Cruz beyond the above. There’s the Mystery Spot, the Big Basin Redwoods State Park, hiking, kayaking and cycling opportunities, not to mention the marine discovery center and of course the busy downtown area to name but a few options.

You might in fact decide that you want to stay longer than just a day. If so, check below for how to get the best deals on accommodation!

Getting in / out

Santa Cruz is easy to each by car from San Francisco, either as a day trip or as part of the classic Pacific Coast Highway road trip down the coast. If you want to rent a car for your trip, take a look at Priceline for the best deals.

You can also reach Santa Cruz by public bus from San Jose – the Highway 17 express, and there are a number of Greyhound options as well.

couple love santa cruz surfers california


gull beach california

Tips and ideas for a day in Santa Cruz, California

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