Santa Cruz: Great Finds on a Budget
By Betsie Tanza

Psst….Here’s a secret that savvy Santa Cruz parents have known for years. If you're planning a day or weekend outing, the good news is that you won't break the bank. There are lots more for kids to do in Santa Cruz besides the Boardwalk, and most of these activities are free.


What kid doesn’t love a day at the beach? Combine that with tide pools and Monarch butterflies, and you’ve got Natural Bridges State Beach  and Natural Bridges State Park. Located at the north end of West Cliff Drive, the beach is open from 8 A.M. until sunset. And walking distance above the beach is the state park. This time of year is especially good for watching the butterflies flock back to their winter resting ground. They will be at the park until about February, so bring your binoculars!

After you’ve walked down the stroller-friendly boardwalk to watch the Monarchs, go to the Visitor Center and find out when low tide is that day. It is the best time to explore the tide pools at the north end of the beach. Look for anemones, starfish and other sea creatures, but make sure to leave them in their natural habitat. Be sure to pay attention to the rising tide. You don’t want to be stranded at the tide pools when the water rolls in. And one last bit of ocean advice-never turn your back on the ocean. Rogue waves can strike at any time.

If you still need more sea life after Natural Bridges, head for the Seymour Marine Discovery Center , a short drive away. From Natural Bridges, exit the park, turn left on Swanton, left on Delaware and follow the signs to Long Marine Laboratory. The Seymour Center is open Tuesdays through Sundays, 10 - 5, and Sundays from 12 - 5. It is closed most holidays. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for youth and the first Tuesday of the month is free. Here, little ones will delight in touch tanks, marine exhibits and watching the dolphins and sea otters frolic in their tanks.

Another trip not to be missed is Wilder Ranch , one mile north of the Santa Cruz city limits. For the adventurous, park your car on Schaeffer Road (turn left one-quarter mile past Western Drive) and bike the smooth paved path one mile to the park. Continue through the park and on to the Coast Trail for a beautiful ride along the coast. This is a dirt path and although flat, the ruts and bumps make it best with wide-tired mountain bikes. Take a picnic and enjoy some of the beautiful and deserted beaches along the trail.

The Fern Grotto beach is especially fun to explore. Allow time to wander through the dairy barn and restored Victorian home, which was part of the original Wilder property. Docents dressed in period costumes are often on hand to make you feel that you’ve stepped back in time, with activities such as stilt walking, hoop rolling and making giant bubbles.


While exploring the Santa Cruz coast, don’t miss the Surfing Museum along West Cliff Drive at Lighthouse Point, also home of the famous surf spot, Steamer Lane . The museum is open Wednesday through Monday, from noon until 4 P.M.  Call, however, to check their winter hours of operation. The shark-bitten surfboard on display holds great fascination for kids.

If you’re in the mood for a glimpse of the past, be sure to visit the city’s Natural History Museum , known by locals as the "Whale Museum" for the large whale sculpture in front. Located at 1305 East Cliff Drive, the museum offers exhibits on the natural history of the area and also includes a touch tank and live bee exhibit.

For more detailed history of the Santa Cruz area, visit MAH, or the Museum of Art and History , located at 705 Front Street. As well as interesting exhibits of the area, this museum with a few hands-on activities allows children to dress up in period clothing and relive days from another era.


All of this activity will no doubt spur on the appetite, so head over to Santa Cruz’s downtown area, Pacific Avenue , for a bite to eat. Strolling Pacific Avenue can be an adventure in itself, with the lively area usually frequented by street musicians and other colorful characters.

If you’re in the mood for pasta or pizza, discover Kianti’s at 1100 Pacific Avenue. Ask your waitperson for a handful of dough for the little ones to knead and play with while waiting for your scrumptious meal.

If you’re on a budget, Taqueria Vallarta across the street from Kianti’s has got to be the best deal in Santa Cruz. You would be hard pressed to spend more that $20 for a family of four here, and the burritos are enormous. What the taqueria lacks in ambience it more that makes up with its tasty and quickly served food.

For a more formal Santa Cruz dining experience, venture to the local favorite on the Santa Cruz Wharf, Riva Fish House . Fresh and reasonably priced seafood is the main menu item here, but there are also kid friendly burgers. Just be warned, Riva does not accept credit cards, so fatten up your wallet before going. And save room for their delicious gelato after your meal.

Another Santa Cruz secret….fall is the best time to visit. The tourists are gone and the weather is beautiful. And, don't rule out winter. December and January is resplendent with crowdless beaches and miles of hiking paths. So bring the family and see Santa Cruz like the locals do!



Natural Bridges State Beach: 831-423-4609
Seymour Marine Discover Center: 831-459-3800
Wilder Ranch: 831-423-9703 
Surfing Museum: 831-420-6289
Natural History Museum: 831-420-6115
Museum of Art and History: 831-429-1964
Kianti’s Restaurant: 831-469-4400
Taqueria Vallarta: 831-471-2655
Riva Fish House: 831-429-1223



Betsie Tanza has raised three children in Santa Cruz, where she has lived for 18 years.

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