Planning a trip to Santa Cruz, California?
We spent a few days in Santa Cruz and Monterey this summer, and had one full day for Santa Cruz. After a little research, we knew exactly where we wanted to spend that day – the Santa Cruz Wharf and Beach Boardwalk. They are right next to each other, and it was easy to park once and spend the full day there.
The Santa Cruz Wharf and Beach Boardwalk were a lot of fun with my teens (ages 12 and 15). These attractions will also work well for families with young children, or a mix of ages.
It's easy to control your budget too. After parking and a picnic lunch, you don't have to spend any money here. However, we still found plenty of fun ways to spend our vacation dollars.
Here's more information about the Santa Cruz Wharf and Beach Boardwalk, with my tips for making the most of your day.
Santa Cruz Wharf
The Santa Cruz Wharf extends into Monterey Bay, and is lined with shops, restaurants, activities and wildlife viewing opportunities. We arrived in Santa Cruz in the morning, 2+ hours before the rides on the Beach Boardwalk opened. We spent that time exploring the Santa Cruz Wharf.
Sea lions were easy to spot on boat docks along the wharf. I loved watching them bark and lounge all over each other. When a man in a small rental boat pulled up to the dock, it was clear that he didn't think they were as fun as I did.
My teen daughter collects post cards, so she stopped in every shop looking for the perfect one. She also wanted a new hoodie, which required an even longer search. Between the Santa Cruz Wharf and Beach Boardwalk, she was in hoodie heaven.
There are lots of restaurants along the wharf. We picked Riva's for an early lunch. The menu worked for both my seafood-loving husband and my vegetarian son. We got a table with a view of the surfers on the west side of the wharf.
Santa Cruz' Beach Boardwalk is an amusement park right on the beach. It dates back to 1907 and is California's oldest theme park. The Giant Dipper roller coaster and the Merry Go Round are classic rides that have delighted families for decades.
It costs nothing to enter the Beach Boardwalk and walk around. Buy “points” for just one or two rides, or buy an all-day wristband for about $40. You can also use cash, credit or points to purchase games, food and souvenirs.
At the time of our visit, points cost $1 each. Popular thrill rides like the Giant Dipper cost 7 points per person. Most family and kiddie rides cost 4 or 5 points. Points can be stored on a MyBoardwalk card, that you swipe at each ride. You can buy more points at kiosks around the park. Multiple people can share one card.
The official Beach Boardwalk website at https://beachboardwalk.com/ lists current discounts. It also posts the hours, which change seasonally.
The Beach Boardwalk typically opens between 10 AM and Noon, depending on the day. It is open every day during spring, summer and holidays. It is open on weekends through fall and winter.
My family bought one MyBoardwalk card, and got a small discount for buying bulk points. It was enough for my family of four to ride two thrill rides each. My husband and I let our kids use our second rides, so they got three. We spent about 2-3 hours on the Beach Boardwalk, between rides, lines, snacks and just walking around.
We all rode the historic Giant Dipper coaster together. It's a bumpy ride, but lots of fun!
The public beach next to the wharf is a good sandy beach for families. We didn't spend much time in the sand and surf, but saw lots of families on the beach while we were there.
The public beach is part of Monterey Bay. The water may be slightly warmer than at the ocean beaches a few miles away, but it will probably feel chilly to most families. There are volleyball nets on the beach.
Santa Cruz is a famous surfing destination. You can rent or buy surfing gear near the wharf, or take surfing lessons. I loved watching the surfers from the wharf. Most were on the west side of the wharf, farther from the Beach Boardwalk.
There are two lighthouses within view of the Santa Cruz Wharf – Lighthouse Point and Walton Lighthouse. They are about two miles apart, with the wharf in the center. You'll can see them from the wharf, and walk to them if you want to.
We did not visit the lighthouses, but I was tempted. Both are picturesque, with gorgeous ocean views.
Lighthouse Point has a dog-friendly beach. It also has a small surfing museum inside the lighthouse. The Surfers Memorial statue is a short walk from the lighthouse, and it's a nice place to watch the surfers in the bay.
Walton Lighthouse is built on a rock jetty. It is not open, but you can walk around it. There are not as many other things to do here, so it's a quiet and scenic place.
Related: 12 Fun Things to Do in Morro Bay
There is a large parking lot across the street from the Beach Boardwalk. It currently costs $15 per vehicle for a full day.
We arrived at around 9 AM on a June weekday, and easily found a space. The Beach Boardwalk website warns that this lot can fill up on weekends and holidays. Learn more about parking and shuttle options at https://beachboardwalk.com/Directions.
Limited parking is also available on the Santa Cruz wharf. This currently costs $1 for 20 minutes from April-September, with a $24 maximum. The rate is lower in the off-season.
Between the Santa Cruz Wharf, Beach Boardwalk and other restaurants within a few blocks of these attractions, you have dozens of restaurants to choose from.
We chose Riva's – a moderately priced, full service seafood restaurant on the wharf for lunch. Later, we snacked on carnival food at the Beach Boardwalk. My husband and I couldn't resist the deep-fried artichokes. Castroville (a city near Santa Cruz) is the “Artichoke Capital of the World.”
You can also bring your own food, and enjoy a beach picnic.
My family loved the beachy, fun-filled atmosphere at Santa Cruz. You can soak up the surf culture, ride a roller coaster, play in the sand, watch for wildlife or hike to a lighthouse. There is plenty here to fill your day, and I hope that our experience helps your family plan a great trip to Santa Cruz, California.