Sometimes we all just need to get away – especially when there are some awesome things to do in Santa Cruz!
I find that while I love the sagebrush and the high-desert climate, I crave the ocean and the salty-sea-breeze from time-to-time. That’s when I’m thankful we live a mere four and half hour drive from the ocean paradise of Santa Cruz.
I have been coming to Santa Cruz most of my life. As a child my family would camp among the redwoods, and explore tide pools. As a young adult I would Spring Break at the beach and ride the Boardwalk’s amusement park rides.
And now, I enjoy coming back with my family and seeing my daughter try saltwater taffy for the first time, chase waves, or watch my husband attempt to build a bonfire on the beach.
Santa Cruz is a dreamy ocean town, nestled into the California coast. It’s magical because it gets both the amazing wildlife and weather the ocean has to offer, as well as everything the enchanting redwood forests have to provide.
As I mentioned, Santa Cruz is only a 4.5-hour drive from Reno. This is easily doable, and our preferred way to travel, as it allows us to have our car for our vacation. Flying is also an option, but requires a car rental.
What is the drive from Reno to Santa Cruz like?
Nonstop drive: 277 miles
Drive time: 4 hours, 25 minutes
ROAD CAUTIONS: The drive to Santa Cruz is pretty easy and straightforward until you hit CA-17 outside of San Jose. This curvy road winds through the mountains and spits you out into Santa Cruz. While a beautiful drive in clear weather, it can be extremely dangerous in rain and inclement weather. Drive slowly and take precautions.
There are no direct flights into Santa Cruz.
Your best (and most affordable) option is to fly into San Jose. There are many direct flights from the Reno-Tahoe International Airport to San Jose daily.
Flight time: 44 minutes
You can also fly into San Francisco (SFO) if you want to make a trip down the California Coast as part of your trip.
FLYING DISADVANTAGE: While flying drastically cuts down your travel time, it is important to remember you will still need to get from the San Jose to Santa Cruz. Unless you have family/friends to pick you up, this will mean renting a car. The San Jose Airport has many car rental agencies to affordably choose from.
Note: Once renting your vehicle you will have to drive over the Santa Cruz Mountains on CA-17. In good weather, it takes about 45 minutes. See above note about safety precautions.
Where to Stay
We are fortunate to have family who resides in Santa Cruz, so lodging has never been an obstacle for us. Finding a place to stay, while on vacation, can be a challenge though. Luckily, Santa Cruz has options.
Accommodations in Santa Cruz are usually more low-key and choices are limited. Many hotels are right on or very near the beach, and what could be better than that?
Beach Street Inns and Suites have ocean-view rooms and balconies. Rooms include kitchenettes with refrigerators, microwaves, and coffeemakers, and some suites can sleep, six people. Barbecue pits and fire pits are on the property.
Edgewater Beach Motel not only allows dogs for a fee, but there are also two dog beaches within walking distance. This allows a great trip for the whole family! The Edgewater Beach Motel is a homey destination that can accommodate your whole family (some suites sleep up to eight people). Steps from the beach, the hotel also has a heated pool.
Airbnb and Beyond
Short-term and vacation rentals are our favorite way to stay in Santa Cruz when we’re not staying with family. We love the versatility of having our own kitchen so we can cook goodies from local farmers’ markets and fishmongers.
If you’re looking to rent a whole house, for a large family (6+ people) this beautiful Victorian is close to both shopping as well as the beach.
Pitch your tent at New Brighton State Beach, which offers 114 rentable spaces. Whether in a tent or an RV, this site stands perched on a wooded bluff of Pine and Cypress’s trees overlooking the magnificent Monterey Bay
Covid Related Lodging Note: As of June 12, 2020 hotels, vacation rentals, RV Parks, bed and breakfasts, and short-term rentals are open to guests and visitors. Lodging properties are required to comply with industry guidelines to support a safe, clean environment for workers and customers.
Things to Do In Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz offers a vast variety of activities to do, for all ages. Whether you’re looking for a day of adventure, or a relaxing day on the beach, you can find it all in this beautiful ocean city.
No trip to Santa Cruz is complete without a trip to the famous Boardwalk. Take a walk on the famous wooden walkway and enjoy some saltwater taffy. Enjoy a selection of outdoor arcade and midway games, as well as food and shopping.
For my family, no trip to Boardwalk is complete without a homemade corn-dog and a Dole-Whip (just like the ones you can get at Disney).
Unfortunately, Boardwalk rides, Casino Arcade, Neptune’s Kingdom, Mini Golf, Laser Tag, Fright Walk and Boardwalk Bowl are currently closed due to covid, but there are plenty of other fun attractions to enjoy.
This long wharf was built in 1912 and allows visitors to see Santa Cruz from the water. Take a nice stroll along the wharf and spot ocean wildlife, or stop and have a meal at one of the many restaurants along the way.
We like to stop at Stagnaro Bros. Seafood Inc.’s fish stand and pick up something freshly caught to grill for dinner.
If you’re looking for a day of adventure on the water, many boating and kayaking trips leave from the Santa Cruz Wharf.
Seabright State Beach is a ½ mile-long beach located between the Boardwalk and Santa Cruz Harbor. It is just across the street from the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History, where kids (and adults too!) can climb on the life-size concrete whale sculpture.
Located in Capitola Village, this beach is lined with shops and restaurants. Buildings are painted vibrant colors similar to small towns on the Mediterranean.
Capitola Beach is known for skimboarding, some of the mellowest breaks for first-time surfers, sandcastle building, and lounging the day away. On the Capitola Wharf, you will find people fishing, flying kites, and enjoying the salty air.
Covid Related Beach Note: The beaches in Santa Cruz County have been opened, as of June 25, 2020. With 29 miles of coastline, families can find a spot to enjoy Santa Cruz’s beaches responsibly and safely. Santa Cruz County reminds citizens and visitors to:
Keep social distance, wear a mask in public areas and when physical distancing cannot be kept, pack your trash, and be respectful of others enjoying the beauty of Santa Cruz County.
Safety must remain the top priority for the Santa Cruz County community and its visitors.
Santa Cruz County asks that families please pass on a beach day if the beach looks too crowded to keep physical distance.
California has some of the most wonderful State Parks to visit, wander, and hike. With over 14 state parks and beaches, there is something for every skill level, and it is awe-inspiring to walk among the Redwood Giants.
A hidden gem is the Twisted Forest at Nisene Marks State Park in Aptos where you can discover a hidden coy fish pond, an albino redwood tree, twisted grove of redwoods, remnants of an old sawmill, and the epicenter of the devastating 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
Wilder Ranch State Park offers 34 miles of hiking biking and equestrian trails that wind through the coast and valleys. Grasslands, oaks, knobcone pines, coastal redwoods, Douglas firs, rugged coastline, tidepools, hidden beaches, Victorian farmhouse, barns — need I say more?
Park Closures: All Santa Cruz County State Parks are open with the exception of the Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park, and now, Big Basin Redwoods State Park, Rancho Del Oso, and Fall Creek due to damages caused by the August 2020 Lightning Complex Fire.
Where to Eat
Santa Cruz is a Foodies paradise. There is an endless supply of cute eateries, restaurants, cafes, and shops to stop at and grab a nibble.
From outdoor patio dining, modified indoor, curbside pickup, delivery, and takeout, restaurants continue to adapt to safely serve their patrons. Downtown Santa Cruz, the Santa Cruz Wharf, and the Capitola Village, have added expanded outdoor dining to give more space to customers and staff.
Some of our Santa Cruz favorites include:
Location: 202 Lincoln St, Santa Cruz, CA 95060
Phone: (831) 423-4421
You can’t miss this classic burger joint. There is literally a cheeseburger lodged into the side of the building! Greasy and delicious, the fries and burgers do not disappoint.
If you want something really special, try the Diablo Burger with “The Works”….a 1/3 lbs burger, bacon, cheddar cheese, chipotle sauce, lettuce, tomato, avocado, grilled onions & jalapenos on toasted sourdough bread.
The name says it all. This bakery is HEAVEN! They make sandwiches, salads, and soups, and it is a great place to pick up lunch before a day of adventuring. Their pastries and sweets, however, are out of this world!
BONUS: The Buttery is famous for its lines-out-the-door. But NOW, they offer online ordering that saves you time and adds major convenience.
Face coverings are also required when paying for parking fees at state parks and the Santa Cruz Wharf.
Social Distancing is required in public areas and within businesses with those not from your household. This includes stores and public areas, 6 feet social distancing signage may be found to guide these efforts.
Although face coverings are not required during an outdoor activity or at beaches if social distancing can be maintained, if social distancing cannot be maintained, face coverings are required.
It is important to remember that many businesses are adding additional safety measures to protect their staff and their customers.
When visiting a business or point of interest, please be mindful and compliant with their specific safety guidelines. This includes (but is not limited to):
Use of hand sanitizer before entry
A limited number of guests or customers admitted to attractions or businesses
Until Next Time
Hopefully, this family-friendly user’s guide will help you plan your next trip to this relaxing California city on the Bay. There are so many things to do in Santa Cruz
We are looking forward to planning our next trip to Santa Cruz! While we are always looking for fun new activities to try, I know a trip to the beach and boardwalk will always be part of the plan.
Have you traveled to Santa Cruz? What are your favorite places to check out? Are there other California Coastal Cities/Towns that you and your family love? I would love to hear your favorite destinations.
Sarah Bear Rively is a Reno resident for over 30 years and loves the uniqueness of Northern Nevada. Sarah and her husband are parents to a sassy, smart, considerate “three-anger". Sarah has spent the majority of her career helping Reno’s at-risk populations through non-profit and social service work. She now proudly works for the Northern Nevada Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. Sarah considers herself a fun-loving person who enjoys laughing, getting creative, helping the community, and spending time with family. You can follow her in real life on Instagram and TikTok.