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5 Amazing Things to Do in Santa Cruz

From beachside boardwalks to redwood forests to waves of surfers’ dreams, this iconic coastal community makes for an unforgettable trip

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With expansive beaches and some of the world’s best off-shore breaks, Santa Cruz is famous for its high-stoke surf culture. But there’s so much more to this laid-back strip of shoreline than wetsuits and short boards. A short drive from both San Jose and San Francisco, Santa Cruz makes for the perfect weekend getaway—although once you’ve had a taste of the area’s eclectic charm and natural beauty, you may never want to leave.

Experience easygoing luxury at the Dream Inn

Staying near the beach is never a bad idea—and you can’t get much closer than the Dream Inn. Built on the site of Jack O’Neill’s first shop, this 1960s-era hotel sits just steps from Cowell Beach. The 165 rooms, all of which boast ocean views and private balconies or patios, are beachy-chic thanks to colorful, surf-inspired decor. Take a dip in the heated beachfront pool and listen to the crashing waves as you float in 85-degree water. Watch the sunset through picture windows at the on-site Jack O’Neill Restaurant, serving local seafood and farm-to-table fare.

Take an at-sea animal adventure

For a completely new perspective on Monterey Bay’s marine life, rent a vessel from Venture Quest Kayaking and paddle out from shore. You’ll float by sea lions sunning themselves on rocky outcroppings as pelicans swirl overhead. Watch for dolphin fins, frolicking otters, and seal heads bobbing up from the surf. Book a guided tour to explore the sea caves at Wilder Ranch State Park or get an up-close look at 50-foot-long gray whales during the migration season (March through May).

Get a sense of surfer history

Legend has it that surfing first arrived in the United States when a trio of traveling Hawaiian princes paddled out in Santa Cruz. The Santa Cruz Surfing Museum honors the city’s cowabunga history with far-out artifacts, photographs, and plenty of old-school boards. After you’ve learned what Burt Landess first used for a board (hint: you can also iron on it), step outside to watch history come to life. Take a stroll around Lighthouse Point and you’ll see dozens of daredevils shredding the break at Steamer Lane.

Get your kicks on a wooden roller coaster

Built in 1907 as the “Coney Island of the West,” the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is proof that a seaside amusement park never goes out of style. Feel the salty air whip through your hair on the stomach-flipping Double Shot or the Giant Dipper, a thundering wooden roller coaster with a 70-foot drop. Easy riders will love the Looff Carousel, which features real horse hair and a 342-pipe organ. Treat yourself to a classic carnival snack and try your luck at an arcade game before going for a stroll along the wharf.

Hike among the giants

Head north on California State Route 9 to explore a wildly different side of Santa Cruz County. A short 20-mile drive will take you from sandy beaches to shaded sequoia groves. Big Basin Redwoods State Park, located in Boulder Creek, offers easy access to these ancient giants. Take the 3.4-mile, out-and-back hike to Sempervirens Falls. Along the way, you’ll see 300-foot-tall redwoods, Douglas fir, five-finger fern, and maybe even a banana slug or two, before reaching the straight-from-a-fairytale falls.

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