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Family Weekend Guide: Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz—about two hours from San Francisco—is a quintessential California beach town. It’s also home to a major university and a beloved seaside amusement park. Here’s how to pack maximum fun into a Santa Cruz weekend with kids.

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Natural Bridges State Beach: When you arrive, the kids are going to need some beach time ASAP. Head to Natural Bridges State Beach for its gorgeous surroundings, abundant wildlife—you can spot migrating whales, seals, otters, birds, and more—tidepools, and dramatic rock formations. In winter, head to the park’s Monarch Grove to see thousands of Monarch Butterflies as they wait out the colder months before continuing their migration.

Crow’s Nest Restaurant: Families are warmly embraced at this waterside restaurant at the Santa Cruz harbor. The large menu focuses heavily on seafood (but also offers other options for vegetarians, true carnivores, and everyone in between). The kids’ menu doubles as an activity book, and kids get to choose a prize from a treasure chest presented by the server.

Roaring Camp Railroad: Ride a vintage steam train through the redwood forest in the mountains above Santa Cruz. Or, take the Beach Train all the way to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, stay and play, and then hop the train back at the end of the day.

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park: From Roaring Camp, cross the tracks to discover massive old-growth redwood trees on a family-friendly, short loop trail dotted with interpretive signs and fascinating facts.

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk: This seaside amusement park has dozens of rides, including the classic Giant Dipper wooden roller coaster and a carousel that’s a National Historic Landmark. There’s also mini-golf, classic boardwalk eats, and miles of sandy beach for swimming, surfing, and sunning.

Seymour Marine Discovery Center: Inspire future marine scientists at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center, part of the University of California, Santa Cruz. Touch a friendly shark and explore the scientific method with hands-on exhibits inside, then walk the seaside path to discover reconstructed whale skeletons and sweeping views of the Pacific.

Best Western PLUS All Suites Inn: This centrally located all-suites hotel is a great solution for families looking for hotel amenities and extra space. Suites of different sizes cater to families, and all include free Wi-Fi, refrigerators, microwaves, and coffee makers. The hotel offers free daily breakfast and has a fitness center and hot tub.

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Christine Sarkis explored Santa Cruz as a guest of Visit California. Follow her on Twitter @ChristineSarkis and Instagram @postcartography for more advice about making every vacation the best vacation.

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