Walking along the bluffs of Santa Cruz, wind in your hair, sparkling blue ocean at your feet, you can spend a happy few hours taking in the million-dollar views without spending a dime.
But beautiful scenery isn’t all that’s available at no cost in this laid-back surf city about 150 miles southwest of Sacramento. (There are a few ways to get here, but a longer, scenic route is via the San Mateo Bridge and Half Moon Bay, then down Highway 1.)
Here’s a rundown of five ways to have fun by the sea for free.
Life’s a beach
Set on Monterey Bay, Santa Cruz is known for its wide, sandy beaches and surf-happy waves. The Cowell Beach-Main Beach stretch of sand off of, you guessed it, Beach Street, draws the biggest crowds and is closest to restaurants, the Municipal Wharf and other attractions. A hiking and biking path that starts on Beach Street and continues up a short, steep hill to West Cliff Drive is worth a stroll.
Just below the Jack O’Neill Lounge at the Santa Cruz Dream Inn, check out the mural honoring local hero and wetsuit pioneer O’Neill. The path ends after about 3 miles (5 kilometers) at Natural Bridges State Beach, which has tide pools and a Monarch Butterfly Natural Preserve.
(If you are bringing a car, there is a free lot outside the entrance with short-term parking only, or a pay lot inside the park.)
All aboard the boardwalk
Riding the rides at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk does cost money, but there’s no admission fee to walk around and soak up the ambiance of this classic seaside park overlooking the beach. Be sure to check out the Laffing Sal automaton: You can hear her creepy cackle for free.
And on Friday nights in high summer, enjoy the sound of free concerts on the beach bandstand. Smash Mouth and Eddie Money are among the acts booked this season, which runs June 13 through Aug. 29 and features two shows a night, at 6:30 and 8:30 p.m.
Also free, a display of vintage photographs of Santa Cruz can be seen on the upper floor of the Neptune’s Kingdom building, which once was home to The Plunge, an indoor swimming pool, and now holds a miniature golf course and other games.
Surf through history
The Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, at Lighthouse Point on West Cliff Drive, is a small but interesting collection chronicling more than 120 years of local surfing history. Look for the surfboard missing a few chunks courtesy of a hungry shark. After your visit, stroll outside to take in the views of Steamer Lane, where you can see surfers skimming across the waves.
Peer at the pier
The Santa Cruz Wharf is the longest wooden pier in California at 2,745 feet (837 meters) and one of the oldest in the state, celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. Lined with shops and restaurants, it’s a great place to stroll and take in sweeping views of the bay.
During the day, walk to the very end of the pier and look down to the lower decks to see sea lions basking in the sun. As evening closes in, stop by one of the many benches set along the wharf to enjoy a breathtaking sunset.
Be a sea student
The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center is just across the street from the wharf and includes a number of exhibits designed for children and adults, including an exploration theater, intertidal touch-pool and man-made Kelp Forest. The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk also has a free Ocean Ecology class that is being offered this year by the Marine Mammal Center, which rescues sea lions and other animals found in distress on beaches.
The classes are held in the seating/amphitheater facing the beach stage and run through June 6.