Unlike most towns that make up this country of ours, cold weather doesn’t automatically equate with heading indoors for the season here in Santa Cruz. We are blessed to have countless activities to keep us occupied all year round, both inside and out, that highlight our special region. But if you still happen to get hit with a case of the winter doldrums, save your money for holiday gift giving and pick up this list instead of the Top Ten Free Things to do this fall and winter.
The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is our local celebrity, attracting visitors near and far for over a century. And while the fun to be had inside is limitless, a view of the Boardwalk lights at night from afar is a stunning gem...whichever sparkling perspective you choose to enjoy, both are absolutely free. Another centennial star is the Santa Cruz Wharf, celebrating its 100th birthday this year with a big bash on October 4th. Exhibits, tours, music and a rare public fireworks show will make for a bright finale. The month of December is always a festive time, but what really makes this time of year shine, literally, are the multitude of ways to enjoy holiday lights. The Santa Cruz Harbor is the place to be on December 6th for their 29th annual Lighted Boat Parade. A panel of judges award captains for best decoration while hundreds of onlookers enjoy the shimmer, live music and snacks. That same weekend marks the annual Scotts Valley Christmas Tree Lighting Festival on December 7th this year, hosted by the Scotts Valley Chamber of Commerce. Welcome Santa’s arrival on fire truck, nibble cookies and cocoa, make a homemade ornament and sing carols while basking in the glow of the gigantic 66-foot lighted tree. Head south and take a scenic car ride down “Candlelight Lane” in La Selva Beach, where, come winter, a small neighborhood along what is normally called Playa Boulevard is transformed into a Christmas-themed display full of twinkling lights.
Its Beach - Photo by Rachel Endsley
Time spent at the beach is sure to provide some countering calm to our busy lives, whether it be a 5 minute stroll along West Cliff or a 5 hour picnic at Seabright Beach. Every age range can find joy in the sand, crashing waves and salty air...all the things we know and love as a seaside community. The 29 miles of coastline here makes for zero excuses to not get out and enjoy any number of popular and admission-free beaches, from Davenport Landing to Natural Bridges to Twin Lakes to Manresa down south.
Santa Cruz is a beacon for artists, making this community a hot spot for creative minds. Their efforts are luckily on display for the rest of us throughout a variety of events and venues all year long. The Santa Cruz Art League, Pajaro Valley Arts Council and Santa Cruz Mountains Art Center are great (free!) places to see multiple artists featured in one place. First Friday is the wildly popular Santa Cruz art crawl, where on the first Friday of each month dozens of galleries, boutiques, banks and cafes highlight local featured artists. The Museum of Art & History at the McPherson Center also offers free admission to their carefully curated exhibits during First Friday. Open Studios, put on by the Arts Council of Santa Cruz County, takes place on the first three weekends of October and is an intimate way to sneak a peek into where the art is created. Artists generously open up their homes and studios for the public to flood in, from the southernmost stretch of Watsonville to the northern tip of Bonny Doon.
West Cliff Drive - Photo by Rachel Endsley
There is no shortage of wildlife here in Santa Cruz County, and our environmental diversity, from the ocean to the redwoods, offers countless opportunities to get as close as possible. Fall brings some of our favorite visitors when we welcome back the Monarch butterflies who migrate every year to Natural Bridges State Park. Docents lead free tours from mid-October through mid-January, providing explanation to this amazing migratory phenomenon. The Wetlands of Watsonville are home to a large population of bird species, and the free weekly guided nature walks here are the perfect way to learn about them all. A walk along West Cliff Drive is often the only thing you need for great dolphin, sea otter and whale watching and likewise, up the coast in Davenport is a prime spot to check out the California Gray Whale migration starting in December.
Seymour Center Whale Skeleton - Photo by Garrick Ramirez
The rich historic roots that we have under us here is astounding, from surfing to agriculture to music. Museums offer the perfect way to fully understand, in multi-media presentations, the diverse patchwork that is our past, present and future. Admission-free venues abound for history buffs, like the San Lorenzo Valley Historical Museum, the Capitola Historical Museum or the Aptos History Museum. The tiny lighthouse on West Cliff Drive is home to the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, highlighting one of our areas claim to fame. For folks interested in our unique position here on the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, the free Exploration Center is a sleek place to stop in right at the mouth of the wharf. And the Seymour Center at Long Marine Lab offers free entry in the Fall on September 12th, October 17th and November 7th. Libraries are all too often forgotten, but always free, destinations for viewing well curated collections. The Watsonville Public Library holds the California Agricultural Workers’ History Center within while UCSC’s McHenry Library is home to the priceless Grateful Dead archive known as “Dead Central”.
6. FARMS AND GARDENS
Arboretum at UC Santa Cruz
With our Mediterranean climate, coastal influence and sunny inland heat, this area is prime for plant life. Farms and gardens are everywhere here, and can be spotted up and down the county, from the clifftops near Davenport to the mountaintops of Boulder Creek. In fact, Santa Cruz is famous for farming, with some of the founders of the organic movement starting right here. Sitting atop the UCSC campus is the legendary Alan Chadwick Garden as well as the working Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems Farm, both open to the public daily from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. for self-guided strolls and stunning views. Also on campus is the UCSC Arboretum, featuring over 300 plant families, some of which seem to evoke a prehistoric time. The Arboretum offers free admission on the first Tuesday of every month. Another great way to experience our abundance, aside from growing your own or partaking in the variety of farm u-pick options, is to meander around one of many Farmers Markets. Almost any day of the week will find a bustling Market, featuring the season’s glory and all available for purchase. But you don’t need to spend a dime to enjoy the community vibe, often complete with live music, friendly faces and plenty of samples. It makes perfect sense in an area where gardening is so popular that there would be a multitude of nurseries to help start them. And part of the fun when choosing out plants to grow is wandering around these places that do it for a living. One such place is Mountain Feed & Farm Supply in Ben Lomond, which not only has a wide array of ornamental and edible plants to peruse, but all the tools, seeds, jars and kits you would ever need or want. A stop here will turn into an inspirational day well spent, even if you don’t buy a thing.
A trail friend at Big Basin
The phrase “Go take a hike!” should certainly not be used as an admonishment. Instead, think of it as a verbal kick in the pants to get out and enjoy the outdoors, something we have a wealth of here in Santa Cruz. Many of our county parks offer huge networks of free trails to traverse, including the multi-use DeLaveaga Park and the sandy hills and pond-side charm of Quail Hollow Ranch. The large number of California State Parks that we have access to are equally as welcoming for hikers, and only charge for parking onsite. Wilder Ranch is a beautiful gem on the coast just north of Santa Cruz while Big Basin, Henry Cowell, Fall Creek and Nisene Marks all feature lush forest trails and sparkling streams.
8. PEOPLE WATCH
Zelda's on the Beach in the Capitola Village
No Free list is complete without mention of what is always free and always entertaining: people watching! Santa Cruz is known near and far to be dedicated in “keeping it weird,” which makes for some great people watching no matter where you might land. Downtown, West Cliff Drive, Pleasure Point and Capitola Village are all perfect spots to take a seat and watch the quirky world go by.
HItting the street by foot is really the best way to get to know a place, and walking tours offer an added bonus of education. Plus, the autonomy of doing a self-guided tour means you can go at your own pace. The Santa Cruz County Conference and Visitors Council is home to stacks of tour brochures, to provide inspiration for free exploration of everything from Victorian homes in Watsonville, to the logging history of Boulder Creek to the architecture in Santa Cruz. Or download a free printable pdf of the history tour of the Boardwalk, which includes 18 interpretive signs signifying points of interest and fun facts throughout the park.
There’s nothing quite like dining al fresco in the midst of natural beauty to mark an occasion, whether it happens to be your 25th wedding anniversary or just a regular old Tuesday. Both will be memorable when perched above the crashing sea on West Cliff Drive, lazing around in the fields of Pogonip or nestled within a fairy ring of redwoods trees at Henry Cowell State Park. Visit a favorite winery for a bottle and pick up some snacks at a local grocer to make your own spread. Or, simply order some take out at the aptly named The Picnic Basket, Gayle’s or The Buttery for an easy, spontaneous outdoor meal.