Select A Category

Dream Inn Wharf Scenic

Free Things to Do this Fall & Winter

Free Wintertime Fun for Travelers in Santa Cruz County

Santa Cruz County delivers added value once summer ends, when mild temperatures, fewer crowds and lower hotel rates help make travel more affordable. This season, there are plenty of free activities and events that won’t cost a penny. Find details below on the top 12 free things to do and see in Santa Cruz County this fall and winter:

Giant Dipper Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

1. TAKE A STROLL ON THE BOARDWALK

The legendary Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is always admission-free. Enjoy a free self-guided walking tour of this historic seaside gem or hit the adjacent Neptune’s Kingdom, where the latest arcade games and classics from the past combine with a miniature golf course plus a restaurant and game areas.

Surfin Santa

2. SURFIN’ SANTA RETURNS TO CALIFORNIA’S OLDEST SEASIDE RESORT TOWN 

Before appearing in countless parades and department stores, Santa rides onto Capitola Beach on Saturday, November 26th for free visits with families. Accompanied by wetsuited “reindeer”, Surfin’ Santa then settles into a beach chair to greet children and families with candy canes and cheer.

fireworks over wharf

3. UNIQUE SEASONAL EVENTS

Did someone say FIREWORKS!? Celebrate the City of Santa Cruz’s 150th birthday with an anniversary beach party on Saturday, October 1st to include music, family games and a fireworks finale at Main Beach in Santa Cruz. And for more sparkles, the Monte Foundation is coming back to Capitola on October 9th with their fireworks fundraiser on the wharf. Would you give your right arm for a fun fall event? Check us out online and find out more about “The Missing Arm of William Waddell” event at Big Basin Redwoods State Park on Saturday, October 22nd. Or check out the Lighted Boat Parade at the Harbor on Saturday, December 3rd. Visit Santa Cruz County can help you find free, fantastic, and always fun events and festivals to enjoy, all with the click of a mouse or a quick search on your mobile device. In fact, there are over 120 free year-round events throughout Santa Cruz County hosted annually at www.visitsantacruz.org!

cow mural

4. TOUR THE HISTORIC AND ECLECTIC

A variety of free walking tours bring to life the history of Capitola, the logging days of Boulder Creek, the Victorian homes of Watsonville, the outdoor art and architecture of Santa Cruz and more. Visit ‘Dead Central,’ an archive of Grateful Dead memorabilia at UCSC’s McHenry Library. Tour brochures are available at Visit Santa Cruz County’s year around visitor center.

Wildlife Watching

5. Wildlife Watching

Free weekly guided nature walks of the Wetlands of Watsonville are an up-close way to experience the area’s bird population. Visit Santa Cruz County’s free official Wildlife Watching Guide is a great way to get your bearings on where to go and what to look for. Seaside, visit the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf and spot a variety of wildlife which swim, fly and sunbathe around this local point of interest. Free docent-led tours of the Monarch butterfly grove at Natural Bridges State Park are offered mid-October through mid-January, and the cliffs above Davenport provide one of the best spots to watch the California Gray Whale migration from December through early spring.

Codiga Center & Museum

6. Discover Museums

Learn about Santa Cruz surfing legends, the farming methods of a bygone era, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and more at admission-free museums such as the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center, Agricultural History Project, San Lorenzo Valley Historical Museum, Capitola Museum and the Aptos History Museum. The Seymour Marine Discovery Center offers free admission on October 14th, November 4th and January 6th. The Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History is admission-free the first Friday of every month. And the California Agricultural Workers’ History Center at the Watsonville Public Library is a free exhibit that chronicles the history of agricultural laborers in the area and the products they harvest.

Savor Fine Art

7. SAVOR FINE ART

Peruse galleries exhibiting rare glass artwork, the work of local watercolor painters and more. The Pajaro Valley Arts Council, Santa Cruz Art League and Santa Cruz Mountains Art Center are just some of the free galleries you’ll find around town.

Surfing at Pleasure Point

8. ATTENTION, OUTDOOR ENTHUSIASTS

A multitude of free outdoor adventure opportunities await. Capture the surfing spirit and watch surfers at Steamer Lane, or check out Pleasure Point, where experienced wave riders challenge themselves at “The Hook”. Santa Cruz County’s state parks offer epic cycling opportunities. Families will enjoy scenic bike rides along East Cliff and West Cliff Drives in Santa Cruz. And the trails at UC Santa Cruz are popular with all riders and skill levels. The 18-hole Pinto Lake Championship Disc Golf Course in Watsonville offers a free way to try out another type of golf – just bring a Frisbee® and you’re set!

Hiking in the Redwoods

9. HIKE AMID TOWERING REDWOODS

A number of Santa Cruz County parks with great hiking trails are admission-free, including DeLaveaga Park, Quail Hollow Ranch and others. State parks like Big Basin Redwoods State Park or Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park only charge a parking fee.

Davenport Beach

10. ENJOY THE BEACH

With 29 miles of coastline and mild offseason temperatures, finding an admission-free beach for a romantic stroll or watching a sunset is easy. Favorites include Main Beach, Capitola Beach, Rio Del Mar Beach, Manresa, Twin Lakes Beach and Seabright Beach.

Downtown Santa Cruz

11. PEOPLE WATCH AND WINDOW SHOP

Stroll Downtown Santa Cruz, where pedestrian-friendly, tree-lined streets boast unique shops and sidewalk performers. Or breathe in the Mediterranean essence of quaint Capitola Village.

Arboretum at UC Santa Cruz

12. EXPLORE MAGICAL GARDENS

Wander through bamboo gardens, smell the scents of rare roses and see exotic plants from around the world. Bamboo Giant Nursery, Roses of Yesterday and Today, Sierra Azul Nursery and many other gardens are free to explore. The UCSC Arboretum offers free admission the first Tuesday of each month.

In addition, visitors who choose to travel midweek can save money on lower hotel rates. Visit Santa Cruz County is making it easier than ever to plan a vacation online with plenty of resources at www.visitsantacruz.org.

The year-round visitor center at 303 Water Street, #100 in Santa Cruz can provide Official Santa Cruz County Traveler’s Guides, Bicycle Adventure Kits, Wildlife Watching Kits and other free information on a variety of topics to make this season’s vacation a memorable experience.

Related-Stories