Digging Deeper into Santa Cruz County: A Destination Like No Other

Santa Cruz County is a special little slice of the California coast. From the depths of Monterey Bay to the heights of 1,500-year-old redwoods, from the rich fertile land to local residents’ endless creative talents, the area is bursting with wonders that make Santa Cruz County a destination like no other. For those wanting to learn more about the county’s history, including its natural environment, here are details on a few key museums and points of interest to deepen your understanding and love of the area. 

Seymour Marine Discovery Center Entrance by Jenn Day

Seymour Marine Discovery Center

Seymour Center’s prime oceanfront location overlooks Monterey Bay, which is a national marine sanctuary with a unique, diverse ecosystem. Immerse yourself in the world of marine science at the center, a treasure trove for curious adults and families. There are touch tanks: feel the textures of sea stars, anemones, hermit crabs, and even sharks. Be entranced by glowing jellyfish and check out exhibits about recent ocean science discoveries—including some that are results of research performed by scientists at the neighboring Long Marine Lab. Want to keep learning after you return home? There are many books to choose from at the gift shop. Take a walk atop majestic bluffs and be sure to stop on one of the several terraces and admire the sweeping views. You may even spot a sea otter or a sea lion. 

Natural History Museum by Garrick Ramirez

Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History

The Natural History Museum is small but mighty. With hands-on exhibits like an intertidal touch pool, it’s great for families. One permanent exhibit centering on Santa Cruz geology fascinates kids with its rocks, minerals, and even a Mastodon fossil (Mastodons are ancient relatives of modern elephants and mammoths). Another exhibit, First Peoples of California, illuminates native history though Ohlone artifacts, a large mural, and more. There is also an impressive display of taxidermy native animals and their habitats. The museum’s attractions aren’t limited to the building’s interior: walk around the grounds and find the demo gardens where you can learn about native coastal California plants and habitats. And don’t miss the life-sized gray whale sculpture for climbing fun and photo ops. This museum is very close to one of the county’s more mellow beaches—the fantastic Seabright State Beach

Historic Apple Crates at AHP Museum by Garrick Ramirez

Agricultural History Project Center & Museum

The Agricultural History Project Center & Museum, located at the Watsonville Fairgrounds, is a significant part of the community as it shows the integral role that agriculture plays in Santa Cruz County and its history. The bounty of our fertile local lands provides countless benefits, including improving the livelihoods of farmworkers and supplying high-quality produce to those who appreciate sweet berries, delightful lettuce, crispy apples and more. Part of what makes our area restaurants so outstanding is the incredible fresh fruit and vegetables grown on local farms (talented chefs are also a key part of the equation). California accounts for about one-third of all organic produce production in the U.S. and 90% of the country’s strawberry crop, and Santa Cruz County is a major contributor to both of these. And Watsonville plays a special role in apple history: in the early 1900s it was the world’s largest-producing region. At the Center & Museum, you can look at antique farm machines as well as many exhibits exploring the county’s comprehensive ag history. It’s open the second Saturday of each month, when it offers games and demos at its “2nd Saturday on the Farm” events. This place makes learning fun through interactive activities: there are tractor rides, life-size wooden cows with rubber teats to teach about cow milking, crafts related to seasonal themes, and more. Visit the Country Corner Gift Shop for souvenirs like toys, books, and gifts. You can make appointments to visit the Project at other times (except Sundays and Mondays) to explore educational exhibits and archives related to ag history.  

Steamer Lane and Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse by Ben Ingram

Santa Cruz Surfing Museum

With Santa Cruz being the birthplace of surfing on the mainland, it’s no surprise there is a museum dedicated to surfing. Plus, the area’s stunning coastline is studded with countless fabulous places to surf including Pleasure Point. The Surfing Museum, located in the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse on West Cliff Drive, overlooks iconic surf spot Steamer Lane. Learn about 100-plus years of history through exhibits featuring surfboards, newspaper clippings, and photos, including engaging displays organized by specific decades or themes (think 1950’s or The Hawaiian Connection). Want to take a piece of the museum home with you? Choose from surfing-related books, t-shirts, hats, socks, magnets, mugs, note cards, and more.  

SLV Museum (Boulder Creek) by Caryn Hewlett

San Lorenzo Valley Museum

It’s a pleasure to venture to the Santa Cruz Mountains, driving along sun-dappled roads nestled among the redwoods, and Boulder Creek and Felton are wonderful small towns you’ll fall in love with. Visit the San Lorenzo Valley to find the SLV Museum and receive another bonus: for the price of admission–which is free–you get to check out two galleries! Even though there’s no official entrance fee, the museum appreciates donations. The SLV Museum runs two venues, one in Boulder Creek (Grace Episcopal Gallery) and one in Felton (Belardi Gallery), each housed in a classic building from the National Register of Historic Places. Explore exhibits with intriguing photos and artifacts with themes like mills of the Santa Cruz Mountains and hidden stories about the Santa Cruz and California Gold Rushes. Learn about historical local industries like logging and mining and discover unusual facts about the region. For example, during the Civil War, a gunpowder manufacturing business opened near the San Lorenzo River.  

Tannery Arts Center by Liz Birnbaum, The Curated Feast

Tannery Arts Center

Get a taste for Santa Cruz’s vibrant art scene. The Tannery, a unique arts venue and community, boasts more than two dozen art studios plus 100 live/work artist lofts. Visit studios and meet artists during monthly First Friday events, which usually feature live music and food trucks. You can also interact with artists at seasonal sales and at the juried countywide Open Studios every October where approximately 300 artists open their studios to the public (in 2023, 13 Tannery artists across 8 mediums participated). If no events are occurring during your visit, walk around and view outdoor art sculptures and visit shops and galleries. These include the Radius Gallery and the shop/gallery Salt, run by Tannery resident Sarah Borgeson. She showcases jewelry (some made by her, some vintage) and items by local artists plus home décor, clothing, and plants. Curious about the Tannery name? The original site housed a leather-making operation and there is historic leather-making equipment on exhibit. Art lovers should also visit the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH) located nearby in downtown Santa Cruz. The MAH offers rotating exhibits centering on local history and contemporary art, plus many dynamic events throughout the year.