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:
Stroll an Iconic 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.
See Surfin’ Santa
Before appearing in countless parades and department stores, Santa rides onto Capitola Beach on Saturday, November 30th 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.
Unique Seasonal Events
Did someone say FIREWORKS!? The Monte Foundation is coming back to Capitola on October 13th with their 25 Year Anniversary 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” event at Big Basin Redwoods State Park on Saturday October 26th. Or check out the Lighted Boat Parade at the Harbor on Saturday, December 7th. 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 100 free year-round events throughout Santa Cruz County hosted annually.
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.
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. Downtown a copy of the latest Wildlife Watching Guide from www.visitsantacruz.org or stop by the year around visitor center at 303 Water Street in Santa Cruz for a free copy and start planning your adventure!
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 September 17th, October 17th, November 12th, and December 5th. The Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History and Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History are 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
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. Arts Council Santa Cruz County’s Open Studios Art Tour October 5-6, 12-13, and 19-20 is a DIY-way to visit artists in their studios!
Get Outside and Play
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 CliffDrives 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!
See the 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.
Hit 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.
People Watch and Window Shop
Explore the Wild Beauty of Campus
The Arboretum at UC Santa Cruz offers free admission the first Tuesday of every month. Also located at UC Santa Cruz, enjoy free self-guided tours of UCSC Farm & Alan Chadwick Garden year-round between 8AM and 6PM. Step into Pogonip Open Space right from campus; the Rincon Trail slopes down to the eastbound Spring Box Trail, where a quick stroll leads to a spring-fed koi pond. Back on the Rincon Trail, veer north to see 19th century limestone kilns and a spectacular rock garden dotted with notes from visitors.
The year-round visitor center at 303 Water Street, #100 in Santa Cruz can provide Official Santa Cruz County Traveler’s Guides, Wildlife Watching Kits and other free information on a variety of topics to make this season’s vacation a memorable experience!