When it comes to family fun in Santa Cruz there’s no shortage of choices. Thrill seekers can ride zip lines through the forest with Mount Hermon Adventures or make their stomach drop on the Giant Dipper at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Those looking for less of an adrenaline rush can explore the shorelines of countless picturesque beaches, hike through redwood forests, and then take the kids out for ice cream. If you’re looking for family-friendly outings that are both entertaining and educational, however, these five local landmarks won’t disappoint.
WILDER RANCH STATE PARK
Wilder Ranch State Park not only boasts 34 miles of scenic hiking, biking, and equestrian trails along coastal bluffs and through coastal terrace prairie, it’s also home to a historic ranch where a succession of families lived and farmed dating back to the 1800s. Modern-day families can explore the ranch on their own or take a guided tour of the 20-room Meder House, furnished with replicas of the Victorian’s original antiques. On weekends, docents dress in period costumes and transport visitors back in time with a variety of living history demonstrations, including live forging demos in the blacksmith shop.
UC SANTA CRUZ ARBORETUM
The UC Santa Cruz Campus is fun to explore even if your kids are far too young to start considering their college options. Meandering paths through quiet gardens of familiar and foreign plants make the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum a peaceful oasis on the outer edge of campus. The wide variety of flora (more than 300 plant families!) growing on these 135 acres includes rare and threatened species and the largest collection of Australian plants outside of the Land Down Under. Make sure to pack a picnic and take advantage of the many scenic lunch spots along the trails.
SANTA CRUZ MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY
Taxidermied animals are only a sliver of what the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History has to offer. (Although the mountain lion is certainly a local favorite.) A touch tide pool lets little ones and adults get their hands wet and learn about local inter-tidal creatures and a real beehive (safely enclosed in glass) gives visitors a rare peek into the life of the honey bee. Try grinding acorns with a real mortar and pestle just like the Ohlone and marvel at basketry, beadwork, and other artifacts made by native tribes. The museum also has rotating exhibits so make sure to stop back in even if your last Santa Cruz getaway included this local gem. Oh yeah, and there’s a life-size sculpture of a California gray whale out front that doubles as both a jungle gym and an awesome family photo op.
THE AGRICULTURAL HISTORY PROJECT
The second Saturday of the month, the Agricultural History Project comes to life with hands-on demonstrations and activities for the whole family. Practice milking a wooden cow, take a ride on a John Deere tractor (kids get to steer!), and drive down a virtual crop row. While you’re in Watsonville, also pay a visit to Gizdich Ranch where you can wander the orchards and pick your own apples or pluck juicy berries right off the vine. Once you’ve worked up an appetite, enjoy a slice of some of the best olallieberry pie in the county.
SEYMOUR MARINE DISCOVERY CENTER
There’s nothing quite like standing beneath one of the world’s largest blue whale skeletons- a marine mammal so large an entire VW Bug could comfortably fit inside her belly! Affectionately called Ms. Blue, this 87-foot- long whale skeleton looms larger than life (although make no mistake, this skeleton is very much real) outside the Seymour Marine Discovery Center at Long Marine Lab. Sign up for a docent-led tour (first-come, first-serve and space is limited) to learn more about this iconic marine mammal as well as the other marine creatures studied by scientists at the adjacent Long Marine Lab. Hands-on exhibits inside the Center help kids and adults better understand the work of marine scientists and friendly volunteers are always nearby to satisfy your curiosity. Make sure you also visit the swell sharks, octopus, and many other live animals in the Center’s aquarium.