Winter is an incredible time to explore Santa Cruz. The crowds are fewer and the pace is slower. All attractions and tourist sites remain open year-round (some just on weekends) and can be enjoyed at much cheaper rates than in the peak summer months. Plus, with crowds scattering, this city by the sea takes on a distinctly local vibe. So, it’s the perfect time to check out the most popular things to do in Santa Cruz in the winter months.
Things to do in Santa Cruz: The Main Attractions
Let start at the top with the Santa Cruz must-do sites:
The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is a historic site, among the last remaining seaside amusement parks on the West Coast. And with a massive array of things to do, it’s a win regardless of the weather! For the outdoor rides, aim for weekend afternoons between 12-5 pm. Otherwise, hang indoors at the epic arcade enjoying super seasonal deals from 10 am-10 pm.
Winter Wonderland decor and festivities begin on weekends after Thanksgiving, with rides open daily from December 20-31 except for Christmas Day.
- West Cliff Drive
West Cliff Drive is a 3-mile-long walking and biking path running from the Santa Cruz Wharf to the Natural Bridges State Park. The path is famous for its bird’s eye ocean views and beach access, plus a few quintessential sites like the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse and Santa Cruz Surfing Museum.
- Steamer Lane
Steamer Lane is the Santa Cruz surfing spot that made this California city famous. Surfing lore even claims it as the birthplace of mainland surfing after it was brought into the limelight by a few Hawaiians putting it on the map. These days, it’s a playground for pro-level surfers and is a host location for many high-profile surfing contests year-round. The cove has a tiny beach and is best viewed from above, on West Cliff Drive near Pelton Avenue.
Santa Cruz Christmas & Holiday Events 2021
If you’re thinking of Santa Cruz as a California Christmas destination, you won’t be disappointed. The nostalgic aura this city is known for lends to a rich holiday vibe evidenced by endless holiday events and festivities to immerse in.
The Holiday Lights display at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds, about 20 miles southeast of the city of Santa Cruz, will resume this year. The ½ mile drive, complete with light tunnels, holiday displays, Santa and his reindeer, plus snowmen, will operate Thursday-Sundays in December through Christmas Day from 5:30 pm to 9:00 pm.
The themed Winter Wonderland displays and events will run from November 26 – January 2. It features Fire Pit Rentals & Holiday S’mores, Holiday Fun Package, festive decor, and lights, plus a 3-story Christmas Tree, boardwalk treats, photos with Santa, holiday shopping, and classic holiday movies showing at Neptune’s Stage.
The annual tradition of the Santa Cruz Holiday Lights Train is returning this year! All decked out for Christmas, the vintage train will roll through the city on November 26-27, December 4-5, December 11-12, and December 17-23.
Head to Wilder Ranch for an old-fashioned Christmas exhibiting what the holidays were like 100 years ago. The event includes activities and crafts, demonstrations at the machine shop and blacksmith, tours of the Gothic Revival farmhouse, Victorian home, and 1960’s cow barn. December 11 only from 11 am to 3 pm.
The Winter Art Market at the Tannery Arts Center resumes from December 4 through December from 10 am- 2 pm this year. This shopping extravaganza hosts the opportunity to buy gifts crafted by local artists, including photography, ceramics, jewelry, paintings, prints, and apparel. Live music and food trucks will also be on site.
- Drive-In Christmas Movies in the Redwoods at Roaring Camp Railroads
The drive-in movies at the Roaring Camp Railroads feature holiday movies the first three weeks in December.
- Polar Express – December 4 @ 6:30pm – 8:30pm
- A Christmas Story – December 11 @ 6:30pm – 8:30pm
- Dr. Suess’ The Grinch – December 18 @ 6:30pm – 8:30pm
- Lighted Boat Parade at the Santa Cruz Harbor 2021
Due to ongoing limitations for large outdoor events and public gatherings, The Santa Cruz Lighted Boat Parade will not be possible this year. But it is hoped to resume in 2022.
Santa Cruz’s Beach & Ocean Activities
Beyond the main attractions of Santa Cruz and the glorious holiday festivities, you can’t forget you’re visiting Surf City, a place rooted in beach and ocean culture! And even if it’s a little too chilly to go swimming or sunbathing, there is still a lot to do in Santa Cruz in winter.
- Whale Watching
Winter is whale season in Santa Cruz, a time when 20,000 gray whales pass through Monterey Bay. They are usually seen in December through April. Because they pass farther out at sea, the easiest way to see them is via a whale watching tour. There are several companies to choose from in Santa Cruz. However, if you don’t feel like getting on a boat, the best place to see them from land is about 10 miles northwest of Santa Cruz at Davenport Beach.
- Santa Cruz Wharf
The Santa Cruz Wharf is a ½ mile-long wooden pier stretching into Monterey Bay. It’s a great place to take a stroll, eat seafood, go shopping, or set off for an ocean adventure to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
- Shark Fin Cove
Shark Fin Cove is often pegged as one of the best beaches in California, and if you visit in the winter when you have a chance to experience it without the crowds. The area includes a tiny, rustic beach surrounded by impressive cliffs, a cave, and an incredible rock formation in the ocean that looks just like a shark fin.
What to See in Santa Cruz: Beyond the Sea
Santa Cruz is undoubtedly a seaside paradise, but there is far more to do in the city than play at the pier and on the boardwalk. The surrounding areas are also chock full of outdoor adventures, so don’t forget to save time for these quintessential Santa Cruz activities, too:
- Natural Bridges States Park
See the monarch butterflies at Natural Bridges States Park; they famously migrate to the area between October and February.
- Redwood Forests
Go hiking in the Redwood forests at nearby places like Big Basin Redwoods State Park or Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.
- Año Nuevo State Reserve
Check out the impressive sight of the elephant seals breeding on the beach from December to March.
If you’re looking for family-family accommodation options, we have a terrific line-up of choices for just you! Or if you’re inspired to seal the deal on any kind of winter trip to Santa Cruz – give us a call at Surf City Rentals for help finding the perfect accommodations!