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10 Almost Free Santa Cruz County Activities

Author: Jill Weinlein
Date of Trip: July 2016

Throughout the year, Santa Cruz County offers locals and visitors a variety of fun inexpensive activities. During the fall and winter months, the elephant seals dominate the beaches along Ano Nuevo. In the warmer summer months, there are multiple U-pick berry farms dotting the low hills above the Pacific Ocean.

We recently drove along Highway 1 from Santa Cruz to Pescadero to explore the region. We discovered beautiful hiking trails, inexpensive dining venues and one of the most photographed lighthouse’s in California.

Here are 10 fun activities that don’t cost a lot –

1. Leaving Santa Cruz, we first stopped at Swanton Farm to pick strawberries for a healthy snack to eat along our trip. The farm also grows olallieberries and kiwi fruit and sells them everyday through September. They offer visitors a cardboard box to fill up with fruit at $3.99 a pound. 25 Swanton Rd. Davenport, CA 95017.

2. Our next stop was Ano Nuevo State Beach to see the male Northern elephant seals. Ano Nuevo beach is one of the leading birthing and breeding grounds for these mammals. The $10 state park entrance fee allows visitors access into the nearby Butano State Park too. There are various trails to see and smell the elephant seals. The main trail is about 3.5 miles roundtrip. We opted for a shorter trail down to Cove Beach. We didn’t see any elephant seals, but we did see a deceased sea otter and flocks of sea birds. 1 New Years Creek Rd, Pescadero, CA 94060.

3. Back in our car, we continued up the coast to the Pigeon Point Lighthouse. It’s one of the most scenic lighthouses in California, built in 1872. The inside is not open to the public, but you can tour the grounds and walk around the lighthouse for free during daylight hours. At low tide, the tide pools are fun to explore, and the old Pigeon Point keepers’ housing is now a hostel run by Hostelling International. 210 Pigeon Point Rd.

4. Beyond the lighthouse is Butano State Park and campground. We showed our $10 entrance fee receipt and parked for free. We took the 6 Bridges hike to stand in groves of majestic redwood trees. Our picturesque hike took us by low streams and under the canopy of ancient trees. 1500 Cloverdale Rd, Pescadero, CA 94060.

5. Our next stop was the charming little town of Pescadero tucked in the rolling hills about one mile of the Pacific Ocean. This is farm country and home to the best, world-renowned artichoke-garlic bread with whipped butter at Arcangeli Grocery Company. This market offers great picnic products to take out back and enjoy lunch on a picnic table with friends and family. This bread is a must to try. It’s a large round loaf filled with artichoke hearts and chunks of garlic. The crust is crispy and inside the bread is airy and warm. Spread the housemade butter, add a tomato, avocado or charcuterie to enhance it even more. 287 Stage Rd, Pescadero, CA 94060.

6. Nearby is the bucolic Harley Farms with hundreds of baby goats born each spring. Admission is free. They now have two llamas to protect the goats from bobcats and a rescue donkey named Rosie. This goat dairy farm has a milking facility in the front and goat pasture in the back. The American Alpine milking goats are milked twice a day for the farm to make exquisite cheese, and beauty products, There is a shop inside a barn-like structure on the premise that sells the most beautiful goat cheese rounds decorated with edible flowers grown on the farm. Visitors can sample a variety of cheese products the farm sells, and try some of the goat-milk based bath and body products samples that include lip balm to body lotion. Upstairs is a hayloft that hosts seasonal dinner parties and weddings. 205 North St, Pescadero, CA 94060.

7. Driving back to Santa Cruz, stop at Equinox located just outside of downtown Santa Cruz, a block from Natural Bridges State Park, ten minutes from the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. They have a tasting room where you can taste by the glass or a flight of four. Purchase a bottle and your tasting is complimentary. This was a splurge, but worth every sip. 334 Ingalls St, unit C, Santa Cruz, CA 95060.

8. Natural Bridges State Park is famous for it’s natural rock bridge and sandy beach. Visitors will see shore birds, migrating whales, seals and sea otters playing offshore. There are tide pools to explore with sea stars, shore crabs, sea anemones, and other colorful marine life. Park in the designated lot. 2531 West Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz, CA 95060.

9. Also at this state park is the Monarch Grove, a naturel preserve. It’s a temporary home for thousands of Monarchs from late fall into winter. They call this the “city in the trees” among the eucalyptus grove. Monarchs roost here until spring. The monarchs typically begin arriving in mid-October and leave by mid-February. At Natural Bridges, November is often the best time to for a walk to observe the monarchs. This is the only State Monarch Preserve in California. 2531 West Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz, CA 95060.

10. The Santa Cruz Boardwalk is a family friendly amusement park with oceanview rides, fun carnival food and live music on the weekends. Admission is free, you just have to purchase tickets or a wristband for the rides. The 1924 Giant Dipper still runs and is a thrill ride. Families enjoy throwing silver rings into a slot, while riding the 1911 Looff Carousel. It’s the oldest running ride on the boardwalk. What was once an indoor swimming pool, is now a two-story, interactive 18-hole mini-golf course. This is a fun activity for all in the family. Be sure to walk out to the end of the nearby Santa Cruz pier to see seals and pelicans. A few restaurants serve good clam chowder, fresh and fried fish specialities.

Exploring Santa Cruz County offers a variety of activities that don’t cost a lot of money, yet offers families fun experiences that make lasting memories.

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