by LeeAnn Vaughan
Imagine sitting under an umbrella, digging your toes into the cool sand, hearing waves beat against the shore as you sip a cold drink and read a novel before dozing off for an afternoon nap. Ahhh . . . Okay, so a day at the beach with children may not turn out exactly like that, but a trip to Santa Cruz, California is worth it just the same. Besides numerous beaches and well-known tourist attractions, Santa Cruz offers some entertaining choices off the beaten path for families.
Two such destinations are Roaring Camp Railroads and The Mystery Spot, both located about 20 minutes north of Santa Cruz. These two attractions can easily be combined in one morning. It is a 25-minute drive between Roaring Camp Railroads and The Mystery Spot. Tours at The Mystery Spot are scheduled every half hour and last 30-40 minutes. We took the 10:00 tour at The Mystery Spot, left for Roaring Camp around 10:35, and arrived just in time for the 11:00 train departure. That was cutting it a little too short, as it is a long walk–or run if you’re trying to catch the train – from the parking lot to the train depot. Plan on touring The Mystery Spot 1 1/2 hours before or 1 hour after your train ride to allow ample time between.
Roaring Camp Railroads offers two routes, one roundtrip to Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and the other up to Bear Mountain. We chose the 90-minute Bear Mountain route through beautiful California Coastal Redwoods on an 1800s narrow-gauge steam train. Our kids were fascinated with the steam engine, train whistle, and scenery. At the end of the route, travelers leave the train for about 15 minutes to walk around the forest. Our tour guide gave an informative narrative on the history of the railroad, old-growth forests, and coastal redwoods. Several trees had hollowed-out trunks large enough for a child to walk into – good photo op! Then it’s back on the train to Roaring Camp in Felton. Only one train car is covered, so don’t forget the hats and sunblock! Bring snacks and water for the train ride unless you can hold out for the snack bar back at Roaring Camp. The gift shop is full of interesting train-related and regional merchandise. Train schedules change with the seasons, so check the schedule and fares before you go.
You’ve seen the yellow and black bumper sticker on the back of a station wagon, right? Wondered what the mystery is all about? You’ve got to check out The Mystery Spot for yourself! This little scientific wonder located off a winding country road is fun for grownups and kids alike. As the story goes, in 1939 a surveyor found some peculiar compass readings in a 150-foot circle in the middle of the forest. The owner built an incredibly crooked cabin in the center of the circle where visitors can watch balls roll uphill, pendulums swing counter-clockwise and people grow and shrink right before their eyes! What’s the source of these strange observations? No one knows! And as our extremely entertaining tour guide pointed out, that is why it is not called “The Solved Spot!” My older children found it all quite interesting while it seemed lost to my preschoolers. They simply liked trying to walk upright on the slanted floor! And we came home with four bumper stickers to boot – which make great decorations for a boy’s bedroom or notebook if you don’t want four of them on your minivan. The tour costs $5 per person. Before the tour, take a look around the gift shop or wander through the lovely flower garden. You might want to bring your compass, level, or ball to try some experimenting of your own.
And then there are the beautiful beaches in Monterey Bay. My husband and eight-year-old were eager to try surfing on our end-of-the-summer trip to Santa Cruz. We found a great rental shop at 30 Front Street. The Cowell’s Surf Shop offers sales and rentals of boards and wetsuits at very reasonable prices. They recommended boards for my two would-be surfers, and we were off. One problem. A 10-foot board doesn’t fit in a minivan. Fortunately, parking in the Cowell’s Surf Shop’s lot is a mere $5 a day, half the price of most beach parking. So after a short walk down to Cowell beach, my guys were ready to go. Another problem. After discovering he couldn’t even carry his board, my son soon lost enthusiasm for the sport. My husband valiantly attempted to catch a wave, but after an hour of floating on the board he gave up. Maybe they should have booked a lesson with the surf shop. Cowell’s Surf Shop graciously let them trade in their surfboards for bodyboards. I even rode a few waves!
Cowell Beach is the most popular beach in Santa Cruz as it is the home of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. The beach is crowded in front of the amusement park, but on the other side of the wharf, Cowell beach is less crowded. This is a fun spot for building sandcastles and bodyboarding. A seal even entertained us for a while as it rode the waves – until it nipped at one of the bodyboarders!
A short drive along West Cliff Drive will take you to Natural Bridges State Beach. There is a $ 6-day use fee for the campground and beach. The rock formations in the water are beautiful. After climbing on the rocks in search of tide pools, my kids discovered countless sand crabs on the sandy beach. The crabs, combined with very sandy Barbies and My Little Ponies kept my girls entertained in the sand all afternoon while the guys bodyboarded.
The Santa Cruz area offers countless adventures. With beaches, marine life, mountains, trains, mysteries, and more, there is bound to be something for everyone in Santa Cruz!