Why travel to an out-of-town destination when you don’t have to? Living in Santa Cruz has many benefits, one being that we are lucky enough to live right near the beach, not to mention the perfect weather for all sorts of outdoor activities.
Plan your own beach clean-up day: Sure, the kiddos may complain when they first learn of this idea, but as soon as you get them down to the beach, they will most likely forget that they are even cleaning up or doing any sort of community service.
For a safe and environmentally friendly beach clean up, have everyone in your crew wear rubber gloves and closed-toed shoes. Bring buckets to put trash in (paper and plastic bags tear easily) and hand sanitizer to clean your hands off, in case there is no washroom nearby. Tell small children to point out glass and all other sharp objects and not to pick these items up.
Make sure they understand that they are only to collect paper, cans and items that are safe for them to pick up. Beaches are known to have all sorts of unsanitary items lying around, such as used condoms and hypodermic needles (I know, totally gross, but it’s better to be informed—especially with small children in tow). For more information on how to execute a successful beach clean up day, go to California Coastal Commission.ca.gov
Bike ride from Twin Lakes Beach to Capitola Village: This is one of my favorite free activities to do in Santa Cruz. When my family does this ride, we start near Twin Lakes Beach. (To avoid having to pay for parking, park your car near Seventh Avenue and Eaton Street). Start your ride between Schawns Lagoon and Twin Lakes Beach, and ride all the way down East Cliff until you reach Capitola Village. This ride is 4 miles one way. For extra fun, pack some towels, sand toys and swimsuits, and hang out at the beach before turning around. We sometimes like to stop at on Stockton Street for $1 ice cream cones! Practically free—works for me (and my kids).
Nature walk at Neary Lagoon: Neary Lagoon is in the middle of Santa Cruz—an unlikely place for a wetland habitat—and it makes an excellent free adventure for a family with little ones. The habitat is designed to preserve this wetland area, as well as enhance viewing of local wetland ecosystems and animals.
The Lagoon is paired with the Neary Lagoon Park, which boasts a playground, tennis courts and picnic tables where you can stop and have a nice brown-bag lunch after touring the preserve on the paved footpaths. Park on Bay Avenue a couple blocks up from West Cliff to avoid having to pay for parking.
Easy mountain bike ride at Arana Gulch: This is another one of my family’s favorite activities, because it’s fun and free! Arana Gulch is a greenbelt area near the Upper Santa Cruz Harbor. This pristine space includes open meadows, trails for hikers and bikers and access to Frederick Street Park—a cute little park nestled on a dead-end street with amazing views of the upper harbor.
After a bike ride on the trails, stop at the park and refuel with lunch while watching the boats come in and out of the harbor while the little one’s play. There is a fenced toddler-park and a large park for older kids. There is also a large grassy field for playing chase, soccer, catch or if you prefer, just relaxing in the sun. For easy access to Arana Gulch, park at the upper harbor near Seventh Avenue and Brommer Street.
Make your own track meet: Most parents would never consider this as an option when searching for free entertainment, but you’d be surprised how much fun your kids can have on a track.
Pack a few props the kids can use while out on the track—relay sticks, balls, cones and yard sticks (if you have them). The relay sticks may obviously be used as a hand-off tool from one child to the next during relay games, the cones can be set up so the kids will have to run through them (building coordination and agility), and the yard sticks can be placed on top of the cones to create mini-hurdles.
Get creative and have fun with this idea—chase your kids around the track or on the infield, let them chase you or bring some balls to kick around. There are several tracks in the Santa Cruz area, but I like to use the track at because it has a soft, rubberized track that is easier on the knees if the kiddos fall while running and playing. Plus, these tracks are so springy, the kids get quite a kick out of the extra propulsion they experience while running on this type of material.
Whatever activity you choose for your family outing, remain flexible, have fun and accept whatever change and challenges come your way. Remember, what matters most is the quality time spent with your children—not the actual activity. Whether at the beach picking up trash, or sitting on a grassy field having a picnic—your kids will remember these moments, so cherish them.