A Guide to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

Twilight at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
Twilight at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Thomas Hawk/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

For a slice of American pie, you can't beat the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. It's a classic seaside amusement park, one of only about two dozen such places still in operation and the largest on the West Coast.

Open since 1907; the entire amusement park is a California Historic Landmark. The 1911 Looff Carousel and the 1924 Giant Dipper wooden roller coaster are registered National Historic Landmarks on their own.

Don't get the wrong idea, though. Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk isn't some musty, dying attraction. In fact, it's as popular as ever, and it was named “Best Seaside Amusement Park” by Amusement Today magazine in 2018. And despite the fact that it's more than a hundred years old, the park still gets high ratings from online reviewers who love its combination of new rides and old-fashioned charm.

The boardwalk's most popular rides are the Giant Dipper, the Carousel and Double Shot, a tower ride that offers panoramic views before dropping you 125 feet. The Haunted Castle, an amped-up version of the old-fashioned house of horrors lurks in the basement below the Boardwalk itself.

You'll also find games and arcades, miniature golf, laser tag, shopping, restaurants, and fast food stands. If you want a good scare try, Fright Walk under the boardwalk, a haunted maze that will scare the cotton candy out of you. Free Movies on the Beach happen on summer Wednesday nights. Free concerts are held on summer Friday nights.

If the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk looks familiar, it has graced the silver screen in the classic movie The Lost Boys, Transformers Bumblebee, and most recently Jordan Peele's horror film US.

What You Need to Know

One of the unique things about the Boardwalk is that is doesn't charge an admission fee.

They offer several ticket options, ranging from single ride tickets to unlimited all-day or season passes. 

Allow at least a few hours, and even up to all day long. The best time to visit If you want to avoid crowds is going in spring or fall, but for the maximum fun, summer is the only alternative. Hours vary seasonally. For current hours visit their website.

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk Tips

  • Some rides have height limits, and on others, small children (under 34 inches tall) can ride free with a paying chaperone.
  • Some of the junk food treats that people love most at the boardwalk include fried strawberry cheesecake, salt water taffy, and garlic fries. And pretty much anything else that's fried.
  • When you're going to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, pack your bag as if you're spending the day at the beach. Bring hats, sunglasses, sunscreen, water and so on.
  • If you want to spend part of the day splashing in the ocean, you can pay a few dollars to rent a locker to store your belongings or change of clothes.
  • Leave Bowser at home unless he's a service dog. Pets are not allowed on the boardwalk.
  • If you're on a tight budget, bring a picnic lunch and buy as many tickets as you can afford, then let the kids figure out how to budget their fun.
  • The boardwalk is especially pretty at night. Instead of trying to get there before everyone else, go out in the early afternoon, stay after sunset and avoid the worst traffic as a bonus.
  • For free movies or concerts, plan to get there early. It is first to come first serve, and spots go pretty quick. Pack a picnic and stake out your spot on the sand.

Getting There

By automobile, take CA Highway 17 or CA Highway 1 to Santa Cruz and follow the street signs to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Traffic on CA Highway 17 builds up to tantrum-provoking levels on weekends; get an early start to avoid inching across the summit or wait until the traffic clears up and go in the afternoon.

Street parking near the Boardwalk is scarce, metered and has short time limits. You're better off just to park in the big lots (for a fee) nearby. Think of the parking fee as a substitute for admission, and maybe you'll feel better about it.

From downtown San Jose, you can also take the Highway 17 Express bus which connects to Caltrain, making it possible to get all the way to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk from San Francisco.

If You Liked the Boardwalk

You may also like Belmont Park, on San Diego's Mission Bay — or the Santa Monica Pier where you'll find the third of California's three remaining beachside amusement parks.