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A COVID-Cautious Vacation in Santa Cruz
By Katherine Gerster
Posted on 7/26/2021 10:44 AM

To keep our unvaccinated kids safe, we opted for a local vacation this year, and headed to Santa Cruz for a week of beach fun and exploration. While we were sad to miss our annual family trip to the East Coast, it was fun to discover what’s in our backyard (silver linings!).


Here are the sites and activities we enjoyed, with notes on what we found in terms of COVID safety. At just over an hour’s drive away, you could tackle one or two of them in a day trip.



Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park

Felton, CA

 This state park, within an hour’s drive of Burlingame, is an undiscovered gem. Just a short walk from the trailhead, you enter a beautiful redwood grove. There are several trails to choose from, making this stop modifiable for the youngest hikers, or more challenging for a sportier group.


My kids especially enjoyed playing in the stream that flows through the park, which you can access at several points. Easy, free parking, and very quiet trails. Be sure to wear long pants, as poison oak is rampant!



Capitola Beach

Capitola, CA

 Though it’s just south of Santa Cruz, Capitola has a totally different vibe. It’s a small beach town, a bit more upscale, with a distinctive line of colorful buildings along the shore. The beach adjoins a pleasant commercial area with restaurants, cafes, and beach shopping. We visited on a weekday and found it quiet, though it can be quite busy on sunny weekend days.


Bring your sand toys, stay for a while on the beach, and wander into town for lunch. For more scenic views, head to the wharf, which is a short walk away.


Shadowbrook Restaurant

Capitola, CA

 As a parent, I’ve found that it’s rare to find a restaurant that equally delights both grown-ups and kids. This restaurant, though, fits the bill. Everyone in our party loved the food (they have a wonderful kids menu, which includes Shirley Temples and an ice cream sundae), and we all felt enchanted by the ambiance. The restaurant is located at the bottom of a steep hillside, and to access it, you take a glass elevator tram through a marvelously landscaped with flowering plants. That alone is worth the trip!


It’s on the pricier side—entrees ranged from $25-$35—and note that there is a dress code (don’t worry, suit coats aren’t required—but no beachwear is allowed). Be sure to make your reservation at least several days in advance.



Santa Cruz Boardwalk

Santa Cruz, CA

 I don’t want to be a killjoy, but the Boardwalk is a little dicey for those who are being COVID-cautious. There were throngs of people crowded together tightly—many of them maskless and clearly too young to be vaccinated. Though numerous signs insisted that masks were required of the unvaccinated, this rule was unenforced, and no obvious effort was made to allow for social distancing or cap the number of visitors to the area.


Though we found the COVID risk concerning, we stayed for a few rides, having sunk $20 for parking. My seven-year-old was thrilled to win a prize in a ball-throw game, after successfully smashing two plates (to him, this was the highlight of our entire trip). My two-year-old enjoyed the two rides that she qualified for with a chaperone. We will happily return to the Boardwalk next year, when hopefully the pandemic will have died down.



Roaring Camp Railroad

Felton, CA

 We’ve heard raves about this stop in Felton—a 1.5-hour ride on an antique steam train—and it didn’t disappoint. Surprisingly, it was a bigger hit for the adults than for our kids, who were the intended audience in our party. My two-year-old daughter complained that the train was much too loud (we should have gotten in the car at the back, or brought headphones for her) and my seven-year-old thought it was too long. That said, my husband and I were utterly charmed by the antique engine and the journey through a canopy of redwoods. We thought it was well worth the trip! Everyone masks up on the train ride, and while there's not much space in between families, we felt like the outdoor nature of this event made it relatively COVID-safe. 


Be sure to purchase your tickets several days ahead of time, as the tickets routinely sell out in advance.