One Of The World's Best Seaside Parks Is In This Vibrant California City

Located along California's Central Coast at the heart of Monterey Bay, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk has been a vacation destination for over 100 years. Founded in 1907, it's not the oldest amusement park in the U.S., but it is the oldest in California and the only remaining park like it along the West Coast. Right on the beach, it's free to enter (though rides and food have a cost), and it features over 40 rides for the whole family. 


Even if you haven't visited the Boardwalk, you may recognize it. It has appeared as a California beach film location, serving as the setting for, among others, the 1980s cult classic "The Lost Boys" and Jordan Peele's 2019 movie "Us." The Boardwalk's best-known and most popular ride is the iconic Giant Dipper — a red and white wooden roller coaster built in 1924. (Don't worry, all the wooden parts have been replaced over the years). Constructed during the golden age of roller coasters, it's an exhilarating ride with speeds up to 55 mph, 180-degree turns, and incredible views over Monterey Bay.

To get a sense of the depth of history at the Boardwalk, we spoke to Kris Reyes, Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk spokesperson, about the Giant Dipper and the Boardwalk. Reyes pointed out that as old as the wooden roller coaster is, it wasn't even the first roller coaster at the park. That honor went to "the LA Thompson Scenic Railway [which] opened in 1908 and cost ten cents to ride, five cents for kids. Riders traveled at 25mph, which was much faster than the 10mph speed limit on Santa Cruz city streets!"


Historic rides, yummy food, and fun events at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

The scenic railway from 1908 may no longer be there, but the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk has the Looff Carousel (pictured) from 1911, its oldest ride. Renowned carousel maker Charles I. D. Looff designed the 73 hand-carved horses, and antique band organs accompany the ride. For some additional excitement, choose a horse on the outside so you can grab a steel ring from a dispenser and then try to throw it into the clown's mouth. It's harder than it looks!


While the carousel and roller coaster became National Historic Landmarks in 1987, other Boardwalk rides also combine history and fun. Cave Train, a dark ride through a "prehistoric" cave village, first opened in the 1960s. Neptune's Kingdom, the indoor mini-golf course, was once a pool, and the 1,000-foot-long Sky Glider that gives you unbeatable Boardwalk and ocean views has run for over five decades. Along with the nostalgic rides, the park gets new ones every few years or so.

The Boardwalk has more than rides, though. It sells tasty treats like corn dogs, funnel cakes, clam chowder, and more; for those 21+, it offers local craft beers. During summer, there are free daily events, including movies and live music. Off-season, it's home to popular events like the annual chili cook-off, and the place gets decked out for the holidays. For an in-depth perspective of the legendary amusement park, the Santa Cruz Parks & Recreation Department hosts behind-the-scenes tours a couple of times a year.


Where to stay in Santa Cruz

If you'd like to explore more of Santa Cruz and want a peaceful escape from the Boardwalk bustle after a long day of hitting the rides, check out the Chaminade Resort & Spa. It's tucked up on a hillside amidst a redwood forest and an easy 15-minute drive down to the Boardwalk. The 156 guest rooms feature historic photos of the Boardwalk, and the resort has a large pool, hot tubs, tennis and pickleball courts, and a spa. On a clear day, it's apparent how The View restaurant got its name — you can see all the way to the coast.


If your Santa Cruz vacation is focused primarily on the Boardwalk, get a room at the Dream Inn Santa Cruz. The hotel, with its vibrant, retro-inspired decor, is right on the popular Cowell Beach — pack your beach gear — next to the also iconic Santa Cruz Wharf and less than half a mile to the Boardwalk. All 165 guest rooms have beach views. The inn features a heated pool and hot tub, and it's home to the Jack O'Neill Restaurant and Lounge, which serves locally sourced food and got its name from the surfing pioneer who lived in Santa Cruz.