15 Fun Dog-Friendly Activities in Santa Cruz, California

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dog is feeling joyful in santa cruz ca

Known for its impressive off-shore breaks for surfing and laid-back atmosphere, Santa Cruz is a fun, touristy city that attracts people from all over the globe. It is the biggest city in the county and has a population of about 63,000. Santa Cruz means Holy Cross in Spanish and was founded by Spaniards in 1791 when the missionary Fermin de Lasuen was established. 

Santa Cruz became a US city in 1866 and became a beach town with the formation of the boardwalk in 1904. There are dozens of beaches and 30+ miles of waterfront to enjoy and many are dog-friendly. You can also take your pup to one of the dozen off-leash dog parks where he can play with other unleashed pooches. 

In fact, you will find a plethora of fun, dog-friendly activities in Santa Cruz, like kayaking, hiking, train riding, and shopping. Also, there are over 35 pooch-friendly eating establishments where you and Fido can enjoy a meal together, numerous vineyards, and dozens of bars and pubs where your pup is welcome. Just remember to bring plenty of doggie bags with you wherever you go.   

Hit the Beach: Local Beaches

With more than 30 miles of oceanfront, you are bound to find one that is perfect for you and your pooch. Mitchell’s Cove Beach in southern Santa Cruz is one of the only ones that allows your pup to swim and play off the leash. However, it must be before 10 am or after 4 pm. If you are there between 10 and 4, your dog will need to be on a leash. Check the tide chart before you go because there is not much sand to enjoy during high tide.

Just seven miles east of downtown Santa Cruz, Hooper Beach is also welcoming to dogs off the leash. It is just west of Capitola Wharf and east of Trees Beach, next to Vista Point, which is a perfect spot to see the sunset. Your pup is allowed off the leash only on the western side of the pier, so keep that in mind. 

Swimming in a Pool: Sunny Cove Motel

Sunny Cove Motel is locally owned and small, so you get a personal experience every time you visit. It is right across the street from Sunny Cove Beach and has full kitchens for those who do not plan to dine out for every meal. One thing that is different here is that your fur puppy is welcome in the pool and common areas. As long as he does not get into the water, he can join you at the pool or in the barbecue area. 

It is less than three miles from the city center between Black’s Beach and Santa Maria Beach. Your cuddle buddy is allowed to join in the fun at the beach, too as long as he is leashed and you clean up after him. The cove can be a dangerous place to swim because of the rip currents, so keep your pupster close, and it is a good idea to put him in a doggie life jacket. 

Go Boating: Venture Quest

If you want to take your cuddly canine companion with you into the ocean, there are many ways to do so. You can take a guided tour like the Santa Cruz Wharf Nature Tour the Moss Landing tour to see the humpback whales, or let the staff at Venture Quest guide you to Elkhorn Slough to watch the Sea Otters. You will also get a chance to see dolphins and other sea creatures. 

As long as you put your pup in a life jacket and keep him secured, he is welcome to join you on your kayak. Another way to enjoy Venture Quest kayaks is to rent one and take it on your own excursion. That way, you and your pooch can go where you want to see what you want. Seal Rock is a great place to look, or you can cruise through the Santa Cruz Wharf and see the kelp forest at Lighthouse Point. 

Hiking with your Hound: Local Trails

Whether you are a seasoned hiker or are just starting out, you will find some fantastic trails to enjoy with your fur baby in Santa Cruz. First, in De Laveaga Park, you can meander along the easy 3.6-mile La Corona Trail if you are a beginner or enjoy a refreshing 4.1-mile moderately difficult De Laveaga Park Trail through the woods. Bring water to stay hydrated and doggie bags to pick up after your pup. 

At the Pogonip Open Space Preserve, there are several trails where your fur baby can walk unleashed. You can try the 5.7-mile Emma McCrary Trail to the U-Con Trail or the 3.1-mile Lookout Loop, with some incredible views. Also, Bonny Doon Reserve has several fun trails from one to three miles. Lighthouse Field State Beach has an easy, family-friendly trail called West Cliff Drive that is 4.1 miles and has beach access as well. 

Have a Meal with Your Mutt: Local Diners

You can enjoy the City’s Best Breakfast at the Walnut Ave Cafe, where they have crepes, eggs benedict, and huevos Mexicanos. And they have 11 different ways to serve scrambled eggs! But the best part is that they have a doggie menu where everything is under a dollar! He can get bacon, an organic dog biscuit, or a chicken chewy. Or you can have the city’s best burger at one of the Betty Burger’s four locations. They also have hot dogs, fries, and onion rings. 

For a nice dinner, take your pooch to Gabriella, where the menu changes with the seasons. Some of the delicious dinner items you can enjoy include Bigoli Co. spaghetti, truffle mushroom ravioli, lamb meatballs, or a New York steak. They also have chicken breast, duck confit, and pan-roasted halibut. For dessert, Marianne’s Ice Cream is just waiting to serve you. There are an unbelievable 105 flavors, including horchata, cardamom pistachio, and licorice. And your pup can have a scoop of vanilla on the house. 

Have a Picnic: Local Parks

One of the largest parks with picnic areas is Harvey West Park right in downtown Santa Cruz. It has 50 acres of space that includes ballfields, playgrounds, bocce ball, a bike track, and about 100 picnic tables with barbecue pits. Your pup has to stay on a leash at all times, and you need to bring clean-up baggies to pick up after him. Another popular picnic park is Ocean View Park near the San Lorenzo River. Besides all the picnic spots, playgrounds, and open space, it even has a dog park. 

Los Gatos Creek County Park is a perfect spot for a picnic and can be found 20 miles to the northeast of Santa Cruz in Campbell. Besides the creek (sniffing, splashing, and exploring), there are also six different ponds. There are also quite a few picnic tables with barbecue pits, water, and restrooms. This park even has an off-leash dog area where your pooch can run around off the leash.  

Ride a Train: Billy Jones or Roaring Camp Railroad

Believe it or not, there are actually two different railroads that allow dogs in Santa Cruz. The first one is the Billy Jones Wildcat Railroad at Oak Meadow Park just south of Los Gatos Creek County Park. For only three dollars per person, you can enjoy a ride on the Billy Jones Wildcat Train through both Oak Meadow and Vasona Parks. They also have a carousel you can ride. Sometimes, they have special events like the Holiday Train and Pumpkin Train as well. 

Roaring Camp Railroads is just six miles north of Santa Cruz in the northern section of Henry Cowell Redwoods Park. They have two trains. The Redwood Forest Steam Train lasts 75 minutes and takes you through the woods to Bear Mountain. The Santa Cruz Beach Train is a one-hour ride during the spring and summer where you and Fido can go through a tunnel and across a steel truss bridge. 

Let Him Be a Dog: Local Dog Parks

The closest park to downtown Santa Cruz is Grant Park, which is just 1.3 miles to the northeast. It has a huge fenced area where your little one can get off the leash and run around with other pooches. There are benches for the pup parents, water for the dogs, and plenty of space for a game of fetch. Pacheco Dog Park is just a few more miles to the northeast, just south of De Laveaga Park. It is fully fenced with shade and benches. 

University Terrace Dog Park is just 1.8 miles west of downtown Santa Cruz in the southwestern corner of University Terrace Park. The fully fenced pup play area is separated for large and small dogs and has shaded seating and water fountains. Frederick Street Park is only 2.3 miles to the southeast by Wood’s Lagoon. It has two sections. One for small dogs under 25 pounds and the other for all dogs. There are shade structures and lots of seating options as well as water fountains and doggie bag dispensers. 

Sip Some Wine: Local Wineries and Vineyards

Even though your fur puppy cannot drink wine, he can tag along with you when you visit the gorgeous vineyards of Central California. Windy Oaks Estate Wineries is one of those dog-friendly places where they make you feel welcome no matter who you are and where you are from. The grapes grown in Santa Cruz have a more crisp and refreshing taste than those grown in warmer climates, giving their wine a uniquely delicate flavor. 

Soquel Vineyards is another pup-friendly place to enjoy some local wine. The small winery is family-owned and operated, making small batches of delicious wine along the coast of the Pacific Ocean. The family loves dogs. In fact, you may see several of their fur babies hanging around the vineyard. Just keep your canine companion on a leash and clean up after him, and he is welcome to join you in your wine-tasting journey. Be sure to pack some doggie bags and extra water.

Explore the Woods: Portola Redwoods State Park

With almost 3,000 acres of redwood forest, you and your pupster will find plenty of trails to stay busy for a whole day of hiking at Portola Redwoods State Park. There are, in fact, 18 miles of trails to explore along creeks and over the hills, with several pretty waterfalls and meadows full of wildflowers. The easiest trail is the ½ mile Old Tree Trail, which only takes about 15 minutes. There is another one about ¾ of a mile, which starts at the park headquarters and takes you along the Pescadero Creek. 

For more of a challenge, try the three-mile Slate Creek Trail. It takes you to the Page Mill site. For expert hikers and dogs in excellent health, there is the 13-mile Bear Creek Trail that takes you to Peters Creek Trail. There are a lot of creeks running throughout the redwoods. They even have a campground with over 50 sites that are dog-friendly. Just remember to bring water and poop bags. 

Tour the City: Los Gatos Historical Walking Tour

If you want to learn something on your tour, take the Los Gatos Historical Walking Tour. They actually have several different ones led by different guides. One of them is the history walk that has the local residents wearing period clothing and acting out parts to entertain and educate the public. There are three from LOST Gatos: The Heart of Los Gatos (12 stops), Los Gatos: The Gem City (12 stops), and The Cradle of Los Gatos (13 stops). They are self-guided tours using an app on your phone and they are completely free. 

Another one you may like is the Historical Walking Tour & Wine with Rachel. It takes about 2.5 hours to complete and includes a detailed narrative about the city. Starting at the high school, you learn about the gold rush, the Loma Prieta earthquake, and the Lexington Reservoir. You will end at the historic winery that was started by Jesuit monks. Bring water for Fido and cleanup bags to pick up anything he drops. 

Have a Brew or Two: Local Breweries

Why go to a bar to drink beer when you can get a fresh brew from a brewery or craft beer house? Not only do you get the freshest beer possible, but they also welcome your fur baby at many of the breweries that have beer gardens and patios. Beer Thirty Bottle Shop & Pour House in east Santa Cruz is conveniently located at the intersection of Highway 1 and Bay Avenue. They have 300 kinds of beer, outdoor games, and a food truck for those who get hungry.  

In downtown Santa Cruz near the San Lorenzo River, the Lupulo Craft Beer House is another pup popular spot to enjoy the local brews. They have over a dozen unique craft beers, from light ales to dark brews. They also have Mediterranean cuisine and a patio where pups are welcome. Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing is another fun place to bring your pooch. Located in western Santa Cruz off Highway 1, they have a dog-friendly beer garden right outside the brewery.

Get a Groom: Local Groomers

You want to look your best all the time, so why should your fur baby be any different? You know how relaxed and refreshed you feel after a day at the spa. Take him to one of the local groomers so he can get that experience. Having a coat full of clean fur makes your canine companion feel great. There are several of them in Santa Cruz that will make your dog feel like a million bucks!

The Whole Kitten Caboodle may not sound like an ideal place for dogs, but they do both cats and dogs. Every bath comes with a nail trim, ear cleaning, and styling. A haircut includes all that, plus a cut and style. You can also get your pup’s teeth brushed, a nail dremel, or a shedless treatment. Shampoochez is another pup favorite on Soquel Avenue. They will make your fur baby look and feel like a movie star. 

Camp Under the Stars: Local Campgrounds

Camping with your cuddle buddy is a bonding experience you cannot get from staying at a hotel. No matter how dog-friendly a hotel is, many of them only allow your pup in the room. When you go camping, your fur baby has more freedom to run around and play. Just down the coast a few miles, Santa Cruz KOA is right between Manresa State Beach and Ellicott Slough National Wildlife Refuge. They have 200+ sites with a pool, wi-fi, cable TV, sauna, playgrounds, outdoor movies, a general store, showers, and a dog park. 

If you want to be closer to the water, check out Manresa Uplands State Beach & Campground. They are for tents only, so you cannot bring an RV here. Also, they only have 64 sites so be sure to book your spot well in advance if you want to stay here. Pups are welcome as long as they are leashed, and you can even take them on the trails and to the beach. 

Activity Watercolor Ocean Art

For something completely different, join Anastasiya for a day of painting. Even if you have never picked up a paintbrush in your life, she can help you make a stunning ocean painting. She makes her own paint made from all-natural ingredients as well as artist-quality paper and brushes. Your fur baby is welcome in the class with you as long as he is well-behaved and leashed the whole time. 

Bring along a supply of doggie cleanup baggies, and make sure you take him outside if he has to go. The class is for beginners, so Anastasiya will take you through an easy process going step by step. The seascape varies from day to day, so the paintings will too. That means you can do it more than once to make several different paintings. Take them home and hang them on your wall as a souvenir reminder of your fun day with your fur baby. 

The Final Woof

With so many enjoyable activities to embrace while you are in town, you may have to extend your stay or plan another trip. Whether you want to go swimming in a pool or at the beach, take a kayak tour to see the whales, or just watch your pup play at the dog park with other fur babies, you can do all that in one day. You can also take him on a hike through the woods or through the city, enjoy a meal at one of the dog-friendly restaurants, or try some local beer and wine. After all the fun, take him to the groomer to get a bath and a new hairdo. 

Photo of author
Patty Oelze is a freelance writer who is also in the process of getting her PhD in Psychology. She has been writing about dogs and other critters for about 10 years and has a plethora of animals at her home including several cats, some chipmunks, a dozen raccoons, two foxes, one coyote, and herds of deer. She and her husband have been living in the Missouri Ozarks for years where she enjoys taking care of wildlife, fishing, photography, boating, and of course, writing.

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