Santa Cruz with the Sprinter Van

Anyone who has driven in a beach town can understand the difficulties of “clearance” when driving a larger vehicle. Parking an extended wheel base Sprinter Van can be difficult and that alone can cause anxiety when planning trip. This short little post is here to save you from the headaches of trying to plan out where to go. We consider locating safe parking, and how to maximize a short road trip with your Sprinter Van.

Our Sprinter Van is a 170″ extended wheel base, with 4×4 and a roof rack. I also added a hitch mount step bumper to make it easier to climb in and out of the back. Roof clearance is roughly 10′ and does not fit in most parking garages. This becomes a big issue when trying to plan out road trip activities.

Where to Stay?

Lets be honest, camping in the van is not really an option with 3 kids. This limits the choices to the area hotels. Hotels often have limited parking, low clearance, or worse, a parking garage with underground parking. A large Sprinter Van has no business parking in a garage or underground. You likely won’t clear the overhead. It should make sense to limit options to places with ground level parking with no major overhead structure like an archway I have to drive through.

The next big consideration is remembering that gas is EXPENSIVE. This means we look for a place that offers certain entertainment within walking distance. Walking distance for kids, not adults. The distance should be easily walkable round trip, plus any activities you are planning. If you over estimate their ability to walk after a long day of playing, guess who gets to carry them back to the hotel… Alternatively, you could enjoy the melodic sound of constant whining and extend the time it takes to walk back as they flail around on the ground during a total meltdown.

What to Do?

The activities should be well defined prior to leaving your home. It is critical to identify what you are wanting to do on your adventure. For my family and I, we love to do outdoor activities. We had our van built out like an RV. Most of the features are geared toward the actual road trip portion and less about living in the vehicle.

It may seem counter intuitive to some as to why I purchased an “RV” when I plan on staying in a hotel. The RV doubles for the day trip adventures and acts as a base of operations. The RV setup allows for us to shower and change out for multiple activities without returning to the hotel when needed. It was more important for things like a roof rack for surfboards and other equipment as well as having running water to hose down the kids before strapping them in for the next stop.

Our chosen activities vary quite a bit. Santa Cruz offers so many things to do that it can be difficult to plan. We opted to do some hiking, hang out at the beach, and let the kids play at the boardwalk. Our plan was to drive up Friday, do everything on Saturday, and then leisurely cruise down the coast on Sunday. We really wanted to make a bunch of stops and take in the sights along the California coast.

Pulling it all together

Needs include:

  1. Large ground level parking with easy access for 170″ sprinter van
  2. Walking distance to downtown and the boardwalk
  3. enough space for the entire family to comfortably sleep
  4. Pool for the kids
  5. hot tub for adults
  6. short drive to great hiking areas

Based on our needs and the budget for the trip, we stayed at Hotel Solares.

Hotel Solares

This hotel can be a bit “overpriced” if you are expecting luxury amenities like breakfast and room service. It makes up for the price based on decent sized rooms and the location alone. It is located central to downtown and the boardwalk. The parking is an L-shaped open lot that is fenced and gated at night. There is some available street parking which is free. Our van fit perfectly in the lot. We were able to find a spot near the back of the lot and backed into the spot to make for an easier escape in the morning. Credit to google earth for the screen shot –

The hotel is only a short walk to the boardwalk and the kids made it there and back without a single complaint.

Santa Cruz Boardwalk

The Santa Cruz Boardwalk is an iconic location and super fun with your kids.

They have tons of smaller rides the kids can enjoy as well as a decent arcade. This was our first trip to the boardwalk with kids. They gravitated towards the games and to be honest, playing several pinball machines with them was very nostalgic to those old pizza parlors we all remember growing up in.

boardwalk arcade

Jen and the kids loved playing on the air hockey tables. I loved the fact that they sold beer next to them. I was able to snag this photo while waiting in line for a cold one… Nothing beats watching your kids have fun like watching them do it from a bar… I sometimes wonder if elementary schools would boost parent attendance at school functions if they just put in a bar for us dads to sit at, but I digress. The kids absolutely LOVED going to the boardwalk.

The Beaches

From Hotel Solares, you “could” walk to the main beach and possibly to cowels. However, Santa Cruz offers some of the best secluded beaches and the feeling of being on a real adventure if you are willing to drive to them. Of these beaches, I highly recommend “4 mile”. If you also read my prior post about Swamis you will appreciate the fact that 4 mile beach has a very similar feel to the point at Swamis.

Heading north on highway 1 from town, you will look for the parking on the left side of the road. The beach will not be visible from the road so you will have to take some leap of faith to know there is an amazing beach a short walk away. Make sure you lock up the Sprinter Van or whatever you are driving, and keep those valuables out of sight.

The northern side of the beach has a rocky point with some great surf at low tide. The southern end of the beach is sandy and also great for hanging out. There are some small cliffs and a trail to walk with amazing views. There is a nice tree with some stumps to sit on and also a perfect picnic spot. If you walk along the cliff trail to the south, you can access 3 mile beach. Personally, I prefer the surf at 3 mile, but it is not as family friendly for kids to hang out on the beach.

Hiking in the Woods

After a morning at the beach, we decided to head up Highway 9 into the redwoods for a quick hike down to the san Lorenzo river. There are several things to see here depending on your desired hike. With smaller kids, like our 2 year old Alex, it is easier to stick to the shorter trails and let them explore a bit on their own.

Heading north on highway 9 there is a large parking area just outside of town. I honestly try to skip this one because it gets pretty crowded during the summer and the weekends. It is a nice downhill hike to the river but it is important to remember you have to go back up that hill at some point. Kids don’t always do well with a long uphill climb after playing all day at the river. Instead, we like to park a little further down the road closer to felton. Specifically, there is a large turnout on the right side of the road. The trailhead has a large gate to stop vehicles from heading down it, but has a walking path right next to it.

From this trailhead you can walk straight to the train tracks and also see the bridge that goes over the river. There are shallow sections of the river that are really fun for the kids to splash in and have some fun. The hike down to the water should only take you a few minutes. This is very doable for the little ones, although, you feel like you are on a real adventure. We always spend time hunting for banana slugs and teaching the kids how to utilize landmarks to find their way back to certain locations.

Keeping Everyone Happy

These activities are great for keeping things moving for the little ones. It is enough physical activity to wear them out in addition to giving them some memorable experiences. The trick to a good trip is to keep them interested. Often times this requires switching activities before they become disinterested.

As adults, we can stay focused on one activity, like a full day of hiking through the redwoods or hanging on the beach. Kids on the other hand get a little on the whinny side after a few hours of any one thing. If you have a weekend and you are wanting to get outside, this is the perfect set of things to do and it is relatively cheap.

Budgeting for success:

  • Hotel cost: $500-$600 per night (we stayed Friday/saturday nights)
    • This seems like a hefty price tag on first glance. When you factor in the alternative for a cheaper hotel further away, the ancillary costs will add up quickly. There are cheaper hotels in the immediate area but they had issues with parking or the rooms were just too small for all of us.
  • Gas prices:
    • Depends on your vehicle and your driving habits. I drive like an old man and rely on cruise control to maintain speed. I average about 16-18mpg in our sprinter. It is a Diesel engine which as of the time of writing this, it is roughly $6.50/gallon, and we have a 27 gallon tank. This is the biggest limiting factor for our budget and also why a hotel that allows us to walk more places is important.
    • I do not mind driving a bigger vehicle. I view the gas price as a premium for my own sanity. Road tripping in a compact vehicle is not only uncomfortable, but also detracts from the purpose of spending time together. Our van gives us the ability to watch movies, play video games, have a picnic, or play board games with the kids. It is exceedingly tough to do this if everyone is cramped and also uncomfortable.
  • Parking: Although parking is free at all of these locations, some places can be difficult to find a spot.
  • Food: RV set up allows for us to bring the usual quick items from home. We did order a pizza on Saturday night and ate it by the pool with the kids. Otherwise, there was no additional cost because we would still have to eat at home.
  • Activities:
    • Beaches are free
    • Hiking is free
    • Swimming also free
    • Boardwalk entertainment depends on your involvement. Our kids mostly wanted to play air hockey and pinball with us. I think we spent roughly $100 total on everything. This includes the cotton candy, hot dogs, fries, and we mostly drank water. I had a couple beers with Jen, but again I count that as a wash. I would have had a few beers or a bottle of wine with Jen at home anyway.

Final Thoughts

Total estimated cost of the weekend: Hotel + Gas + entertainment = $1100 + $700 + $200 = $2000.
You could spend $2000 on airfare alone for a trip for two. Instead, why not spend that money on a memorable time with your family and take a road trip.

Do yourself a favor and stock up on snacks/drinks for the road trip and picnics from your favorite grocery store. I would shamelessly plug one if I had one that would sponsor some content, but any store will do. Load up your Sprinter or whatever you have and head to Santa Cruz. Consider staying at Hotel Solares due to its central location and decent Sprinter Van friendly parking, and spend the weekend exploring the area. If you find anything new, drop us a line on it and we will check it out.


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