Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk (credit: Laurie Jo Miller Farr)
Contemporary art, historic telescopes, California gray whales and ancient old growth redwoods are a few of the indoor and outdoor sights that are absolutely free and within easy reach of the Peninsula and South Bay from Palo Alto to Santa Cruz. As a rule, dressing in layers is essential, a full tank of gas is critical and cell phones may be out of range in some of these secluded spots. From ocean shores to mountaintops, it’s refreshing to take in these super experiences without reaching into your wallet.
Santa Cruz Wharf at 35 Pacific Ave.
Santa Cruz, CA 95060
Overlooking the ocean and operated by the National Ocean Service, admission is always free when the visitor center is open Wednesday through Sunday. The Exploration Center is an interpretive center for the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which extends along a quarter of California’s Pacific coast. Volunteers will share fascinating facts about massive whales and the tiny marine algae that live at the edge of these waters. Depending upon the time of year, you’ll see elephant seals, sea lions, sea otters, whales, dolphins and seabirds. Along the famous Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, two free nightly concerts are performed every Friday from June through September.
Cantor Arts Center
328 Lomita Drive at Museum Way
Stanford, CA 94305
Open six days a week, this fine arts museum has 24 galleries, all of which are free of admission. On Saturdays and Sundays at 1 p.m. visitors can take a free docent tour. The Cantor Arts Center is home to one of the largest collections of Auguste Rodin bronzes, including several of the most famous, such as “The Thinker,” and “The Gates of Hell.” The museum’s Rodin Sculpture Garden is always open and you can join a free walking tour on the first Sunday of each month at 2 p.m. Two special exhibitions by artists Richard Diebenkorn and Edward Hopper are open through Aug. 22, 2016.
314 Lomita Drive
Stanford, CA 94305
Admission is always free at the Peninsula’s newest museum, also located on the Stanford University campus. Opened in 2014, adjacent to the Cantor Arts Center, the collection comprises 86 contemporary artists with 121 pieces of post-World War II abstract expressionism by greats such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, Richard Diebenkorn, Philip Guston and others. The pieces have been collected by the Bay Area-based Anderson family over half a century. Free docent tours take place every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 12:30 p.m. as well as on 2:30 p.m. on the weekends. Attend an evening program on the last Thursday of the month.
7281 Mount Hamilton Road
San Jose, CA 95101
No one stumbles upon this Bay Area icon because it’s situated 4,200 feet up Mt. Hamilton via a narrow, twisted road built more than a century ago. Twenty miles east of San Jose, admission is free to the main observatory, built in 1888. Admire the 120-inch Shane reflector, one of the major telescopes University of California astronomers use to discover extrasolar planets. Find out the latest in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence via the Automated Planet Finder Telescope at Lick Observatory. Summertime evening programs and concerts require a ticket.
Big Basin Redwoods State Park
21600 Big Basin Way
Boulder Creek, CA 95006
Established in 1902, the very first state park in California has the largest span of coastal redwoods south of San Francisco, plus 80 miles of trails through elevations from sea level to 2,000 feet. Hikes provide a look at waterfalls, wildlife and bird life through a variety of environments and micro-climates. Trail information is free, and although there’s a parking fee of $10, the ranger can direct you to alternative parking areas that are free. Even moderate day hikes can take hours — the park is vast at 18,000 acres — so plan ahead, bring plenty of water and layers of clothing.