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Arches, Beaches, and Butterflies in Santa Cruz, California

This article was first published in The Epoch Times on November 15, 2022.

On a sunny Autumn day in Santa Cruz, California, my friend and I walked the paved path along West Cliff Drive. Our route lay between Natural Bridges State Park to the west and the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse to the east. During our four mile out-and-back walk, we viewed sandstone arches, beautiful beaches, and wintering Monarch Butterflies.

Map of the West Cliff Drive walking/biking route, courtesy of Google Maps.

We parked for free on Delaware Avenue, located behind the Monarch Butterfly preserve of Natural Bridges State Park. Taking a path through the eucalyptus trees, we met a young man picking up trash. He wore a green vest and looked official. My friend thanked him, and he explained that he didn’t work for the city.

“So you do it for yourself,” she said.

“I do it for the ocean,” he corrected her, “because where would the earth be if everyone was selfish?”

Natural Bridges State Beach

Our first stop was to view the “natural bridge” at Natural Bridges State Beach. The bridge is actually an arch, the only one left of the original three. Wind and waves first carved three caves from a sandstone cliff that extended into the sea. Over time the caves eroded to arches. One collapsed in the early 1900’s, and the second collapsed during a storm in 1980. The remaining middle arch can only be viewed by walking down to the beach and looking toward your left.

The last of three natural bridges on Natural Bridges State Beach.

The beach itself is beautiful with white sand, a small estuary, and tide pools. Take care when you explore the tide pools. As the tide comes in, waves often break high upon the rocks, drenching visitors, or worse. Years ago, my son jumped down into a natural rock grotto that forms there when the tide is low. He couldn’t get back out and the tide was coming in fast. Luckily, he had a friend there who pulled him back out again.

The estuary and tide pools lie at the far end of Natural Bridges State Beach.
Waves splash onto the rocks above covered tide pools at Natural Bridges State Beach.

The Views Along West Cliff Drive

Rhode Island may have its Cliff Walk and mansions, but the Santa Cruz cliff walk has white-sand beaches, charming homes, and interesting locals. We shared the path with walkers, strollers, and bikers. Everyone was polite.

The paved walking path lies next to the guard rails along West Cliff Drive.

Our view out toward the incredibly blue ocean included fishermen, kayakers, dogs with their people, and a feeding frenzy of brown pelicans that were dive-bombing fish. There was something to see every minute.

Dog-friendly Its Beach ends just before the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse.
Brown pelicans dive bomb fish in a feeding frenzy off West Cliff Drive.

A Local Coffee House

The surfing museum was late to open, so my friend took me beyond it to a local secret: The Shrine Coffee House located on the grounds of the Shrine of St. Joseph Church. You would never know the cafe is there, because it is at the far end of the church parking lot. They have a nice indoor/outdoor seating area with a tile fountain, and the coffee is delicious.

The Shrine of St. Joseph Church at 544 West Cliff Drive.
The peaceful patio of the Shrine Coffee House tempts visitors to stay a while.

The Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse

After our coffee, we walked back to the surfing museum, which is located inside a tiny lighthouse. The working lighthouse is a memorial to an eighteen-year-old man who drowned, on February 28, 1965, while bodysurfing near Pleasure Point in Santa Cruz County. Mark’s parents had the lighthouse built in his memory and buried his ashes at the base of the lantern-room tower. A plaque and statue indicating his remains can be seen inside the surfing museum.

The Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse is also the home of the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum.

Surfers are also honored in an informal memorial located above the Steamer Lane surf spot. Though most of them did not die in the ocean, their family and friends have chosen to remember these loved ones by their passion for surfing.

A memorial to deceased surfers located above Steamer Lane on W. Cliff Drive.

The Santa Cruz Surfing Museum

If you want to learn about the history of surfing, be sure to visit the little surfing museum located inside the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse. The museum mostly contains wall panels of photographs–organized by decade–and some impressive surfboards from the past.

A wall of photographs and surfboards inside the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum.

The Monarch Butterfly Preserve

The monarch butterflies sheltering at Natural Bridges State Park only fly about if the temperature is at least 55 degrees. To give the day time to warm up, my friend and I delayed viewing the butterflies until we’d returned from our walk, around 1 pm.

The visitor center at Natural Bridges is a popular destination for school field trips.

There is a nice visitor center and gift shop at the entrance to Natural Bridges State Park. Behind it, a boardwalk path winds down to the butterfly preserve. Each fall, from October to mid-February, thousands of monarch butterflies shelter in the eucalyptus grove located within this canyon (ironically, eucalyptus trees are actually invasive plants). They only leave the trees to get their fill of nectar.

Monarch Butterflies stretch their wings as the day warms up.

Monarch butterflies migrate from across the western United States and Canada to coastal shelters up and down California and northern Baja California. Sometime in January or February, the monarchs begin migrating back from the California coast to the eastern Sierra Nevada’s and the Rocky Mountain foothills. They complete this journey over five butterfly generations.

Migration path of Monarch Butterflies, photo from the Natural Bridges State Park brochure.

The monarch butterfly’s life-span can last anywhere from two weeks to nine months. Each generation lays their eggs on milkweed. Those eggs become caterpillars, which become butterflies that travel even further inland. The fifth and last generation of this epic migration travels all the way back from western habitats to the California coast–the place where their great-great grandparents originated. This is the generation that can live for nine months. It is incredible when you think that these monarch butterflies are migrating to areas they have never seen.

To keep from being blown away, Monarch Butterflies intertwine their legs together.

Viewing the Butterflies

If you visit the Monarch Butterfly preserve, be sure to bring a good camera or binoculars. The butterflies shelter high up in the trees, beyond the reach of a smartphone.

After I had finished photographing some of them (using a tripod and zoom lens), I told my friend there was one more thing I wanted to do. She waited patiently as I laid down on the deck, hat behind my head, and looked skyward. Hundreds of butterflies, lit by the sun, fluttered high overhead. Others clustered together for warmth. I highly recommend taking the time to be quiet and just enjoy watching the butterflies.

 

5 Comments

  1. Jeannine Jeannine

    Hi Karen,
    Thank you for sharing your beautiful photographs and adventures of your very special day in Santa Cruz. So many favorite things, places and experiences all strung together and shared with a friend. It doesn’t get much better than that!
    Your photo of the Monarch butterflies linking their legs together so as not to be blown away blew me away! I love thé wonder of nature. Thanks again for a lovely article and to Tish, for her contributions.
    Jeannine

    • KarenGough KarenGough

      Thanks so much for your thoughts Jeannine. I always love your comments!

      • Jeannine Jeannine

        The pleasure is all mine. [Insert happy face emoji.]

  2. Tish Bertino Tish Bertino

    Karen ,
    So glad I was “the friend” who joined you on this adventure with the butterflies and surfing museum. What a fun day! Thank you for that and sharing your experience with others!! Great article and photos.
    Tish

    • KarenGough KarenGough

      Thank you Tish! It wouldn’t have been nearly as fun without you.

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