Swimming, tidepooling, birding, picnicking and wildlife viewing on a storied Santa Cruz beach with a distinctive stone arch.
by Clark Tate
Winding above a strand of alluring beaches surrounded by craggy outcrops and crashing surf, West Cliff Drive is the ultimate in California-cool cruising. At its far western end lies its undisputed gem, Natural Bridges State Beach. This beloved Santa Cruz beach is so stunning that a free lot is provided to view it like a deconstructed open-air art gallery. After even a cursory glance it’s easy to see why.
Directly beneath the parking lot is the obvious focal point, the namesake natural bridge. Carved by wind and waves from the same cliffs that create a beach-framing cirque, the graceful hunk of Santa Cruz mudstone (once one of three such “bridges”) is a favorite shorebird perch. Expect to see sea gulls, brown pelicans and cormorants. Expect also to see families and engaged couples walking hand-in-hand at sunset during low tide while a photographer hovers nearby: this beach is the setting for countless fresh-faced portraits.
Drawing your eye inland is a crescent-shaped cove that shelters a wide, sandy beach linking coastal scrub to surging waves. Moore Creek emerges from behind a bench of eucalyptus and Monterey pine to wind through freshwater wetlands and salt marsh, wrapping beneath the northern cliff wall and breaching the sands to the sea in the rainy winter season. These diverse habitat types pack a wildlife punch, especially when it comes to birds, so keep your eyes peeled.
Westward beyond the beach extends a sloping rock shelf pocketed by deep tide pools showcasing sea creatures like sea stars, crabs and anemones. It’s wise here to keep an eye on the mighty Pacific, both to spot incoming waves and to glimpse oceanbound wildlife. The Natural Bridges State Marine Preserve extends all the way to Four Mile Beach, which means you have a good chance of seeing seals, sea lions, dolphins and sea otters playing offshore and migrating whales—including humpbacks, blues and grays—plying the deeper water. Humpbacks will sometimes draw in very close to shore, thrilling onlookers.
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And that’s just the first glance. Hidden from view are upland picnic areas and trails meandering beneath the trees and through coastal scrub meadows brightened by native wildflowers every spring.
Then, famously, there is Monarch Grove. The only State Monarch Preserve in California, the eucalyptus grove provides food and shelter for up to 100,000 overwintering monarch butterflies, creating a “city in the trees.” The butterflies beginning fluttering in around mid-October and leave by mid-February (call the park office for exact dates). The grove is accessed via a wheelchair- and stroller-friendly wooden boardwalk by the visitor center, which has helpful educational displays explaining the complex life cycle of the monarch and a park store, operated by Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks, that's loaded with books, resources and gifts. The center also grows a demonstration milkweed garden, as it is the only plant on which monarch larvae feed.
Add it all up and you have one of the most popular Santa Cruz beaches, and with very good reason.
PERFECT FOR absolutely everyone (except people who hate sea, sand or fun). Tidepooling, birding, picnicking and general wandering are excellent here. While there is frequently no lifeguard, and signs warn of unsafe surf, swimming, boogie boarding and surfing are all popular here.
DON’T EVEN CONSIDER bringing glass, camping, having fires, drinking booze, riding horses or bringing other pets.
CHANNEL YOUR MOM AND leave the numerous public restrooms and picnic areas as clean as you found them. Also remember sunscreen. A beach this fun could keep a person occupied well past cooked.
Pick up West Cliff Drive, which begins where Beach and Bay streets intersect, west of the Municipal Wharf and next to the Dream Inn hotel, and head west. Drive slowly so as to take in the sights and not take out any pedestrians, until you hit the end of the road at Swanton Boulevard.