Schwan Lake

A quiet dog-friendly state park hidden in the middle of Santa Cruz County.

by Molly Lautamo

Bring your dog, bike, friend, or just a pair of binoculars for a peaceful stroll through Schwan Lake Park. This patch of state parkland (technically it's part of Twin Lakes State Beach) may only boast 1.1 miles of walking trails, but the dirt paths are bursting with the rustle and song of a wide variety of bird species, views of the lake and ocean and sprawling oaks beckoning you to sit a spell in their low-slung branches.

The trailhead begins at the back of the Simpkins Swim Center parking lot, where an educational sign about coastal terrace prairie greets you. The eighth-rarest ecosystem in the United Sates, this grassland blooms with natives like sky lupine and Santa Cruz tarplant and provides habitat for familiar urban mammals like raccoons and opossums. You may also witness red-shouldered hawks hunting gopher snakes and meadow voles hidden in the tall grasses. Violet-green swallows swoop and dive in an impressive display of aerial acrobatics.

Like dozens of other parks in the Santa Cruz County area, Schwan Lake and Twin Lakes Beach are supported by Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks. Learn how you can support the work of Friends and keep parks like this open, clean and accessible.

The dirt trail splits at the start: Veer left for a short 5-minute stroll along the eastern finger of the lake that will loop you back to the trailhead. Walk the path to the right for a 15-20 minute meander that takes you past the lake’s western side. Both paths are relatively flat (except for a short, steep hill on the second path) and wind through stands of live oaks, for which this neighborhood gets its name.

Walk quietly and be rewarded with the calls of songbirds and waterbirds. Double- crested cormorants nest in the tall eucalyptus towering above the shoreline, mallards and grebes fly low over the water, egrets patiently stalk fish in the lake’s murky shallows, and sparrows and yellow-rumped warblers perch on the tops of 6-foot-tall reeds.

BACK IN THE DAY Schwan Lake was actually Schwan Lagoon. The construction of the harbor and East Cliff Drive restricted the flow of water from the ocean into the estuary, transforming it into a freshwater lake. Once salinity left the picture, the invasive marsh pennywort—a floating plant with circular leaves—laid claim to the lake and covered the water with a blanket of green. It took 15 years before concerned citizen Bill Simpkins led an effort to raise money and implement a plan with California State Parks to remove the pesky plant.

WATCH OUT FOR poison oak that blends into the ivy and prolific blackberry bushes. Remember: leaves of three, let it be.

DON’T BOTHER if you’re looking for a strenuous hike. This is definitely not that.

DO BOTHER if you like easy, in-town birding walks that welcome dogs on leash.

AFTER YOUR WALK take a swim at the Simpkins Swim Center and stop for lunch at the Windmill Cafe if you’re on your way to Twin Lakes State Beach.

DIRECTIONS From Highway 1 take the exit for Soquel Avenue. Turn right at 17th Avenue and look for the Simpkins Swim Center on your right (979 17th Avenue), behind Shoreline Middle School. Parking at the swim center is free but if it’s closed, park on El Dorado Street, just north of Brommer and 17th. The trailhead starts just across the railroad tracks.

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Seabright State Beach
Twin Lakes State Beach