Exploring the San Lorenzo River
Downtown Santa Cruz and Monterey Bay
Neil Wiley

This was a different sort of hike—an exploration of the San Lorenzo River as part of a summer class sponsored by the Museum of Art and History of Santa Cruz County. I traded solitude for experienced guides, Bruce Van Allen and Fred McPherson, and the companionship of a diverse group interested in river ecology.

It’s been a good trade-off. While I can’t dawdle along at my own pace, I am gaining a lot of knowledge and enjoying new friendships.

Meeting each Wednesday, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., we hike part of the river. In July, we hiked the Riverway Pathway from San Lorenzo Park to Monterey Bay, explored the Rincon area, the gorge, and Big Rock swimming hole at Paradise Park, learned more about the riparian forest in Henry Cowell Park, and visited water systems, including the river’s inflatable dam, Loch Lomond Reservoir, and Zayante Creek Fisheries Restoration.

In August, we’ll hike along Fall Creek and visit the watershed academy at San Lorenzo Valley High School. For our last class, we’ll tour the upper watershed and look across the headwaters of the San Lorenzo River in Castle Rock Park.

Throughout these explorations, we’ll be looking at the strengths and vulnerabilities of the river and its tributaries. We’ll see native plants and animals, consider urban impacts, study mountain geology, learn about water extraction, and gain a better understanding of watershed ecosystems.

In these MNN articles, I hope to share some of the things I’ve learned, while giving you some ideas for your own hikes.

Our urban hike

To start this hike, take Highway 17 into downtown Santa Cruz on Ocean, then turn right on Water, and left on Front. You can park your car on Front Street in the public garage across from Zanotto’s and a few doors south of the Museum of Art and History. Walk back south to the Café Mare, then east through the passageway past the Riverside Twin Theater. Before you reach the theater, look for a copper plaque commemorating the site of the last Santa Cruz Chinatown. Cross River Street, then cross the river over a pedestrian bridge to San Lorenzo Park. A right turn takes you south on the Riverway Parkway, a walking/bicycle trail along the river extending to the railroad trestle bridge, the ocean, and the Boardwalk.

Just before you climb the hill to the trestle bridge, you might walk up a short trail to Oceanview Park. It offers shade, green grass, and as you might expect, views of the ocean and the Boardwalk. Anyone for a picnic?

Cross over the trestle bridge to a walkway that guides you back north to complete the loop back to your car. In one place, you have to cross a street, but most of the walk keeps you separated from traffic.

Although the river through the city is still artificial, with levees, planted trees, and landscaping, it is a far cry from the concrete ditch that once ran through Santa Cruz. Its natural willows and cottonwoods, supplemented by planted boulders, snags, and trees provide a much improved habitat for fish, birds, and small mammals. With more shade, cooler water, and some hiding places, more fish survive to reach the upper part of the watershed, forestalling the end of several fish species.

It also provides a more interesting walk for us. Wildflowers color the banks. Blue herons and egrets fly by. Young trees promise to shield us from the noise, smell, and ugliness of traffic. It’s a pleasant path for walkers, skaters, and bicyclists. And it’s getting better and better.


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