Walking through history on West Cliff Drive
Lighthouse Point to Natural Bridges
Neil Wiley

Hiking West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz has just about everything you would want in a walkóocean views, wildlife, history, performing athletes, interesting geology, and wonderful people watching. All on an easy, flat trail, with short side trips down to the beach. It is Santa Cruz at its best. And itís always changing.

For example, my recent walk along West Cliff Drive started in heavy fog, quite appropriate for visiting a lighthouse. A few hours later, the sun burned through to create a glorious oceanside day.

The occasion was a geology hike sponsored by the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History, and led by Frank Perry, a lifelong Santa Cruz resident who has researched local history for over thirty years. He is the author of several local histories, including Lighthouse Point, Illuminating Santa Cruz. The book is available at the Surfing Museum at the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse, local history museums, and bookstores.

The lighthouse is a good place to start your hike. Itís an obvious landmark, and several large parking areas are close by. Although the existing lighthouse is only 37 years old, the first one on the point was built in 1869.

The "new" lighthouse was built in memory of Mark Abbott, a young surfer who died at nearby Pleasure Point. A bronze plaque inside says, "This lighthouse is further dedicated to all our youth whose lives, through fate or misadventure, are terminated before realizing their true potential. May their spirits find new dimension in the unknown horizons that await us all."*

It is fitting that the lighthouse now houses the Surfing Museum. The museum is open from noon to four, except Tuesdays. I asked the young surfer girl at the counter about surfing at Steamer Lane. She said, if you arenít an expert, donít.

Across the street is Lighthouse Field, the scene of many land use battles. Now a 37-acre park, it was almost developed as a commercial center, complete with condos and retail shops. Frank Perryís book devotes a chapter to the continuing wars between developers and Santa Cruz activists. Now, under the state park system, and supported by the city and county, it appears it is safe for the momentósafe for cypress and eucalyptus, safe for wintering monarch butterflies, and safe for spring wildflowers. Frank Perry calls it "a tranquil island in the midst of increasing urbanization."

Looking out at the ocean from Lighthouse Point, we can see Steamer Lane, a must-stop for local surfers year round, and Seal Rock, complete with sea lions, pelicans, gulls, and lots of blue green water. If weíre lucky, weíll see more than a hundred sailboats, several kayaks, a passing cruise ship, or a broaching gray whale. I saw all this, and a stunt pilot flying a biplane less than fifty feet off the water. Then again, if itís foggy, you may see only vague, ghostly shapes.

As we walk west along the trail, we pass a natural bridge and the "old shoe" sea stack that was once a natural bridge, too. Near the foot of Columbia, we walk by the "Devilís Blow Hole." Unfortunately, we donít know it because the city fathers decided it was a safety hazard so they filled it with boulders. At the foot of Woodrow Avenue, be sure to step over another invisible geological feature, the Ben Lomond Fault. It runs down through San Lorenzo Valley, Woodrow Avenue, and out into Monterey Bay. This spot is also the site of Vue de LíEau, a little pagoda-like building with a second story octagonal tower built by a local streetcar company in 1891. Alas, it is gone as well, but geologists can see diatomite, and show you where the Purisima Formation meets Santa Cruz Mudstone.

If you peer over the edge of the cliff a little east of the entrance to Natural Bridges, you may see a five-foot wide hole, all that is visible of "the wave motor," a wave-powered water pump that forced water up a seventy-foot high tower to a 5,000 gallon tank. I know you want to know why they did it; I think Frank Perry said that the water was used to water down the road.

Our final stop is Natural Bridges State Beach. It features one remaining natural bridge. The other two have collapsed. (The last one fell in 1980.) You can also enjoy a crescent-shaped beach, good tide pools, picnic sites, and a eucalyptus forest grove that is the official monarch butterfly natural preserve. You can see the monarchs from October through early March. If your stay is short, avoid the $5 parking fee at the state park. Nearby streets usually have parking available.

If you want to extend your hike, you can walk Moore Creek Trail over the state beach, then to the Monarch Trail through the nature preserve. If you are bicycling, you canít use the Moore Creek Trail, but you can go out Swanton Boulevard, turn left on Delaware Avenue, then right on Natural Bridge Road out to a bike path that parallels Highway 1 to Wilder Ranch.

Although West Cliff Drive is not a wilderness adventure, it offers a good walk with lots to see. To get there, take Highway 1 toward UCSC and Half Moon Bay. When Highway 1 joins Mission Street, watch for a left turn on Bay Street, then turn right on West Cliff Drive.

Note: This hike was also a scheduled event for Fifty Plus, a group that sponsors free walks and hikes each Saturday. For more information, call Jan Dunn, 831-426-4715 or Zelma Fennell, 831-458-3767.

*Perry, Frank A., Lighthouse Point, Illuminating Santa Cruz

 

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