The Hidden Secrets

Julie Thomas-Zucker

© Copyright 2005 by Julie Thomas-Zucker


Santa Cruz, on the sunny of Monterey Bay, in California has many hidden or forgotten treasures. One of them, Natural Bridges State Park is anything but a typical beach. All year it is open to the public for enjoyment, though most people come in the fall.

Natural Bridges has a little known marsh where birders can find a treasury of birds and hear many beautiful bird songs. A botanist, someone interested in plants, would also find many different plants and see and experience the different climates found in the park. Near the beach it would be cooler, but as you cross the first wooden bridges, you could feel the change and begin to warm up as you walk away from the ocean. Then as you sit on the bench with a panoramic view of the one remaining natural bridges or sea archs and inhale the aromatic eucalyptus, you feel more comfortable.

The park offers easy access to swimming, jogging, kite flying, bicycle riding, nature study, art, photography, and more--all in the magnificent surroundings of Monterey pines, cat-tails, willow, and wildflowers. Also, along West Cliff Drive, the road that runs into the park, there is a recreation trail that follows the coast and ends in the downtown area. In-line skaters and hikers will find this a good spot to exercise while enjoying the spectacular scenery along the path. Mid-way along the path is Lighthouse Point where those who have an interest in surfing can either participate or watch those adventurous enough to battle the surf and cold water.

Many know that Natural Bridges as the overwintering grounds of the Monarch butterfly. The monarch butterflies arrive in the fall, though many people always get the time of the year wrong. The way I remember it is to look at the monarch's color -- black and orange, colors that remind me of Halloween.

Though unbelievable, each year around the middle of October thousands of monarchs arrive without fail at Natural Bridges. Although if fall comes early to the north, the monarchs arrive a little before that, maybe as early as mid-September. Because Natural Bridges gets many more butterflies than does Pacific Grove, it has become known as the largest overwintering site on the California coast.

We, at Natural Bridges, celebrate with a festival called "Welcome Back Monarch Day." On this day the monarch butterfly is honored. There is a skit, food, and the appearances of Monarch Man and Monarch Woman. It is an educational experience for children and grown-ups. Usually, there are many knowledgeable volunteers available with whom the public can receive responses to any questions that come to mind. It happens the second week of October each year.

Monarchs come from the north, anywhere from northern California and as far away as British Columbia, and as far east as the Rocky Mountains. There are two distinct groups: those that go into Mexico, and those that come to the California coast.

Monarchs come one at a time, and hang in the eucalyptus trees in large groups. The monarchs stay through the winter. The reason for their migration is to escape the freezing winters in the North. When Spring comes, the male butterflies die shortly after mating and the females return north as far as their fat reserves will carry them. During their lives, monarch butterflies do not eat, they can't! They don't have a mouth, instead they have a proboscis which they use much like we use a straw--only it is many times longer than a single straw. Mostly they live on water and nectar. They live a long time--six to nine MONTHS. In the butterfly world, six to nine weeks is the norm so to them they live a long time. There is a condition to this though, only the monarchs who migrate get this added length in lifespan.

But monarchs are not the only things to see at Natural Bridges; tidepools are just as popular, but these are available only when the tides are low. One might ask what is a tidepool? It is a pool that has been formed from the effects of the tides and by erosion, in most cases. It is a place where the creatures that live there must be able to withstand the sun for twelve hours at a time, and be covered by water for the other twelve hours of each day. Some of the creatures are sea urchins, sea anemones, seastars (better known as starfish, a misnomer), and many types of snails. There are a couple of small fish and different varieties of crabs, including the playful and cute hermit crab and the larger line shore crabs that have pinchers that can hurt you.

Whatever kind of visitor you are Natural Bridges can make your day special.

If the beach does not interest you and the giant redwoods do. For you, the place then is a small and little-known State Park nestled within the Central Coast of California that provides just that. It is called the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park. Are you the adventurous type? Over 40 miles of fire roads and trails lace the 10,000 acre park making it a haven for hikers, runners,mountain bike enthusiasts and equestrians. The park's rugged topography, the cool creek canyons and steep mountain ridges are partially the result of earthquakes. The epicenter to the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake which registered 7.1 on the Richter scale occurred in this park 5 miles from the entrance. There are two earthquake faults in the park: the San Andreas on the northern boundary and the Zayante fault slices through the center of the park.

Do you want to take your children to a place that is both educational yet someplace that they can explore and use their imaginations? This park has all this a more.

In the early 1900's, this area was a tiny village called Loma Prieta. This area was a vacationland in the summer and about 300 permanent residents. There was a post office, hotel, saloon, company store, offices for telegraph plus facilities for the local telephone company, a railroad station, and a one-room schoolhouse. Today, the presence of eucalyptus, black acacia, periwinkle and English ivy tell us that loggers and their families were once here as these are non-native plants which unfortunately block the reestablishment of the native plants in the area. Besides, non-native plants, the park abounds with native plants in many cases used by the Native American. Trees like oak, maple, Douglas fir,and of course redwood, the dominant tree in the park.

Wildlife also can be found here. The noisy Steller's jay and its cousin the scrub jay often erroneously called a blue jay are quite numerous. Other birds to be found include the Oregon junco, acorn woodpecker, California quail and band tailed pigeons. Brown creepers, nuthatches, and bushtits can be seen running up and down tree trunks. The kingfisher occasionally can be seen flying through the creek bed looking for a meal. The popular and colorful resident, the banana slug can been seen anywhere in the Forest. Its yellow color makes it easily recognizable if people will take the time to look closely at leaves, the trunks of trees or inching its way along the trails.

Other mammals which are not so easily seen include the blacktail deer, rabbits, chipmunks and grey squirrels. It is important to remember that should you get the opportunity to see one of these creatures that you leave them alone. Moving them, especially deer fawns, can mean the death of the fawn and anxiety for the mother. Coyotes, grey foxes, and mountain lion have begun to be seen in the park. At night, one might see raccoons, bobcats, opossums, and skunks or very rarely the wild pig. These will not attack humans unless they are sick or feel threatened.

Walking down Aptos Fire Road, one will notice the remains of the Loma Prieta Mill: one of two mills that operated in the area. The other was Frederick A Hihn's Valencia Mill. The Loma Prieta Mill at Hinkley Gulch located about 3.5 miles above Aptos Village along the present day Aptos Creek Fire Road takes one directly into the Park. Rivalries were frequent between the two mills. Men boasted about how many redwoods were cut. One foreman boasted, " My men cut 93,000 board feet in a 10-hour period!" Another retorted, "We cut 143,000 board feet today!" This meant that groves of redwood trees 250+ feet high were cut and left barren. Then the groves were burned to provide covering for the next trees that were to be felled. This also raised the potential for landslides which were numerous.

It was here at the Hickley Mill on Wednesday morning, April 18, 1906 at 5:15 am that the Great Earthquake occurred killing nine of the workmen. The men who died had been sleeping in their bunkhouse when a mass of earth estimated at 100 feet in depth gave way. There were no survivors.

Across the creek on the left is the trail that goes to the Porter House Site named for Warren Porter the secretary of Loma Prieta Lumber Company and later Lieutenant Governor of California. A cottage where the lumber company held their monthly meetings once stood here at this site. Much of this trail follows the old railroad grade. Here remnants of the logging era exist: rusty metal cables, an occasional railroad tie, a rotting wooden ramp and as you return toward Aptos Creek Road you will see to your left the old train trestle timbers which were once 95-foot long and carried trains over the creek.

If you follow the Aptos Creek Road to Sand Point Overlook, you might get lucky and maybe discover the answer to a legend that has existed since the 1920's. The legend says that a 10-ton train engine named "Betsy Jane" slipped away with the railroad line in September 1918 during a heavy rainstorm. Today, the Besty Jane may be resting somewhere within the split stuff area buried under tons of rocks and debris. This trail and exploration is only for the very bold and sure-footed as the trail is very steep and narrow. The trail book classifies this one as strenuous. But once the summit is reached, the view is breath-taking. It rises to an elevation of 1600 feet above sea level.

"By 1923 the land was virtually stripped bare of its old-growth redwood trees. With nothing left to cut, the loggers pulled out and the forest began to heal. Over the years, young trees have reclaimed the land and have obscured much of the evidence of the logging era. By 1963, most of the land had been deeded to the State of California with the assistance of the Nature Conservancy. When this occurred there was a stipulation that the property be left undeveloped. This in turn means that you, too, can explore the Forest and maybe even find the lost engine that ... has not been discovered yet."

But I'm thinking maybe you are looking for someplace to take the kids where you can relax. The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is just the place for you containing 20 major rides, including the historic Giant Dipper wooden roller coaster built in 1924 and the 1911 carrousel, live music (especially in the summer on weekends), games, arcades, restaurants, and a large beach where sea lions bark and kids scream in the waves. This is a great place to go to getaway from the day to day stresses of life.

The boardwalk features Neptune's Kingdom Fun Complex, including miniature golf, games and historical displays. The boardwalk was established in 1904.

Whether you are looking for high adventure or just a quiet relaxing day at the beach or some real entertainment, Santa Cruz is the place that has all this with sunny and warm weather besides.

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