Tales of a Santa Cruz Sunset Chaser

Valerie Lemke Santa Cruz Sunset Chaser

All photos by Valerie Lemke

Be sure to read to the end; we’ve got a treat for all you sunset chasers out there 🙂

When I moved to the rural mountains of Santa Cruz County 26 years ago from the Bay Area I didn’t hesitate or have any regrets. There hasn’t been one time that I looked back.

I remember the first day I began my 1.5 hour commute over the hill to work, too. Though I knew it was going to be tough, I was ready. I was full of excitement and I couldn’t wait to tell my urban living co-workers two important breaking news stories that involved that first morning.

  1. There was a wayward sheep that had wandered into my front yard that morning.
  2. I drank my coffee at a cafe by the ocean before work.

Those were two things that just about blew this former city dweller away. As exciting as those events were to me, I soon realized I was the only one who was so greatly amused by those facts. Those blank-eyed blinking stares from my coworkers said it all. But, all I knew was that this was going to work out just fine.

However, what I didn’t expect to find here was what I found that very night:


Of course I love sunrises, star and moon filled skies too, but there is something about how a sunset ends the day and wraps it all up in one single breathtaking moment. No matter how stressful or frustrating the day would be, I could just throw it all into the ocean and watch it all be swept away into the night by the sinking sun.

Walton Lighthouse Sunset

Eventually life happened as it does, and thankfully I found myself as an ex-commuter from over the hill and began working locally. Though I enjoyed sunsets now and then when I could, life was busy.

As some of us locals may know, the slow and meandering drive along the coast from Santa Cruz to Capitola is a great way to unwind after work. I did this when time allowed over the years. But, there was something about one special night that was so very different.

As I approached Capitola Wharf, the sun had set and the sky was a deep periwinkle blue that had a hint of purple and cotton candy pink mixed into the clouds. I had to stop and look out over at this view of the wharf. The lights in the buildings of the village sparkled as dusk had settled in. It was calm, beautiful and oh so very surreal. I wanted time to stop, and I wanted to save that moment forever.

Then I remembered that I had my small handheld camera in the car with me. There actually was a way that I could actually stop time and capture a piece of it.

Capitola Wharf sunset

I was a born weather-chaser anyway, and anyone who knows me has probably figured that out. Just give me a good weather adventure and I’m game…

Though sunsets aren’t technically dangerous unless you fall off a cliff or something, they can still be intensely dramatic and thrilling while stirring those feelings of adventure. It can stop you dead in your tracks, take your breath away and bring tears to your eyes. Everything else is forgotten. Time seems to stop, and for a brief period you are doing something that is almost impossible in our busy times…you are actually living in the moment.

A few weeks after that night at Capitola Wharf, I found myself at Rio Del Mar during what I know now is called “ the golden hour”. That is the hour before sunset where everything shines in a golden light. My daughter and I found ourselves right in the middle of a mind-blowing sunset and I knew instantly that I had to capture that night. But this time I had already brought my camera, just in case.

Rio Del Mar Sunset

I was bitten by a bug that was similar to the draw for storm-chasing. It was thrilling and an adventure. I realized that night that it was now set in stone. I was an official sunset chaser.

From there, you might say it was a slippery slope with camera gear purchases and a ton of time experimenting . You might also say that I had fallen down quite the rabbit hole. But in my case it was money and time well-spent. I had done stumbled across the thing I was meant to do.

However, it doesn’t require money or a lot of time to chase sunsets. You don’t need a camera or special equipment other than your own eyes. Why not give it a try?

People come here for a lot of reasons, but I hope they stay for the sunsets. I know I did.

West Cliff Sunset
Twin Lakes Sunset
Twin Lakes Walton Lighthouse Sunset
Seabright Sunset
Seabright tSunset Dec 2017
Santa Cruz Mountains Sunset
Santa Cruz Boardwalk Sunset
Santa Cruz Boardwalk Sunset 2
Santa Cruz Boardwalk Sunset 03
Winter West Cliff Sunset
West Cliff Sunset
West Cliff Sunrise
West Cliff Sunset
Chardonnay Sunset
Santa Cruz Boardwalk Sunset 05
Santa Cruz Boardwalk Sunset 04
Walton Lighthouse Sunset With Pelican
Twin Lakes Sunset
Capitola Wharf Sunset


Santa Cruz County Sunset Chasing Tips:

This comes with a disclaimer: you could become addicted.

  • Cell phone cameras have the latest technology that can take incredible photos and can rival the best pro shots.
  • The best time for a sunset? Before, during and after. Choose one, or choose them all. You can’t lose.
  • Follow the weather forecasts, the best sunsets involve clouds. When a storm is on its way out it can actually make some of the most incredible sunsets you’ve ever witnessed.
  • The sun angle changes with the season and due to the curving Monterey Bay coastline, you will have different views of sunsets during the year. During spring and summer your best bet for a good sunset is in the south county such as La Selva Beach, Manresa or Sunset State Beaches and further south into Monterey Bay. During fall and winter , you will be able to enjoy more north county sunsets once again at places like West Cliff Dr., the Santa Cruz Wharf, and Twin Lakes State Beach.
  • At Seacliff/Rio Del Mar State Beaches, you can usually catch a good sunset view year-round, though at very different angles.
  • Stay tuned, this sunset chaser has many more tales to tell…


Are you a sunset chaser?

We just created a new Facebook group called Santa Cruz Sunset Chasers and it’s a place for everyone in Santa Cruz County to post and admire photos of our beautiful sunsets (sunrises too!).

We’ll be sharing our sunset photos and videos (like the one below) in this group, and invite you to do the same.

Join the Group

Santa Cruz Backpacking Tours: Roughing It With an Expert Guide by Your Side

santa cruz backpacking tours

Photo by @genghis_johnn

Are you ready for the quintessential Santa Cruz Mountains experience?

Better yet, want an expert tour guide by your side?

Naturalist-led Santa Cruz backpacking tours are being offered again this year by California State Parks, from June through August. These 1-3 night trips offer the classic Santa Cruz backpacking experience, with the added bonus of being led by a knowledgeable State Park professional.

There are four backpacking trips to choose from, some of which take you through lesser known portions of our state parks.

Last year’s tours sold out, and we expect this year’s to sell out quickly as well. The video below gives a great overview of the tours:

[Read more…]

Take a Hike! 8 Local State Parks Hosting First Day Hikes on Jan. 1st

Santa Cruz First Day Hikes 2018The New Year is knocking and 2017 is ready to take a hike out the door. But 2017 isn’t the only thing that should take a hike…so should you.

If you want to start the new year off fresh with a sense of renewal, exploring California State Parks on New Year’s Day could give you the perfect opportunity to do just that.

On New Year’s Day, 50 state parks will host 80 different hikes and outings, with a chance to see your parks like never before.

We are lucky here along the Central Coast, as there are many parks that are hosting this event this year. In fact, Santa Cruz County is hosting more state park First Day Hikes than any other county in the California State Parks system, with eight different parks here that are hosting events.

There are some really interesting hikes planned such as New Brighton State Beach offering a sunset hike to Capitola that is a rare opportunity with a very low tide. Other parks are offering redwood hikes, secluded tours and nature and bird walks.

Though the guided hikes and events are free, there is a $10 day use fee for parking in most parks. However, if you pay the day use fee in one park, it’s good at any state park for the remainder of that day until closing time. Maybe this will be a chance to go on more than one hike or do some park exploring of your own.

Here is a list of the California State Parks in Santa Cruz County that are offering First Day Hikes. You can find further details and times on the California State Parks website. [Read more…]