Beaches and Bridges and Butterflies, Oh My!

Natural Bridges State Beach

Natural Bridges State Beach (Photo credit: karma17)

Looking for a great spot to watch the sunset, play in the waves, or see some local wildlife?

Natural Bridges State Beach is one of the best spots in Santa Cruz for doing all three.

As you watch the sun dip beneath the water, you might just spot a whale or a group of sea otters playing in the kelp.  If you are visiting during the day, head over to the tide pools or the eucalyptus grove full of monarch butterflies.

During the fall and winter months, you can see the thousands of migrating monarch butterflies that make Natural Bridges a famous destination for wildlife enthusiasts.

However, unlike many other nature preserves, Natural Bridges encourages its visitors to play in the water and enjoy the beach as well.

You get the best of both worlds, enjoying the native wildlife and having a fun day at the beach.

The Bridges

While clearly visible from the scenic overlook, from certain spots on the beach it’s easy to miss the large natural bridge.

To be honest, it took me going to the beach about three times, before I saw it!  There were so many other things to see, and I assumed it was just a name.  However, once I made it to the tide pools and turned around, I had an “aha” moment where I saw the bridge.

The park gets its name from the “bridges” that formed in the rocks just off the shore.  The arches used to be part of the rest of the cliff, but over time the pounding of the waves and erosion collapsed two of the arches, leaving the one “natural bridge” that you see today.

While you can see the bridge from the scenic overlook, I have found that you get the best view from the far end of the beach by the lagoon area.  Looking back toward the cliffs, you can clearly see how these “natural bridges” gave the beach its name.


Every year between mid-October and mid-February, Natural Bridges becomes home to thousands of monarch butterflies.  They settle into the eucalyptus grove toward the back of the park, enjoying the protection from the elements that the grove offers.

On warm days, you can see them fluttering throughout the park.  When the weather gets colder, 60 degrees or below, the butterflies cluster together on eucalyptus branches to stay warm.

So why do these butterflies choose Natural Bridges year after year?  The answer is that the climate of the eucalyptus grove is almost perfectly suited to the butterflies’ needs.  If the temperature drops below 55 degrees, they are unable to fly, and are susceptible to predators. Therefore, the unusually warm temperature of the grove during the winter months, ensures that they will be able to fly when they need to.

You can learn more about the history and ecology of the monarch butterflies by going to the visitor center located next to the grove.

Also, be sure to call the park ahead of time and ask about the butterflies, because they have been known to come late and leave early some years.

Tide Pools and Sea Life

Natural Bridges is also known for its easily accessible and creature filled tide pools.

The pools are located at the far side of the beach, which is just a five minute walk from the parking lot. With a quick scramble over some rocks, you can see the first set of tide pools.  Expect to see small crabs scurrying about, beautiful sea anemones, and even some orange and purple starfish.

In addition to the creatures in the tide pools, you may be able to spot a few whales, especially between the months of April and November when the humpback whales migrate to our coasts for their feeding season.

Watch for their spouts and tales from the scenic vantage point overlooking the water, or head down to the beach for a closer look.

Seals and sea otters frolic and splash near the shoreline all year long.  They can be spotted anywhere along West Cliff Dr., but many cluster near the Natural Bridges area.

Be sure to bring your camera and binoculars to get a close up view of these fun, active sea mammals.

How to Get There

Natural Bridges State Beach is located at the end of West Cliff Dr.  If you want an easy and scenic route, just find your way onto West Cliff Dr. and head North, away from the boardwalk.  You can enjoy one of the most beautiful coastal drives in the world, and be sure that you will make it to your destination.

An alternate route is to take Mission St. all the way to Swift.  Turn left on Swift and continue until you get to West Cliff Dr.  Take a right on West Cliff Dr and continue just a short way until you reach Natural Bridges at the end of the road.

Natural Bridges Information

Hours8:00 am - Sunset
Parkingparking lot charges day use fee and plenty of free street parking
DogsExcept for service animals, dogs are allowed only in the parking lots and picnic areas, but not on the beach and trails. All dogs must be on a six-foot- maximum leash and under human control at all times. Please do not leave your dog in a car.
CampfiresYes, by picnic tables
Tide PoolsYes
Surf SpotNo
About Lindsay Shaffer

Lindsay Shaffer is a writer, teacher, and peak performance coach. She is also a former technology-phobe turned blogger. When she is not blogging or doing research, she still happily avoids all use of technology and heads for the outdoors.