One benefit to the drought in California is it makes for great day trips. Add a bonus day off from school ("staff development day") and you've got a sunny, uncrowded day to go touring. The kids and I decided to take advantage of this by driving down to see the Monarch Butterflies and go to the beach at Natural Bridges State Park in Santa Cruz. I also hoped to take a few good photos of butterflies with my DSLR and zoom lens.
Good to know: The best time of year to see the butterflies are during the months of Oct. through Jan/Feb. Call ahead before visiting. (831) 423-4609
We headed out after a leisurely breakfast with a picnic lunch, water, camera, jackets, hats, sunglasses, sunscreen, towels, blankets (you never know if it's going to be cold or hot in Santa Cruz), and books to read in the car. Remembering what to bring was the most difficult part of the trip!
The drive was relaxing; from the Peninsula south, you are going against traffic, and we got there in less than an hour. The directions were clear; there were even Natural Bridges signs to help guide the way.
The main parking lot ($10 fee) is bordered by a grove of eucalyptus trees that includes a picnic area, barbecues, water faucets and restrooms. Paths lead from there down to the beach. Although the kids were hungry, we were eager to view the butterflies, so after a quick visit to the Visitor Center and natural history display (worth seeing), we headed down the boardwalk (wheel chair accessible) to the butterfly preserve.
Interesting fact: Monarch butterflies migrate from two regions every winter. Those that live west of the Rocky Mountains winter in pockets of eucalyptus trees along the coast of California and in parts of the Southwest. Monarch butterflies that live east of the Rockies migrate to Florida and Mexico.
The boardwalk wound though eucalyptus trees, past a dry pond (usually filled with water lilies) and to the bottom of a shallow canyon. At the bottom was a wooden deck for easy viewing of the butterflies. And butterflies there were! Hundreds of orange and black monarchs flitting among the trees, crossing patches of blue sky and coming to rest among the eucalyptus leaves.
What a great opportunity for a photographer, I thought. But I was wrong - well, wrong for this amateur. Even with my 300mm zoom lens, the butterflies were too far away to get a close picture, and the play of sunlight and shadow among the trees made it very difficult for me to know which exposure to use. Nevertheless, I gamely shot away and let my kids take some pictures as well. It's too bad I hadn't brought my camcorder; it would have captured the entire scene much better.
Luckily, I always follow the number one rule for a photographer - put down your camera and enjoy the view! I took plenty of time to watch the butterflies - lying down on the deck and using my backpack as pillow. The whole thing was so relaxing and peaceful; everyone spoke in soft voices, it was sunny with a gentle breeze, all that was missing were some hammocks so we could take a nap.
But kids being kids - mine were soon clamoring to go to the beach; so we went back up the path, had a snack, got in the car, drove about 50 yards and re-parked. Turns out we could have left the car where it was but we didn't notice at the time!
Natural Bridges Beach is named for the original three bridges that mother nature carved out of a sandstone cliff. Over time the wind and waves eroded the bridges and now there is just one left. The beach itself is a beautiful small cove, bordered on one side by tide pools and on the other by the remaining bridge. The tide was high the day we went, so we avoided the tide pools and enjoyed the sandy beach. The kids had a great time running back and forth racing the waves and digging holes at the waterline. They got very wet of course (darn, forgot the extra clothes!) and had to wrap up in beach towels for the drive home. But that was a small price to pay for the fun they had.
One note of caution, the tides at Natural Bridges can be very dangerous with sudden waves that can sweep a person off their feet, so the tide pools should be avoided during high tides. This is not a swimming beach but there were plenty of surfers enjoying the winter waves the day we were there.
I took lots of pictures at the beach but the best ones were of my kids. The view shots and bird pictures (Brown Pelicans, Seagulls, Cormorants) were marred by the hazy, middle-of-the-day light. It just wasn't my day for photography. Oh well, the kids and I had a great day and that's all that really mattered.