We visited Natural Bridges State Park in the summer of 2017. We had a couple of days to spend in Santa Cruz and made a short stop there to see the bridges and snap some photos. It was gorgeous!
Unfortunately, we didn't have the time to actually go down to the beach and explore. I'm sure we'll be back someday though, and with that in mind, we've put together this concise visitors guide to the Natural Bridges State Beach.
Where Is Natural Bridges State Beach?
Natural Bridges State Beach is located in sunny Santa Cruz, which is technically in the Southern Bay Area. Indeed, you’ll find Natural Bridges State Beach along the northern tip of scenic Monterey Bay.
San Jose is only about a 45-minute drive north of Natural Bridges State Beach, while Monterey is about an hour’s drive south.
How Do I Get To Natural Bridges State Beach?
If you’re traveling from San Jose, then you should follow the CA-17 S toward Santa Cruz. Those who are driving up from Monterey, however, should take CA-1 N to the Santa Cruz area.
FYI, TripMemos put together a post on the ultimate CA-1 travel itinerary if you’re interested in taking this iconic road trip.
Here is Natural Bridges State Beach’s official address for those who are using a GPS: 2531 W Cliff Drive Santa Cruz, CA 95060
What Is There To Do In Natural Bridges State Beach?
Thanks to the yearly Monarch butterfly migration, Natural Bridges State Park is a butterfly buff’s dream destination. If butterflies aren’t your bag, then there are plenty of other ways to enjoy a visit to this beautiful Bay Area beach.
Below, we’ll go over a few of the most popular activities to do when you’re at Natural Bridges State Park. You could also check out our post on the “10 Top Things To Do In Santa Cruz” for even more travel inspiration.
See The Migrating Monarch Butterflies
For most tourists, Natural Bridges State Beach is all about the butterflies—Monarch butterflies, to be specific. Thousands of these beautiful butterflies travel from the western Rockies to Natural Bridges State Beach every year in mid-autumn.
According to entomologists, the Monarchs are drawn to Santa Cruz for two reasons: warm weather and eucalyptus trees. Depending on the time of your visit, you could see upwards of 100,000 butterflies in the park’s dedicated nature preserve.
Although you could usually see Monarch butterflies anytime between October and February, the best times to visit are from mid-October through November. To find out more about the Monarch Butterfly Preserve, you can read this informative post put together by the CA Department of Parks and Recreation.
We visited Natural Bridges Park in September. Too early for the Monarch butterflies. We were fortunate enough to view them on another one of our visits to the Monterey Peninsula, a couple of years earlier. Well worth the effort.
Admire The Beauty Of The Last Natural Bridge
First-time visitors are understandably confused when they only find one natural bridge on Natural Bridges State Beach. Unfortunately, the two other natural arches have been lost to the sands of time.
Since there’s only one natural bridge left standing, park officials no longer allow visitors to get too close. You can, however, take plenty of lovely pictures of this geological wonder.
Take A Tide Pool Tour
Folks interested in underwater life will find plenty of incredible creatures like hermit crabs and starfish in Natural Bridges State Beach’s tide pools. The State Marine Reserve along the beach’s coast is the best place to spot underwater critters and shorebirds. If you’re lucky, you might also get to see migrating whales or seals on your Santa Cruz vacation.
Keep in mind that it is against California law to collect anything from these protected zones. Also, do not bring any glass containers or drones to Natural Bridges because both items are strictly forbidden. Check out the tides before you come and try to visit during low tide. We love tide pooling. For families with kids, this can easily become a highlight to any West Coast visit.
For those who are interested, rangers sometimes lead 1.5-hour guided tours of the tide pools. To request more tour information, be sure to keep up-to-date on info posted to Natural Bridges State Beach’s official webpage.
Water Sports & Kite-Flying
From the mid-20th century onward, surfing has played a central role in Santa Cruz’s identity. So, it’s no surprise surfing, sailboarding, and waterboarding are popular activities on Natural Bridges State Beach. Just be forewarned: the waves in Santa Cruz are pretty intense, so you should have some solid surfing experience before hanging-10.
If you’d rather stay dry on your beach-going adventure, consider packing a kite in your luggage. Natural Bridges State Beach typically experiences strong winds in the afternoon, which is ideal for those who love flying kites.
Hiking In Natural Bridges State Beach
From Natural Bridges State Beach’s Visitor’s Center, you’ll find easy access to a boardwalk that leads to the park’s most popular hiking trail: The Monarch Trail. This unpaved 1.7-mile trail will take you through the Monarch Butterfly Nature Preserve for spectacular views of the park’s famed butterflies. This trail also easily links to the roughly two-mile Moore Creek Trail, which is in a lush natural space ideal for nature watching.
Another popular trail for hikers, bikers, and joggers is the West Cliff Multipurpose Cycleway between Natural Bridges and Lighthouse Field. This paved trail measures about four miles round-trip and is an ideal way for people of all skill levels to enjoy spectacular Santa Cruz scenery.
For more information on the trails at Natural Bridges State Beach, please take a look at the map on this official brochure.
When’s The Best Time To Visit Natural Bridges State Beach?
Since most people who visit Natural Bridges State Beach want to see the butterflies, the best time to visit the park is between October and November. During these months, you’ll have the best chance of seeing thousands of Monarch butterflies in the park’s reserve area.
As a bonus, the park also puts on many special events and tours during this time of year. Often, there are Monarch butterfly guided tours at 11 AM and 2 PM on weekends between autumn and winter.
What Time Does Natural Bridges State Beach Open?
Natural Bridges State Beach is open from 8 AM till sunset every day of the week. Overnight camping is not allowed.
How Much Does It Cost To Get Into Natural Bridges State Beach?
You can visit Natural Bridges State Beach for free. All guided tours, picnicking facilities, and special events offered at this park are also complimentary.
Is There A Parking Fee At Natural Bridges State Beach?
If you drive into Natural Bridges State Beach, then you will have to pay a $10 parking fee.
A Few Natural Bridges State Beach FAQs
Now that you know the basics of what to do in Natural Bridges State Beach, it’s time to tackle a few of the most commonly asked questions. In this section, you’ll learn some “fast facts” about visiting this park.
Are There Bathrooms At Natural Bridges State Beach?
Yes, there are restroom facilities at Natural Bridges State Beach. In addition to the Visitor’s Center, you will find a restroom near a picnic area and another by the park’s showers.
Are There Fire Pits At Natural Bridges State Beach?
According to the CA Department of Parks and Recreation, it’s illegal to start a fire on Natural Bridges State Beach. There are, however, many tables, BBQs, and water faucets open to the public in Natural Bridge’s picnic areas.
Are Dogs Allowed On Natural Bridges State Beach?
You can bring dogs to Natural Bridges State Beach’s picnic areas and parking lots as long as they are on a leash measuring a minimum of six feet. Dogs are not allowed on any of the park’s trails or the beach.
Can You Fish At Natural Bridges State Beach?
No, you cannot fish or collect any living creatures at Natural Bridges State Beach. You can read more about the park’s fishing policies on this website.
Where To Stay When Visiting Natural Bridges State Beach
Many of Santa Cruz’s hotels are clustered around the touristy Boardwalk area, but there are a few within walking distance of Natural Bridges State Park. If you want to stay close to Natural Bridges on your Santa Cruz vacation, here are two highly reviewed hotels nearby.
Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott Santa Cruz
The three-star Fairfield Inn by Marriott is about one mile north of Natural Bridges State Park. In addition to its convenient location, Fairfield Inn has many attractive amenities like a heated pool, complimentary breakfast, and free WiFi.
Mission Inn & Suites
Mission Inn & Suites is another three-star hotel in the area that’s just over a mile’s walk to Natural Bridges State Beach. This 53-room hotel offers guests many exceptional features, including free parking, continental breakfast, and a hot tub.
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