Natural Bridges State Marine Reserve

a few dozen pelicans sit on a rock arch, the arch is dark brown where waves crash, getting lighter in color the further up you go until the very top is a stunning white

Overview

Natural Bridges State Marine Reserve (SMR) lies at the northern edge of the city of Santa Cruz. Covering approximately a quarter square mile, this marine protected area (MPA) is very narrow, extending only 200 feet from shore. It runs four miles along the coast, from Four Mile Beach to Natural Bridges State Beach at its southern end. This MPA’s rocky reefs provide excellent opportunities for tidepooling excursions. At low tides, sea stars, crabs, sea anemones, and colorful ocean life are easy to find. Shiner perch and silver surfperch are common close to shore, swimming among the vibrant surfgrass beds. 

At the southern end sits Natural Bridges State Beach, a popular beach and 65-acre state park known for its scenic arch. The Natural Bridges Visitor Center highlights the ecological history of the area and offers docent tours. The state park is home to the only State Monarch Preserve in California, giving a temporary home to thousands of migrating monarch butterflies each winter.

Regulations

It is unlawful to injure, damage, take, or possess any living, geological, or cultural marine resource.

California Code of Regulations Title 14, Section 632(b)(69)(opens in new tab)

Quick Facts

MPA size: 0.25 square miles

Shoreline span: 3.9 miles

Depth range: 0 to 10 feet

Habitat composition:

  • Rock: 0.44 square miles
  • Sand/mud: 0.06 square miles

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About Natural Bridges State Marine Reserve

Natural History

from a deep blue sea, a dark, indigo, broad flattened head comes up for a breath, the knobs along its chin and jaw make it clear, a humpback whale,
Humpback whale in Natural Bridges SMR. photo © J. Maugh, CC BY-NC 2.0

Most of Natural Bridges SMR stretches along a narrow band of rocky shoreline, interspersed with small sandy beaches, tidepools, and shallow wetlands. The intertidal area extends more than four miles along steep cliff faces, creating a sheltered habitat for sandcastle worms, acorn and gooseneck barnacles, mussels, anemones, bat stars, gobies, and tidepool sculpins. As the tide recedes twice a day, pools teeming with life are uncovered. Giant green anemones collect food with their tentacles, hermit crabs scutter amid colonies of mussels, and urchins and sea stars add color to the shallow waters. 

Beyond the shoreline, surfgrass beds attach to the rocky seafloor, becoming exposed during low tides and submerged during high tides. The large clumps of grass offer nursery habitat to a suite of plants and animals, improve water clarity, and protect the coast from erosion. During negative low tides, when the surfgrass is exposed to the air, birds feast on invertebrates seeking protection within shoots of surfgrass. Surf smelt, barred surfperch, grass and copper rockfish, and lingcod inhabit the nearshore waters. 

With ample offshore rocks and more than four miles of mostly undeveloped coastline, this MPA provides abundant food, resting, and breeding areas for migratory and resident birds. Black oystercatchers, plovers, willets, gulls, and godwits hunt onshore by probing the sand for buried prey or picking through the tidepools. Brown pelicans, cormorants, and murres dive in the productive waters to feast on schools of baitfish. Looking offshore, migrating whales, seals, and otters can be spotted. 

Cultural History

on fine tan sand a curled length of feather boa kelp lies, light shines through the semi-translucent green brown blades lining the edges
Feather boa kelp at Natural Bridges SMR. photo © A. Young, CC BY-NC 2.0

For centuries, Native American Tribes in California have relied on marine and coastal resources. Many Native American Tribes in California continue to regularly harvest marine resources within their ancestral territories and maintain relationships with the coast for ongoing customary uses. The first people to inhabit this area were the Uypin tribe, whose descendants are now known as the Ohlone. The Uypin hunted marine mammals and harvested fish and shellfish throughout their territory. Today, the Ohlone maintain a presence along the Central Coast, with individuals living throughout the region and continuing traditional practices. 

Spanish explorers first visited this area in the early 1600s. Mission Santa Cruz was founded in 1791, bringing increased fur hunting and fishing. By 1834, this area was governed by Mexican authorities who used the coastal land for cattle grazing. A developer planned to build an exclusive hotel on the property, naming nearby streets after large cities in hopes that people from places such as Modesto and Sacramento would choose to build summer homes nearby. Financial troubles meant the hotel never came to fruition. In 1933, the State of California purchased the land, ensuring its protection. Open space surrounded the state park until development enclosed the coastal property in the 1970s.

Recreation

bushes with yellow wildflowers frame a dramatically sculpted cliffside coastline, large fingers of flat rocks extend out from the cliffside into a calm blue green ocean
Wilder Ranch State Park on the western edge of Natural Bridges SMR. photo © B. Kozera, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Natural Bridges SMR lies adjacent to Natural Bridges State Beach, a 65-acre haven for outdoor enthusiasts. The beach is easily accessible with parking, restrooms, picnic tables, and a visitor center. The beach area is a great spot for beachcombing, building sandcastles, and tidepooling. From shore, wildlife viewing opportunities abound; bring binoculars to check out shorebirds, seals, sea otters, and migrating whales. Surfing and boogie boarding are also popular, and on windy days, windsurfers and kite flyers are common.

Natural Bridges State Beach also offers various educational opportunities. During low tides, docents lead tidepool explorations year round. During fall and winter, when monarch butterflies migrate through the area, butterfly tours leave from the visitor center on weekends. Guided nature walks are offered year round on topics ranging from wildflowers to birds. A network of trails through the Monarch Butterfly Natural Preserve and the Moore Creek Wetlands Natural Preserve offer hiking and exploration opportunities. Natural Bridges SMR prohibits take of any kind.

Coordinates

This area is bounded by the mean high tide line and a distance of 200 feet seaward of mean lower low water between the following two points:

36° 57.912' N. lat. 122° 07.650' W. long.; and
36° 57.015' N. lat. 122° 03.504' W. long.

California Code of Regulations Title 14, Section 632(b)(69)

Map

Map of Natural Bridges State Marine Reserve - link opens in new window

Facts, Map & Regulations

MPA fact sheet