We cruised into Santa Cruz County just in time to meet a big south swell hitting the coast! The whole community was buzzing with palpable excitement, as ocean lovers from all walks of life emerged to enjoy the waves.

We were jones-ing for a surf, despite the dumping close-out waves, so we paddled out and caught some whitewater. After some much needed time in the proverbial washing machine, and a few nice rides, we were spit out on the sand feeling alive with the beachy buzz.

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We made our way into Davenport, aka Whale City, where we grubbed down on some delish fish tacos and brews, while we were serenaded by a groovy band covering some legendary classics. We loved Davenport for its funky fresh feel, tributes to migrating Gray Whales, and artsy townfolk.

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Gray Whales—we salute you!

In northern Santa Cruz County, we wound our way through Coast Dairies State Park, past bluffs of blooming wildflowers and fields of brussels sprouts, occasionally following the railroad tracks to hop from one gorgeous, secluded pocket beach to the next. This will eventually be part of an awesome segment of the CCT called the Santa Cruz Rail Trail, which follows the old railroad tracks along the coast. When complete, the trail will provide “a car-free, direct, flat and scenic route for biking, walking, and wheelchair use” for 32 miles from Davenport to Watsonville. We were so stoked to see the success of the Rails to Trails movement, repurposing defunct railroads into community paths, a brilliant idea which has already taken hold nationwide!

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The Santa Cruz Rail Trail is part of a larger network of trails along the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. This network will ultimately connect 50 miles of trails on the Monterey Bay and provide scenic views of the nation’s largest National Marine Sanctuary! Ohhh yeah!!!

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As we reached the outer limits of the City of Santa Cruz, we came to Natural Bridges State Beach, which took our breath away. We were once again reminded of the omnipotent energy of the Pacific Ocean, which formed three arches out of a seacliff, eroding away mudstone with pure wave power. Two of the three arches have succumbed to the sea, collapsing during storms, and now only the middle one remains. Nature is the most wonderful architect.

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At Natural Bridges we met up with Nick and Riley from the Save the Waves Coalition for a group walk along the Santa Cruz World Surfing Reserve! Save the Waves Coalition is a rad non-profit that protects surf spots around the world by showing decision makers the economic value of a wave and surfing to local communities (what they’ve termed “surfonomics”) so that decision makers make choices to protect the value of their coast and waves. Their World Surfing Reserves program includes surf breaks in Australia, Chile, Mexico, Peru and Portugal—plus TWO along the California Coastal Trail— in Santa Cruz and Malibu. The World Surfing Reserve at Santa Cruz includes the 23(!) consistent surf breaks along the Santa Cruz coast.  Santa Cruz is a town centered around surfing and ocean culture—that’s our kind of place!

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We had a lovely time cruising Cliff Drive, admiring kelp forests and surf spots with all the folks who came out to join our walk with Save the Waves! We also had a special appearance by Linda Locklin, who works for the Coastal Commission managing the statewide Coastal Access Program. It was really cool to talk with her about the California Coastal Trail, coastal access, and about all the awesome Santa Cruz based environmental non-profits. Walking through town was like perusing a rolodex of environmental and ocean focused organizations!

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The beach was bumping on this summer Saturday, as we strolled past the Santa Cruz boardwalk. We were stoked to see a large CCT emblem right on the main drag—way to go Santa Cruz!

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Folks were out enjoying the sun and swell, and we wanted to hop in the ocean! We met up with our lovely friend Hilary, a kindred ocean spirit who is on our wavelength about marine policy. She is also a Bren School Master’s graduate and California Sea Grant Marine Policy Fellow, just like the three of us. Hilary and her wonderful mama met us for a surf session at Pleasure Point, where we soaked in the good vibes, caught some fun waves, and floated in the clear teal water, mesmerized by the coppery-bronze kelp undulating in the soothing surf. We went googly-eyed when a mother and baby otter pair cruised right by us in the line-up, floating on their backs while eating tasty treats from the sea floor.

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Then Christmas came early for these marine policy dweebs when California’s own coastal policy celebrity came to meet MoJo for a 10 mile beach walk! We were very excited to meet Charles Lester, former Executive Director of the California Coastal Commission. He has dedicated his career to coastal policy and his most recent job as ED of the Coastal Commission was defending the Coastal Act of 1976—the same piece of legislation that mandates the California Coastal Trail! We were stoked to chat chat chat about all things coastal policy related and to talk about the CCT!

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Charles gave us the scoop about the pre-Coastal Act housing developments we passed as we walked from New Brighton State Beach to Sunset State Beach. He showed us stretches of beach where developments had been proposed, but coastal conservation prevailed. We were reminded of a classic lesson in coastal conservation, that successes are represented by all the things you don’t see along the coast—long stretches of coastline without houses lining the sand, wetlands that haven’t been filled in and built up, scenic views that are void of buildings and lights.

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An example of a pre-Coastal Act housing development that was built directly on the sand at Seacliff State Beach. Today, the houses are protected by a seawall, and the beach is significantly narrower in front of the homes.

At Sunset State Beach we met Portia, an Environmental Scientist with State Parks, who showed us the successful dune restoration program at Sunset State Beach. European dune grass and ice plant, both non-native species, had invaded the dune ecosystem at Sunset Beach, which totally changed the structure and function of the dunes. Thanks to an intensive eradication program and ongoing maintenance, native plants have returned to the dunes, and now flourish there! Once the dedicated folks at Sunset State Beach removed all of the invasive grass and ice plant, the native seeds that had been buried in the dunes long ago were able to spring to life and repopulate the dunes. Portia gave us a great dune plant species tour and we loved learning all about this fragile and dynamic dune ecosystem.

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Invasive ice plant on the left, and native sand verbena on the right.

Back at the Sunset Beach Campground, we set up camp, ate dinner, and were just laying out our s’mores ingredients and getting ready to roast our shmallows. We heard a rustling in the bushes and saw Alisan’s dog Noah run behind the tent to check out the action. We heard a scuffle from behind the tent and saw a black and white striped tail shoot up into the air. Someone screamed, “Skunk!”

Then it descended upon us. Our nostrils filled with the scent of one thousand cloves of rotting garlic mixed with paint thinner and burning rubber in the most pungent and overwhelming stench. We dispersed. Fast. The lantern was knocked over in the commotion and switched into flashing mode, a silent yet blaring alarm into the dark night—the stench is coming!

We were dry heaving. We surrounded the perimeter of the scene, unable to approach. The skunk had sprayed Noah directly in the face, so Alisan went into emergency dog cleaning mode. Holding our breath, we worked up the courage to quickly move our possessions away from the campsite and out of the cloud of skunk spray. Eventually, the only thing remaining was our tent. Warily, we took a closer look—a thick, oily, neon green and yellow skunk splatter covered our only home. Another direct hit. It was getting late, and we wearily succumbed to sleeping outside. We laid our bags out under the solstice full moon, an aura of stench lingering on our bodies and belongings.

The next morning, we awoke soggy and stinky under a thick layer of dew. Spirits were low as we gathered up the pieces of the previous night’s fiasco. Eventually we had to just get walking again—accepting that life on the CCT is always a crazy adventure!

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