The outdoors is my favorite classroom. A week ago I returned from camping with 35 students who were part of the Merced Union High School District’s Environmental Science Academy summer school program. Students from Atwater, Buhach Colony, El Capitan, Golden Valley, Livingston, and Merced High Schools camped for three nights at Sunset State Beach and four nights at Cedar Grove in Kings Canyon National Park.
During the trip they learned through presentations from rangers and scientists who used the parks we visited as outdoor classrooms. The students were part of formal educational presentations, they had hands-on experiences with nature, and they also got to learn through observation and conversation as they hiked. After the camping trip ended, each student spent three days in the classroom doing further research, picking topics that sparked interest during our explorations.
The culmination of the class was last Wednesday night, when they made formal presentations of their research to their parents, school officials, and community leaders.
The students’ enthusiasm and the high-quality presentations demonstrated the effectiveness of outdoor learning – something that isn’t limited to students in organized groups. All of the places we visited offer regularly-scheduled public educational programs that are open to all ages. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll feature several of those locations, starting this week with Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz.
Back when Santa Cruz was first becoming a popular resort destination, the beach there had three impressive arches that the ocean had eroded out of a mudstone cliff. The waves have continued their work, and today only one arch remains.
It can be seen from the sandy beach, a short walk from the parking area. There are restrooms, picnic tables, and drinking fountains available on the bluffs above the beach. A lifeguard may be on duty during the summer, but this isn’t guaranteed, and hazardous rip currents are common.
Besides being a nice beach with a scenic natural arch, the park also offers outstanding tide pools, a eucalyptus grove where monarch butterflies spend the winter months, and a visitor center. Our recent visit started at the visitor center where Ranger Martha taught the students an informative, hands-on lesson about tide pool creatures and habitats.
Her enthusiasm was infectious and the students were well-informed by the time that they set out for the tide pools.
The walk to the pools requires passing through an adjacent mobile home community. The pathway is clearly marked and public access is allowed as part of an agreement with the state that allows visitors to pass through as long as they don’t trespass on the private lots surrounding the homes. For directions, check at the visitor center before you begin your walk. The center is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday through Monday.
The tide pools are extensive and the students spent an exciting hour finding the urchins, anemones, crabs, mussels, sea snails, barnacles, limpets, chitons, and barnacles they had learned about at the visitor center. The pools are located on a gently sloping rock surface that is best-accessed when the tide is low. If you plan to visit, call the visitor center in advance for the current schedule of public tide pool walks (831-423-4609).
One of the most important things the students learned was to treat the fragile tide pool creatures with care, not touching them unless instructed to, and always stepping carefully to avoid crushing any of them. Collecting is illegal in state parks, but it is easy to take good photos.
If you go, please keep these rules in mind, and also make sure that you don’t turn your back on the ocean – people have been swept into the water by unexpected waves while being focused on the creatures in a tide pool.
Monarch butterflies usually begin to arrive in October and often stay into February. There are sometimes up to 100,000 butterflies in the part of the park that is set aside as a preserve and they are most active on days when the temperature rises above 60 degrees. Ranger-led butterfly programs are offered on weekends.
The visitor center, the beach, the tide pools, and the monarch preserve can be accessed by just about anyone; however, the tide pools are not wheelchair accessible. A boardwalk designed for wheelchair access goes partway into the monarch grove. Beach wheelchairs with wide tires to accommodate the sand can be borrowed at the visitor center.
The beach entrance is located at the intersection of Swanton Boulevard and West Cliff Drive, just a few blocks south of Highway 1 at the west end of Santa Cruz. There are directional signs indicating the turnoff on Highway 1. For a downloadable pamphlet with additional information and a map, go to http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=541 and click on the “brochures” link or call the visitor center. The park is open daily from sunrise to sunset and the entry fee is $10 per vehicle. Dogs are only allowed in the parking and picnic areas.
Adam Blauert is a Sun-Star correspondent and an avid outdoorsman who enjoys fishing, backpacking and exploring the western states. He can be reached at email@example.com.