Ten wild things to see, from the mountains to the sea.
There’s no question that Santa Cruz is home to some of the most spectacular natural wonders the California coast has to offer. While there is plenty to see and experience year-round, we’ve teamed up with the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History to highlight a few of the area’s best natural attractions that are specific to each season, starting with summer.
“Summer in Santa Cruz is really nice,” says Spencer Klinefelter, education coordinator for the museum. “I personally really enjoy the redwoods in the summer, and our mixed evergreen forest, just up into the mountains a little ways.”
Here are 10 natural wonders of Santa Cruz you won’t want to miss this season.
“If you go up into the redwoods on hot days you’ll hear really consistent clicking noises,” Klinefelter said. The chorus of clicks are the love songs of male cicadas trying their hardest to attract a mate. Cicadas are large winged insects that spend between two to five years in the ground before emerging in the summer to breed (some cicadas spend up to 17 years underground before emerging). No other creatures in the animal kingdom make a sound quite like the cicada. You can hear them in most parks or tree-filled areas, but your best chance of hearing them is on a hot day—cicadas tend to be more amorous the hotter it gets.
Deer give birth in spring and early summer, making this time of year perfect for watching adorable little fawns prance behind their mothers. Black-tailed deer (Odocoileus hemionus) are the most common species in our area, Klinefelter said, and can be found in many of the larger parks around Santa Cruz, including Henry Cowell State Park, Wilder Ranch, Nisene Marks, and Pogonip. If you come across a baby deer that seems to be alone, leave it be. It’s likely mom only stepped away for a moment and will be back soon.
There’s no shortage of marine life in Monterey Bay year-round, but in summer, the bay provides a bountiful feeding stop for show-stopping humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae). These bus-sized marine mammals migrate here from their breeding grounds off the coast of Mexico and hang around until late November, feasting on sardines, anchovies, and krill. While watching humpbacks, one of the more theatrical baleen whale species, it’s not unusual to catch them lunge feeding, spy hopping, breeching, or tail slapping. You can often spot humpbacks from shore, sometimes even without binoculars. Or hop aboard a local whale-watching tour to get a closer view.
The blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) is the largest animal on Earth, and you can see them right in Monterey Bay during the summer. These behemoths stop here to dine on a buffet of krill from June through October. Although they’re enormous, blue whales can be elusive—their blue bodies blend in perfectly with the ocean, and they aren’t nearly as animated as humpbacks. What’s easier to spot, however, is the narrow plume of moisture, up to 30 feet tall, released as the whale breaks the surface to exhale. Once you spot the plume, you may see the rest of the whale’s back skim the surface for only a few seconds before it disappears again.
Monterey Bay also hosts the largest turtle in the world: the leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea), which can grow to more than six feet long and 2,000 pounds. These ancient marine reptiles visit Monterey Bay in the summer and early fall, swimming an impressive 8,000 miles from Indonesia. After their long solo journey across the ocean, the turtles feast on the delicious bounty of jellyfish floating around the bay. The Pacific leatherback is one of the most endangered species of sea turtle in the world, so if you do lay eyes on one, consider yourself incredibly special!
“Snakes are certainly more active in the summer and warmer months,” Klinefelter said. Keep your eye out for gopher snakes (Pituophis catenifer) in grassland areas, and be grateful if you find one in your yard. Gopher snakes’ simple brown diamond color pattern may not be glamorous, but these non-venomous snakes help keep the rodent population under control—a helpful thing for everyone. Garter snakes (Thamnophis species) and ring-necked snakes (Diadophis punctatus) are non-venomous snakes that are generally smaller and a bit more colorful than gopher snakes, and are more commonly found in cooler, wetter areas of the county, Klinefelter said. (Of course, it’s even more important to watch for the northern Pacific rattlesnake, which also are more active when the mercury rises.)
Enormous flocks of sooty shearwaters (Ardenna grisea) visit Monterey Bay during the summer and fall months. These marine birds make an impressive 40,000-mile round-trip migration in a figure-eight path from their breeding sites in the Southern Hemisphere over to feeding sites in Japan, then eastward across the Pacific before following the California Current southward. Sooty shearwaters are dark gray with white feathers underneath their wings that brightly flash as they fly in flocks numbering well into the thousands. More than a million sooty shearwaters visit Monterey Bay each year, following cool, nutrient-rich water brought from the depths by coastal upwelling.
“May and June is the best time of year to see young mallards and young wood ducks and a couple other aquatic waterfowl species,” Klinefelter said. You can easily spot a male mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) by its vibrant, emerald-green head. He’ll probably be hanging around a speckled brown and black female mallard that’s tending to her brood of adorable yellow and black chicks. Male wood ducks (Aix sponsa) are decked out in show-stopping plumage. “The males have really fantastic colors and patterns on their faces,” Klinefelter said. Look for both wood ducks and mallards at Neary Lagoon this time of year, he said.
“Caspian terns show up in huge numbers in the summer in Santa Cruz typically, and they’re the world's largest tern species,” Klinefelter said. Caspian terns (Hydroprogne caspia) are easy to identify by their bright red, knife-point bills and sleek black feathers on the top half of their heads. Like other tern species, Caspian terns are impressive aerial divers, able to swiftly and gracefully snatch small fish right out of the ocean. Once their breeding season is over at the end of the summer, the birds will migrate south toward South America.
Spring doesn’t get all the glory when it comes to flowering plants in our area. “Summer is a great time to see Clarkia species,” Klinefelter said. Clarkia is the genus name of a group of native plants that produce delicate, tall stems dotted with colorful purple, pink, and red blooms. “The other common name for Clarkia is ‘farewell-to-spring’ because they bloom at the tail end of spring and into early summer,” Klinefelter explained. California fuchsia (Epilobium canum) is another brightly blooming native plant to keep your eye out for, with its dark red flowers that are well loved by hummingbirds. And not to be overlooked are the blooming coastal prairies, Klinefelter said. “Coastal prairies have some great flowers that stay blooming well into the summer,” he said, such as yellow bush lupine (Lupinus arboreus)—a spectacular lupine species with huge columns of yellow flowers.
Visit the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History at 1305 East Cliff Drive to learn more about the local natural wonders listed here and many others. And be sure to check out the museum’s new exhibit opening this June called “Remembering Castle Beach,” exploring the history of the Seabright Beach area.
About our expert: Originally from Sacramento, Klinefelter moved here in 2012 to attend the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he focused on environmental studies and education. “I really just kind of fell in love with the area,” he says, so he decided to continue calling Santa Cruz home after graduating. He’s now been with the museum for a little over four and half years, where he facilitates the museum’s educational programs for school-age students.