West Coast
Succulent flowering dune plants have become a signature of West Cliff Drive since 1885, when first planted around the Forest of Phelan Park (now Lighthouse Field). (Ross Eric Gibson collection)

CA - West Cliff Drive’s scenic erosion

The famous Natural Bridges at the state beach show the slow rate of decline for this mudstone monument. The wall-like expanse of three arches faced the elements for over a century, yet is slowly becoming shoreline crags and fallen arches.

If the town’s front yard is the boardwalk and beachfront, then West Cliff Drive is its front porch.

The drive has been assembled over the years into what it is today: a linear park, tied together in 1976 with its iconic bike path. In the 1960s, West Cliff Drive had a narrow gravel shoulder impossible to bicycle upon. The era’s Car Culture regarded bikes as toys for those without a driver’s license.  Today the West Cliff Bike Path is a vital corridor for biking, hiking, strolling and sightseeing, without a single cross-road for three miles.
Yet the origins of West Cliff Drive were anything but promising. The first construction on West Cliff was the 1849 Anthony Wharf, designed as a potato chute jutting out from the end of Bay Street.  Bought by the lime and cement company in 1853, a massive wharf-side warehouse walled off the cliff front west of Bay Street.

This was referred to as “Warehouse Point.”  It was speculated that Santa Cruz would become a major shipping port, so lots on West Cliff and the waterfront were bought and sold frequently.  But the unsettled condition of land deeds, and the transient nature of the free-flowing Gold Rush population, left the waterfront a low-key shipping destination.


A Santa Cruz lighthouse was recommended as early as 1852, but no one got around to building it until after the Civil War. Almus Rountree had tried to tame the point’s winds by planting a forest of trees, and sold the lighthouse property to the government, with the lighthouse opened in 1869. Lighthouse Avenue was the road to the lighthouse, since each cliffside block was a private estate, owning to the edge of the cliff. Yet those who wanted to enjoy a walk to the lighthouse often followed a footpath along the cliff edge, which crossed private property. To get to the path, you had to go up Bay Street to Lighthouse Avenue, then back down Cowell Street to get around the Cowell property.

Within only a decade the lighthouse had to be moved, as three sea caves under it threatened to collapse. In 1879, the new lighthouse location was just inland of where the road rounds the point, looking out on a natural bridge in a cove. Laura Hecox became lighthouse keeper in 1883. Her studies led to the establishment of a natural history museum, first in her lighthouse home, then in the town. The Lighthouse Natural Bridge collapsed in 1888, leaving a sea stack in the cove.

Meanwhile, the cliff path was eventually enlarged into “Cliff Drive” by 1889, then as the name “East Cliff Drive” came more into use, “West Cliff Drive” was coined to differentiate. The row of homes along the bayside cliff became known as “Newport of the Pacific,” although it was not a row of mansions, but of middle-class homes that reminded folks of the Newport waterfront. Cowell’s warehouse was shortened in 1940, and West Cliff Drive extended to the Depot. The warehouse was finally demolished in 1959.

The lighthouse was used as a spotting tower during World War II, then demolished in 1948, and replaced with an automatic beacon on a derrick, surrounded by a barbed wire-topped cyclone fence right on the point. As a tribute to a man who died surfing, the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse was constructed in place of the derrick in 1967. This put the new building at the site of the first lighthouse. The new lighthouse became the world’s first Surfing Museum in 1986, while the site of the lost natural bridge is now named Laura Hecox Cove.

Wind, wave and erosion

The velocity of winds coming down the coast has led to the planting of numerous windbreaks along West Cliff. The largest of these was the “Forest of Phelan Park,” as Lighthouse Field was once called. A special on-site landscape gardener maintained a park-like setting, emphasizing nature. The cliffs were planted with dune plants like “messembryanthemum” or ice plant.  This provided drought-tolerant flowers and greenscape, fire suppression of volatile grasses, cliff-soil conservation, and erosion control. It was adopted by women’s clubs at the turn of the century to expand the floral aesthetic.

The shoreline is a horizontal layer-cake of strata, which weathers back in stair-step fashion, producing low reefs, shoreline shelves and crags. But this is coupled with a vertical downward-flow erosion, that sculpts the cliff face into accordion folds. And barriers must include weep-holes to prevent moisture build-up. Early solutions were stacked dry concrete sacks that were wetted.

Read more.