Bound for the Sea: Pilkington Creek

Pilkington Creek wends its way to meet the Pacific Ocean at the entrance to Seabright Beach. Photo courtesy of Molly Lautamo.
Pilkington Creek wends its way to meet the Pacific Ocean at the entrance to Seabright Beach. Photo: Courtesy of Molly Lautamo

Pilkington Creek is behind the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History, which is at 1305 E. Cliff Drive. The creek might be a far cry from its wild and scenic past but, if you look closely, this humble creek tells a story of our connection to the land 500 years ago and reminds us of our responsibility to wisely care for the landscape that we call home.

Pilkington Creek is small, but it is an important part of the Monterey Bay watershed system. Photo courtesy of Vivienne Orgel.
Pilkington Creek is small, but it is an important part of the Monterey Bay watershed system. Photo: Courtesy of Vivienne Orgel

Pilkington Creek’s Journey to the Sea

Pilkington Creek is named for Thomas Pilkington, who owned much of the land around the Seabright neighborhood in the late 1800s. The creek extends northward to Broadway, but almost all of its length runs through underground tunnels. It is revealed at Tyrrell Park, which is named for William Tyrrell, who also lived in the Seabright neighborhood in the 1800s. The creek emerges behind the museum from beneath Forbes Street to finish its journey to the ocean at Seabright Beach.

During the rainy season, Pilkington Creek spills out onto Seabright Beach through a culvert and sometimes flows on the surface all the way to the ocean. After it is on the beach, the channel spreads out to more than 10 feet wide, creating a seasonal lagoon that attracts both water-loving children and wildlife.

Pilkington Creek spilling out onto Seabright Beach after a winter storm. Photo courtesy of Molly Lautamo.
Pilkington Creek spilling out onto Seabright Beach after a winter storm. Photo: Courtesy of Molly Lautamo

Pilkington Creek Past and Present

The native people of this area, called the Awaswas,* lived by the seasons, and their diets fluctuated accordingly. You wouldn’t want to refill your water bottle from this creek today, but 300-500 years ago, these native people might have relied on this creek for drinking and cooking water.

The modern-day descendants of the Santa Cruz Awaswas are members of the Amah-Mutsun Tribal Band. Photo courtesy of Molly Lautamo.
The modern-day descendants of the Santa Cruz Awaswas are members of the Amah-Mutsun Tribal Band. Photo: Courtesy of Molly Lautamo

The Awaswas also relied heavily on riparian habitats for food, medicine, and building supplies. Smaller creeks such as Pilkington that have seasonal flows also have seasonal animals. The Awaswas knew that during the rainy season when the water was high, fish might be found in the creek. This attracted omnivores such as raccoons, bobcats, and even bears to feast at the water’s edge. Different plants also produce nuts, seeds, fruits, and new branches at different times of the year, and the Awaswas knew exactly when to harvest specific plants in this area.

The nut of the California hazel (Corylus cornuta) was harvested in late summer and was a staple of the Awaswas’ diet and of tribes throughout the state. Photo courtesy of Fir0002.
The nut of the California hazel (Corylus cornuta) was harvested in late summer and was a staple of the Awaswas’ diet and of tribes throughout the state. Photo: Courtesy of Fir0002

Read Castles in the Moving Sand, the Mobile Ranger article about Seabright Beach’s castle-shaped bathhouse that James Pilkington built in the late 1800s.

Take the Self-Guided Mobile Tour

This piece is part of the Pilkington Creek Walking Tour made possible by the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History. Download the free app with many tours of the Santa Cruz area and beyond.

*The native peoples of the Santa Cruz area of California refer to the region as Cotoni and call themselves the Awaswas. Most folks today think of them as the “Ohlone” people, but this is a misnomer and not how they identify themselves. Today, the descendants of the area’s indigenous forebearers who were “missionized” at Santa Cruz and San Juan Bautista, are organized as the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band. The Cotoni-Awaswas nourished themselves from the sea and tidal zone, as well as harvesting, gathering, and taking game from the coastal uplands. Although not “agricultural” as we tend to think of it, California Indians thrived by actively managing the environment for productivity.

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About The Author

Molly Lautamo is a content strategist and writer in Santa Cruz, California. She loves exploring and researching her surroundings and then writing about her discoveries to inspire others to get out and explore too. You can check out more of Molly's writing at mollylautamo.com.

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21 Comments

    1. Mobile Ranger

      I do not think so. Pilkington Creek is named for Thomas Pilkington, who owned much of the land around the Seabright neighborhood in the late 1800s. J. H. B. Pilkington was warden at Big Basin from 1903 – 1907 according to the book California State Park Rangers
      By Michael G. Lynch. Maybe thats the Pilkington you refer to as Ranger Pilkington?

      Reply
    2. Liz Broughton

      This is from the Museum’s website: “In 1929 Humphrey Pilkington bequeathed his large collection of Indian artifacts to the City of Santa Cruz under the condition that a museum be established to store and display it. Pilkington was a forester and agriculturist and was the first warden at California Redwood Park (now Big Basin Redwoods State Park).”

      Reply
  1. Deanna Seagraves

    We lived for the past 12 years right on the West Branch of Soquel Creek, in a house that had once been a logging cabin, part of a logging camp next to a pond where the logs were captured prior to releasing them downstream to the logging mill. It was also formerly a salmon spawning ground (formerly, that is – not no more) and still is a steelhead spawning ground. It’s stunning to see those gi-normous fish that far upstream!

    Reply

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