Where Have All the Bridges Gone at Natural Bridges State Beach?

The lone remaining arch at Natural Bridges State Beach in April 2012. Photo © Mobile Ranger.
The lone remaining arch at Natural Bridges State Beach in April 2012. Photo © Mobile Ranger.

The name Natural Bridges may seem deceiving when you first visit the state beach at the end of West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz, California. Just one picturesque rock arch stands offshore in the crashing waves. You can’t even call it a bridge because it doesn’t connect to anything.

The three natural bridges circa 1900. At this time they were connected to land so technically are considered arches as well as bridges. Photo courtesy of Frank Perry and UCSC Special Collections
The three natural bridges circa 1900. At this time they were connected to land so technically are considered arches as well as bridges. Photo courtesy of Frank Perry and UCSC Special Collections

So why does the name imply multiple bridges? Perhaps Alexander Weiss, one of the local park rangers back in the ’70s and ’80s, said it best in his poem, “Ode to the Natural Bridges Arch” (see the end of this post for the complete poem):

Once three arches stood in this park
As if windows to the sea,
But wind-blown sand and storms like sharks
Attacked them constantly

The three bridges at Natural Bridges State Beach circa 1950. Photo courtesy Frank Perry.
The two remaining natural bridges circa 1950. Photo: Courtesy Frank Perry

Time Takes Its Toll

Before 1905, two additional stone arches connected today’s remaining arch to the cliffs where the parking lot sits today, forming three natural bridges. This cliff was once a long, narrow peninsula before the ocean eroded away everything but the middle section, which is now the last arch. Bridges typically form in peninsulas like this one as the waves are bent around the headland, focusing energy on both flanks. The waves sometimes erode caves on either side of the rock that eventually meet, or the bridge can originate from a small hole that grows bigger over many years and eventually erodes through to the other side.

Waves both created and destroyed the three bridges that once stood at Natural Bridges State Beach.
Waves both created and destroyed the three bridges that once stood at Natural Bridges State Beach. Photo: Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History

At Natural Bridges, the rock is Santa Cruz Mudstone, which is fairly resistant to erosion. This means that after a bridge is formed, it will last for decades. Eventually as the base of the rock erodes, the opening enlarges until the entire formation collapses, as did the outermost bridge sometime after autumn of 1905. Some believe that the 1906 earthquake caused the collapse, but there’s no evidence to prove this theory. It was probably just time taking its toll.

The innermost bridge in winter 1979 just months before it collapsed. Photo courtesy of Frank Perry.
The second-to-last arch came close to collapsing in winter 1979. Photo: Courtesy of Frank Perry

In 1974, a couple was married atop one of the two remaining bridges. Their wedding day marked the last time visitors were legally allowed onto the eroding mudstone formation. Six years later, on the dark and stormy night of January 10, 1980, the bridge closest to shore gave way. The park rangers were so saddened when the second bridge fell that they held a wake to commemorate its passing. Alexander Weiss, a park ranger, recited this poem that he wrote for the occasion:

Ode to the Natural Bridges Arch
By Alexander Weiss
January 13, 1980


Once three arches stood in this park
As if windows to the sea,
But wind-blown sand and storms like sharks
Attacked them constantly


This force made one disappear
Sometime ’round 1900;
The other two, like some stone brassiere
Would not be split asunder


But time and storms, they do not care,
And the near arch slowly shed
Bits and pieces here and there
Til it looked quite underfed


In February ’79
That shed quite a chunk,
And again in October, into the brine
Went some more kerplink! Kerplunk!


The arch now was thin and weak,
But gave not up and stayed;
As if it had some goal to seek,
It saw the new decade!


But as the seventies passed on
And the eighties had begun,
It knew it could not last for long
For it was erosion’s son:


For through erosion it was born
And through erosion it would die
And such a death one does not mourn
One merely says goodbye.


The night of January 10th
It gave up the ghost,
And we are here not to lament,
But to offer it a toast:


Here’s to arches that are gone
And to new ones on the way,
For just as sure as there’s a dawn
There’ll be some more some day!


And to our last remaining arch
That now stands like some island fort,
We pledge that we will always march
To give our arch support

Visitors walk through the remaining arch during low tide.
Visitors walk through the remaining arch during an unusually low tide. Photo: Jim Whitehead/Mobile Ranger

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This piece is part of the Santa Cruz Marine Protected Areas Beaches Tour made possible by the Santa Cruz Collaborative with support from the California Marine Sanctuary Foundation and the Resources Legacy Fund. Download the free app with many tours of the Santa Cruz area and beyond.

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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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