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Sunset State Beach

 Sunset State Beach in March

Our first visit to Sunset State Beach, near Watsonville and Pajaro was to visit our daughter when she camped there with a large group of high school friends and a few sets of parents. BTW (by the way), the photo above shows only about half of the beach, looking toward the Monterey Peninsula.

The first inhabitants of the area were the Ohlone people, a group of Native Americans who traded dried abalone, abalone shells, salt, and mussels for piñon nuts and obsidian. The Ohlone also hunted deer, small game, elk, sea mammals and the occasional bear. They fished for trout and salmon in nearby streams. The lives of the Ohlone were forever changed by the California Missions and their numbers were reduced by European diseases to which they lacked immunity.

From the 1830s to the 1870s, the area was part of the Ranchos San Andreas and Bolsa del Pajaro. In 1852, John H. Watson (no relation to the friend of Sherlock Holmes :-) ) claimed half of Bolsa del Pajaro to build the town of Watsonville. Eight years later, his claim was rejected, but Watsonville continued to grow. Pajaro Landing became a major shipping point for produce until the Southern Pacific Railroad took over the shipping of freight in the 1880s. W.J. Rogers, a lumber dealer, built Port Watsonville for steamship service to San Francisco in 1903, but the port went bankrupt in 1913. Leslie A. Kester bought the land in 1919 and sold it to William Van Laanan, a dairy farmer, in 1938. In 1983, Mrs. Van Laanan sold 8 acres near the current park entrance to the State of California to be added to the 159 acres that the state had acquired in 1931 for Sunset State Beach. The remnants of the Van Laanan farm buildings can be seen near the park entrance. Please do not disturb them. With increased private development in the area, residents became concerned about loss of public access to the beach, and this concern became the impetus behind public ownership of Sunset State Beach.

The *natural* history of the area is perhaps even more interesting. Sunset State Beach has 4 major plant communities, each with its associated wildlife:

1) Coastal Scrub: Plants on the sand dunes and sandy slopes include bush lupine, beach sagewort, coyote brush, the ever-present western poison oak  :-)  (even some very famous nature photographers admit to having suffered itching rashes from THIS plant, beware!), sand gilia, mock heather, and seaside wooly sunflower. Brush rabbits, western fence lizards, dusky-footed wood rats, Pacific gopher snakesAmerican kestrelsred-tailed hawksAnna’s hummingbirds, song sparrows, and rufous-sided towhees inhabit this community. When we visited in early March, the California State Flower, the California poppy, was in full bloom all over the sand dunes.

2) Coastal woodlands: Bishop pineMonterey cypress, and the introduced Monterey pine, with an understory of sea fig and coyote brush are the dominant species of plants. Eucalpytus trees, which provide a place for the migratory monarch butterflies to gather, are also present. California pocket micepinyon miceSteller’s jays, and chestnut-backed chickadees are present. The campgrounds (90 dune-protected sites) are in this community.

3) Dune mat/Coastal strand: The habitat-destroying European dune grass is being replaced with native beach burr, sand verbena, and beach sagewort by park managers, to attract white-crowned sparrowsdark-eyed juncos, and California towheesCaspianelegant, and royal terns, California gulls, and California brown pelicans can be found at the mouth of the Pajaro River. Other animal inhabitants include brush rabbitsdeer mice, black legless lizards, coast garter snakes, and northern alligator lizards.

4) Marshlands: Pickleweed, coastal salt grass, and coast gum plant of the salt marsh areas shelter cinnamon tealsmeadow miceSavannah Sparrows, and raccoons (remember that some say raccoons can even “pick” locks!). The wetlands at the mouth of the Pajaro River include broad leaf cattailwillow, and California bulrush that shelter mallards, cinnamon teal, red-winged blackbirdsAmerican bitterns, and long-billed marsh wrens.

Camping accommodations in the 90 shady dune-protected family sites (no hookups) can handle recreational vehicles up to 31 feet. When we were there in early March, the campgrounds were in bloom (123) with wildflowers . Fishing (a sport fishing license is required) at Sunset includes surf perch, sardines, and the occasional striped bass. Two large pavilions (ramadas) for picnicking can be reserved for special events, and RC (radio-controlled aircraft) enthusiasts will find a glider port at Sunset as well.

The park brochure for Sunset State Beach and Manresa State Beach has even more information, detailed maps of the area, and contact information for these, as well as several neighboring State Parks and State Beaches. Links to my recent photos (March) of Santa Cruz Area Beaches and Steamer Lane surfing are at this blog entry.

-Bill at Cheshire Cat Photo™

You can view higher-resolution photos (*generally* 7-30 megabytes, compressed) at the Cheshire Cat Photo™ Pro Gallery on Shutterfly™, where you can also order prints and gifts decorated with the photos of your choice from the gallery. Apparel and other gifts decorated with some of our most popular photos can be ordered from the Cheshire Cat Photo™ Store on CafePress®.  Both Shutterfly™ and CafePress® ship to most international locations worldwide.

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