I love to explore the fossil beach north of Seacliff. The cliffs and tide pools between New Brighton and Capitola are only accessible only a handful of times each year, so every walk is a real treat. “The Boneyard” has to be a new name; it’s only recently I’ve heard neighbors use that phrase. It’s a perfect reference to the large mammal fossils in the cliffs that break off and tumble onto the sand. I like it. “The Boneyard” captures the raison d’etre for the walk and lends the appropriate sense of excitement.
You can explore the fossil beach only when the tide is low enough. And when you go, don’t expect you’ll necessarily see the same things I show here. The landscape always changes. New fossils are often exposed when pieces of the cliff crumble and tumble onto the sand. Big waves and storms move the rocks and boulders or claim them back to the deeper parts of the Monterey Bay. It’s guaranteed you’ll see fossils, but you can never count on which ones or where they’ll be.
It’s the equally lovely to see the treasures low tide uncovers. Anemones peeking out of the sand, chitons and barnacles clinging to the rocks, and hermit crabs scurrying out of the way of our shadows. I love the walk and the treasures we find, but even better than that is experiencing it with so many people, of all ages, who come to enjoy this seldom-seen beauty.
Fossils and tide pools aside, this piece of the Monterey Bay between those Capitola and New Brighton is also my favorite to explore by water. It’s called Shark Park now because of the juvenile great white sharks that have been making these waters home in the spring and summer months for the past several years. If you are interested in a shark-viewing boat tour, bookmark the Sea Spirit Ocean Safari. I’ve been out with them several times now. The captain and naturalist are top notch and do a great job.
The kelp beds closer to Capitola house sea otters and kelp crabs that you can observe from the water. I’ve paddled a on a kayak and watched harbor porpoises, dolphins, and sea lions all passing near me to feed. In recent years, we’ve even had humpback whales lunge feeding here, between the Cement Ship and New Brighton. Here’s a snapshot I got from an iPhone 6s several years ago. That’s a humpback’s mouth!
The geology of the Boneyard
The fossils are embedded in a layer of rock called the Purisima Formation, a layer of grey-blue sandstone that, in the Capitola-to-Seacliff Beach region, was formed from sediment being deposited from rivers between 5.3 and 2.5 million years ago in the Pliocene Era. That makes it very young, geologically. To give that some context, the cliffs were formed about 60 million years after dinosaurs became extinct and about the same time, that hominids, the humanlike primates that are our evolutionary ancestors, evolved in Africa. So, no icthyosaur fossils. But you can find identifiable vertebrae, and long bones that came from whales and sea lions or related cetaceans and pinnipeds.
Then there are lots and lots of invertebrate fossils: clams, oysters, sand dollars, and more, often identifiable, You’ll find large and small chunks of fossil-embedded sandstone on the cliffs as well as buried in layers in the cliff.
Looks pretty cool, doesn’t it? The caveat is that you can’t always get here. Read through the tips below on planning a safe fossil hunting excursion.
Planning your trip
Disclaimer: take this walk at your own risk.
I am providing you the best information I have to take this walk at a safe and comfortable time.
It’s important to plan your trip in advance so you don’t get trapped by an incoming tide. Even if the tide is low, if it’s been stormy or if you see large waves breaking right on the shore, plan to go some other time. You want to do this walk when it’s pleasant, calm, sunny, and no shore break. If you have any hesitation, wait for the next minus tide.
The route isn’t long. When I went recently during a -1.4 low tide, I tracked the roundtrip walk on Strava at 1.38 miles starting and ending at the parking lot at New Brighton. It’s also flat; the only elevation gain comes if you park at New Brighton and walk down then back up the cliff.
Wear rubber soled shoes that can get wet. There’s normally an outflow at New Brighton you’ll need to cross, either by stepping over stones or just wading through the water. The terrain is flat but it is uneven and slippery. You will be occasionally walking across either a slick rock shelf exposed at low tide or over rock rubble as you climb to look for fossils.
There are usually off-leash dogs. People love bringing their dogs with them on this walk, and the dogs enjoy it too. And even though Santa Cruz County has a strict 6′ leash law, even with the risk of being cited, you will often you see dogs off leash. This is important to know if you are scared around dogs, have an aggressive dog, or have a dog that doesn’t play well with others.
Grab a snack. I like to start at New Brighton and have a snack in Capitola Village before heading back. It’s nice to grab an espresso to go from Zelda’s and look for shark’s teeth in the jetty. Sometimes we opt for a slice of cheese from Pizza My Heart or Polar Bear ice cream with chocolate sprinkles at Souza’s. I’ve noticed lots of new boba tea shops in Capitola Village as well, if that’s your preference.
Here are a few tips to choose the best times to explore the fossil beach:
- Choose a day and time with a minus low tide. I like to use this tide chart to plan ahead dates and times when it’s possible to make the walk.
- Even with a minus tide, you’ll need to check and make sure there are no big swells or stormy seas. Check this webcam from Surfline shows the condition of the water looking towards Seacliff and tell you the swell height.
- Give yourself a minimum of 1.5 hours for the roundtrip walk to give yourself time to explore the tide pools and the fossils in the cliffs.
- The cliffs DO erode. There are rocks of all sizes that can tumble down without warning.
- Keep your eyes on the water as well as the cliffs.
- Park either in Capitola or at New Brighton State Beach. There are public bathrooms in each location.
- Parking at New Brighton is $10 unless you have a prepaid day pass. The price of parking in Capitola Village can change, but right now it’s .50/hour in one of the lots or 1.50/hour at a meter, but you’re limited to 2 hours. If you intend to make the roundtrip walk to want to park in the .50/hour lots Parking in Capitola is 1.50/hour at the meters in the Village with a 2-hour maximum. Here’s a link to the City of Capitola’s parking information.
Take all the photos you want,
but leave the fossils and fossil rocks for everyone else to enjoy!
Because it’s low tide, you’ll see more than the fossils. Anemones are plentiful in the sand as well as on the boulders. Look for chitons, hermit crabs, limpets, and egrets feeding in the exposed eel grass.
If you are patient and watch, you may even see a nudibranch or tiny sculpins. I’ve never found sea stars or urchins in the tide pools along this stretch of beach, but I DID hear about someone seeing a small red octopus once. Keep your eyes open and be patient when you explore the fossil beach.
To learn more
The Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History is a great resource to learn more about the geologic history and types of fossils in the area. If you make the time to visit, you can see some of the larger mammal fossils they’ve collected, including an impressively large mastodon skull found in Aptos Creek by a local resident.
“The Purisima Formation and Related Rocks” by Charles L. Powell II is a report available here from the USGS portal that describes the geography, age, and distribution of invertebrate fossils.