October is one of my favorite months. The craziness that is September has passed and things have settled into a nice rhythm. My daughter has gotten used to her school routines, the weather has cooled down and beautiful, orange pumpkins are everywhere. October for our family is when middle school volleyball season is in full swing and our afternoon/evening schedule revolves around games and practices. For the past three years I have been assistant coaching my daughter’s team as well, so it’s been a family affair with hubby helping out on weekends. On the weekends there are volleyball open gyms and clinics to prepare for the up coming club season. So, all this volleyball doesn’t leave much time for weekend campervanning, but last Saturday, the first day of October, we had a free day with nothing scheduled. No volleyball whatsoever! We piled into the campervan without much planning, excited to see what the day would bring, and headed out to do some Octobery things.
We started by heading to Santa Cruz to see if the Monarch butterflies had arrived at the Monarch Grove at Natural Bridges State Beach. The butterflies usually arrive in mid October and leave by mid February, so we knew we were a bit early. We weren’t sure what to expect, but Natural Bridges has a beautiful beach and tide pools, so even if we didn’t see any butterflies we were going to have plenty of things to do there. There is a boardwalk that leads down into the eucalyptus grove where the butterflies congregate. A viewing area right in the middle of a ring of tall eucalyptus trees allows you to sit peacefully and watch the butterflies fly around you. There was a docent on the boardwalk who answered any questions and kindly let you look at at the butterflies up close through his powerful telescope. Monarch butterflies have been returning to this place every year in the thousands. At one point there were 120,000 butterflies that gathered here (counted in 1997), but recently due to urban development, use of herbicides and perhaps the drought, the population has decreased sharply and was last counted at only 8,000. That is a huge decline! One way we can help is to plant nectar sources (i.e. marigolds, lupine, poppies, cosmos, asters, lilacs) and milkweed, which is the only plant the female will lay her eggs, which then the larvae eats. I can’t wait until spring to start a butterfly garden.
We were so happy to see butterflies on the trees, they were active and flying everywhere (so difficult to photograph though!). Their orange color was easy to spot when there was a contrasting color like the sky behind them, but when they were still and resting on dried eucalyptus leaves, they were a little more difficult to see with the naked eye. We stood there for quite some time observing the butterflies, seeing so many fly around us. Across from the entrance/exit of the boardwalk, there is a visitor center (with restrooms) and a milkweed garden.
November is said to be the best time to visit. When we visited in the beginning of October, the trees were starting to see Monarchs on them, but you had to search for any significant clumps of butterflies. There were people there, but not the crowds you would get in November, so I thought it was a nice compromise to be able to see some Monarchs without the crowds.
We parked on the street on Delaware Ave near the back (northern) entrance (you don’t have to pay for parking here) and walked past a gate (Natural Bridges Drive dead ends at this intersection). This straightaway leads to the Monarch grove boardwalk entrance on the left and the visitor center/garden on the right. Straight past this area is a parking lot, then a picnic area and finally the beach (the tide pools are on the far right of the beach, you may have to scramble over rocks). It’s easy to spend an entire day at Natural Bridges, but we wanted to continue on.
We chose apple picking as the next destination since apple picking is another October activity we love to do. We remembered a U-pick apple orchard that we went to a few years back and headed north on Highway 1 from Natural Bridges. The Swanton Pacific Ranch Organic Apple Orchard is maintained by Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and is located about 20 minutes north of Santa Cruz on Swanton Road. The apples were $2.50/pound which you picked, weighed and paid using an honor system. Google maps will take you to a different location, so follow the signs on the road instead.
This orchard was not very big, but they had many varieties of apples. Each of the rows of apple trees were labeled with their name and also with a pink sign that said “Ripe” if they were ready to pick. I really liked the dark purple skinned Sali Red Delicious, I haven’t seen this variety before. We had fun exploring this orchard since there were so many different varieties to choose from. We ended up picking more apples than intended, but so glad we did since we have been devouring them.
On the way back on Swanton Road we passed by Swanton Berry Farm. This is a place we go to pretty much every year to pick strawberries and pick up a jar of jam.
We stopped by New Leaf Market in Half Moon Bay and picked up rotisserie chicken, green onion slab bread, Nicasio Valley cheese, and kale salad (all were delicious!) for dinner. New Leaf Market in Half Moon Bay is a great place to pick up picnic foods. A new Dunkin’ Donuts opened up in Half Moon Bay (one of the first in the Bay area) and we just couldn’t resist. We had a nice meal at Dunes Beach about 5 minutes north of there as we watched the sunset.
Monarch butterflies, apple picking and a picnic dinner watching the sunset over the ocean was a fun way to spend a day along California’s central coast in October. Yes, October is a great month!