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The damage to the campgrounds at Seacliff State Beach. (Photo: © California State Parks, all rights reserved.)

Extreme Weather Devastated This California State Beach

Seacliff State Beach near Santa Cruz, California, felt the wrath of Mother Nature last week. These photos show the full extent of the damage.

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The scene in Capitola, California, looks grim this week, as cleanup crews work on the coastal homes, businesses, and landmarks that were damaged by the recent “bomb cyclone” storm. Located just east of Santa Cruz, Capitola was one of the hardest hit communities in the state. Sections of its iconic wharf toppled into the sea after being battered by whitecaps, and shops and restaurants along its popular beachfront were inundated by the surf.

During the storm I habitually doomscrolled social media for images and videos of the town. Two decades ago I lived there, just above the surf break at Pleasure Point, and my time in Capitola and at nearby University of California at Santa Cruz helped stoke my love of outdoor recreation. My best memories of Capitola are of surf sessions, beach bonfires, a few labored jogs in the local Wharf to Wharf footrace, and more than a few cocktails at Zelda’s on the Beach, which, alas, suffered catastrophic flooding. The scenes of destruction made my heart ache for the local communities, which lost beloved businesses as well as invaluable infrastructure for hikers, surfers, and other outdoor enthusiasts.

Just down the road from Capitola are two popular state beaches: Seacliff and New Brighton, both of which sustained damage from the storm. New Brighton is known for its deep sand and campgrounds. It’s the beach that’s close enough to town for a spur-of-the-moment overnighter to go fall asleep to the sound of thumping waves. Luckily, the beach escaped with comparatively minor destruction—the road to the campgrounds was flooded.

The destroyed pier no longer reaches the concrete ship. (Photo: California State Parks, all rights reserved)

Seacliff State Beach, however, was utterly devastated by the storm surge. The California Parks department sent me these photos showing the extent of the damage.

Seacliff is famous for its wharf. At the far end of the wooden pylons rests the hull of a boat named SS Palo Alto—known by locals as “cement ship”—which is a big draw for tourists and locals alike. Back in the 1930s an amusement park company had the decommissioned ship towed to the end of the pier and then staged parties and concerts in its ballroom. After the company went bust, the ship stayed put, and for decades stood a landmark for swimmers, fisherman, and tourists right at the end of the pier.

During my time in Capitola, the Seacliff pier was where I’d stop on my bike rides to check the surf. I recall bobbing in the waves on my foam Doyle board while taking the UC Santa Cruz surfing class. And the pier was also a handy landmark for open-water swimming. I swam out and around the ship several times, most notably during the local Sandman Triathlon, a fun entry-level race organized by the local junior beach lifeguards.

The parking lot for the campground was washed away. (Photo: California State Parks, all rights reserved)

Last week’s waves obliterated the pier entirely and reportedly broke the cement ship into multiple pieces. Kevin Painchaud of website Lookout Santa Cruz documented its losing battle against the sea in a series of videos. Now, the whole structure lies in ruins. It appears to be a total loss.

“People are shocked,” Gabe McKenna, the superintendent of Santa Cruz Public Safety told website SFgate. “Seacliff State Beach is one of the most popular in Santa Cruz County and the greater Bay Area. Visitation is extremely high. It’s one of those places that’s kind of multigenerational. People have been going there for a long time.”

The ship and pier weren’t the only structures at Seacliff to be reduced to rubble. These photos, sent to Outside from the California Parks Department, show the concrete seawall in tatters, and total destruction of the main parking lot and picnic area. Huge waves reportedly washed the primary campground away as well. Splintered trees now dot what’s left of the beach. The beach is closed indefinitely, with no timeline for reopening.

The concrete seawall was smashed by the high surf. (Photo: California State Parks, all rights reserved)

Waves swept across the picnic area and the cabana shelters. (Photo: California State Parks, all rights reserved)
Sand and rocks were deposited in the former seawall. (Photo: California State Parks, all rights reserved)
The picnic area was left in disarray. (Photo: California State Parks, all rights reserved)

“We’ve lost so much pavement and underground utilities there. More than half the seawall is gone in there,” Chris Spohrer, district superintendent for the Santa Cruz District of California State Parks, told Lookout Santa Cruz.

Officials haven’t given a timeline for recovery, which is understandable, given the scope of the damage. California governor Gavin Newsom toured Capitola and Seacliff on Tuesday, telling local media that he’s already been in touch with the White House to request emergency funding to repair the beach and the community. Newsom said it’s too early to know whether state or federal funds will drive the recovery, or how much time it will take to rebuild the town and beach. It looks like another storm is slated to batter the area later this week, so crews are unlikely to begin building anything soon.

I know I’m not alone in hoping that Capitola and Seacliff make speedy recoveries from the devastation. A group of locals is collecting donations to fund Seacliff’s recovery. Hopefully, locals and tourists will be back camping, fishing, surfing, and sunbathing along that stretch of coastline soon, and the events of January 2023 will soon fade into history.

Lead Photo: © California State Parks, all rights reserved.

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