Santa Cruz Unlocked

Want to know more about local landmarks and natural marvels as you pass them? There’s an app for that.

 By Melissa Duge Spiers


Photo: Neil Simmons

Have you found yourself playing tour guide for out-of-town guests—or your own children—and suddenly realized you don’t know if the Cement Ship is actually made of cement, or how to identify a sea lion from a seal? Or have you simply wandered through town solo and wished you knew more about, say, the Venetian canal in Capitola, those cool old crumbling buildings on the UC Santa Cruz campus, or the various sketchy staircases carved into the bluffs surrounding downtown Santa Cruz?


Bonny Doon Beach. photo: Kyle Hawton


Local husband/wife team Julia Gaudinski and Jim Whitehead have come to your rescue, putting their combined doctorates in earth science and computational media to work in Mobile Ranger, a free downloadable app that makes everyone an instant expert on all things Santa Cruz. With 17 modules (so far) on places and topics ranging from the Mission Hill Stairs and phytoplankton to Año Nuevo Lighthouse and historic art, the Mobile Ranger lives up to its name in many ways. Not only does it give you the classic state-parks-guide nitty gritty about flora and fauna in every nook and cranny of our diverse county, it also provides an extremely broad (and often amusing) range of topics, including history, politics, “geek details,” comparative photographs, and some really juicy ancient gossip (find out all about “Fabulous Fred” Swanson in the Natural Bridges Hotel tab). Users learn about subjects like the Miocene-age calcium carbonate formations known as the “toilet bowls” and a canine Marine named Swabby the War Dog, each of which is supplemented by everything from scientific diagrams and geological records to long-forgotten local poetry and scandal sheets. Information is packaged in easily navigable, self-serve nuggets, so you can wallow in or pass over any topic according to your interest.

Screen Shot 2017-03-02 at 10.45.52 AM

The Elkhorn Slough. Photo: Erik Landry

Once you choose a tour (e.g. West Cliff Drive) you can then select whatever suits your path and interests and explore at your own pace, whether you want to know more about Millionaire’s Row, The Guardian of the Naked, or coastal erosion. And if your interests end up outpacing the given information on any topic, each section is further augmented with hyperlinked footnotes to all reference sources. You’ll never look at your Santa Cruz surroundings the same way.


Did You Know …

  • The number of monarchs that stop at Natural Bridges State Beach during their migration has recently fallen from 150,000 butterflies to just a few thousand?
  • There’s an unofficial nude beach at the end of Auburn Avenue?
  • Our purple olive sea snail shells were once a valued currency?
  • The San Lorenzo River once hosted mock naval battles?
  • Santa Cruz is one of the only “surfing reserves” in the world?
  • Elephant seals can dive more than a mile deep?
  • The Santa Cruz Bowls Club has hosted two national lawn bowling championships?
  • The Giant Dipper was built in 47 days?
  • Loudon Nelson’s first name was actually London?



Give It a Try:

  1. Download the free app in the iPhone App Store or Android Google Store.
  2. Select your tour and get started
  3. Sign up at, which notifies subscribers of extended stories and in-depth articles written by local experts that are posted several times per month.


Leave a Comment