If you’re looking for something interesting and affordable to do this winter in Northern California, Mother Nature is putting on some pretty good free shows this time of year. Much of the winter wildlife in Northern California is doing the wild thing, and they don’t care who’s watching.
Some of the most fascinating eco-excursions in the state only take place in the winter, such as the monarch butterfly migration to Pacific Grove, millions of migrating waterfowl in Sacramento Valley, and elephant seal mating rituals at Año Nuevo State Reserve (believe me, if you’ve never seen a pair of 2-ton elephant seal bulls fighting over a lady, you’re in for a treat). So grab your day-planner right now and sign yourself up for a Winter Wildlife Watching getaway.
Elephant Seal Mating Season at Año Nuevo State Park
One of the most spectacular animal attractions on the entire California Coast is the Northern Elephant Seal breeding grounds at Año Nuevo State Park, located 55 miles south of San Francisco off Highway 1 along the southern San Mateo County Coast.
You can spot massive elephant seals sunning themselves on the beaches here year-round, but from December through March, people reserve tickets weeks in advance for a chance to witness a fearsome clash between the 4000-pound bulls over mating privileges among the ladies (talk about tough love). And if you’re really lucky you’ll get to witness pregnant seals coming ashore to have their pups, which begins in mid-December and peaks by late January.
The docent-led tours consist of a 3-mile walk over rolling sand dunes, last about 2-1/2 hours, and take place daily from early morning to mid-afternoon. Reservations are required for the $7 tours, which are held rain or shine December 15 through March 31.
Thousands of people visit each year, so you’ll want to make reservations as far in advance as possible by calling 800/444-4445 or logging onto anonuevo.reserveamerica.com. Parking is $10 per vehicle. You’ll want to dress warm and bring binoculars and a camera with a long lens. No pets are allowed.
Even if it’s not mating season, you can still see the elephant seals lolling around the shore almost year-round, particularly between April and August when they come ashore to molt.
For more info about Año Nuevo State Park’s guided elephant seal walks, log onto www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=523. (TIP: From this webpage you can also click on the “Elephant Seal Camera” link on the right side and watch a live video stream of the seals.)
A Waterfowl Wonderland in Sacramento Valley
You’d think watching ducks and geese fly around would be kinda boring, but you’re just going to have to trust me on this one. Each winter parts of Sacramento Valley become literally blanketed with migrated ducks and geese—more than a million ducks and half a million geese. It’s an awe-inspiring sight to see thousands of white geese flapping their immense wings as they soar right above your head, so close your can hear the sounds of their wing beats (the photo ops are spectacular, particularly at dawn and dusk).
The best place to witness this winter spectacle is at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, located about 90 miles north of Sacramento. The refuge has two viewing areas, or you can just sit in your warm car with your binoculars and bird identification book and watch the show. It makes for a wonderful weekend family getaway.
Pacific Grove’s Butterfly Town USA
Pacific Grove is called “Butterfly Town USA” for a reason. From October through February, thousands upon thousands of monarch butterflies migrate here, traveling from as far away as Alaska. It’s a fascinating natural phenomenon: To get here, the delicate little guys travel as far as 2,000 miles, covering 100 miles a day at an altitude of 10,000 feet.
Many of the butterflies settle in Pacific Grove’s Monarch Grove Sanctuary, an eucalyptus stand on Grove Acre Avenue off Lighthouse Avenue, as well as the “butterfly trees” at George Washington Park (Pine Avenue and Alder streets). It’s a sight you’ll never forget.
Point Reyes Bird Observatory
Even if you can’t tell a condor from a cormorant, you’ll enjoy an outing to the Point Reyes Bird Observatory in Bolinas, one of the few full-time ornithological research stations in the United States. This is where ornithologists keep an eye on more than 400 feathered species that live in the region.
Admission to the visitor center and nature trail is free, and visitors are welcome to observe the tricky process of netting and banding the birds. It’s a wonderful way to spend the day with the kids, learning about the ecosystem of birds and other wildlife while playing “I spy” with your bird-spotting book and binoculars.
Tide Pool Adventures near Half Moon Bay
Get back in touch with your inner child and spend the day plonking through one of the best tide pools in the Bay Area, looking and touching all those weird and slimy things living or growing on the rocks. Located about 7 miles north of Half Moon Bay on Highway 1, the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve at Moss Beach is one of the most diverse tidal basins on the West Coast, as well as one of the safest, thanks to a wave-buffering rock terrace 150 feet from the beach.
Call before coming to find out when it’s low tide (all the sea creatures are hidden at high tide) and to get information on the docent-led tour schedules (usually offered on Saturday). It’s a great way to spend the day with the family.
Elkhorn Slough Safari in Moss Landing
I’ve actually received letters from readers about how much fun they had on this trip. Just north of Monterey on Highway 1 is Moss Landing, home of Captain Yohn Gideon’s Elkhorn Slough Safari. Friendly Cap’n Gideon loads guests onto his 27-foot pontoon boat, then embarks on a 2-hour journey of the Elkhorn Slough Wildlife Reserve.
It’s not uncommon to see a raft of up to 50 otters sunning themselves, as well as harbor seals and hundreds of species of waterfowl and migratory shorebirds. An onboard naturalist answers questions, while Cap’n Gideon educates on the surroundings and hands out binoculars.