It’s time to witness one of the greatest wildlife migrations on the planet, and it’s happening just west of you. Every March and April herds of gray whales can be spotted from shore as they journey northward along the coast, completing the last leg of their 14,000-mile annual round-trip. The proud parents are heading back to their Arctic feeding grounds after giving birth to their calves in the warm waters of Baja California (yes, even baby whales are adorable). It’s the kind of spiritually uplifting getaway that makes you realize that, as Northern Californians, we’re very lucky to be living in one of the most incredibly diverse places on earth. Here are our favorite places along the Northern California coast to spot gray whales — north to south, from Mendocino to Monterey Bay — as well as the best whale watching boat tours and places to stay during your whale watching getaway. And don’t forget to bring binoculars.
Featured Photo: Humpback breaching, courtesy of Oceanic Society
Mendocino Coast Whale Watching
If there was ever a reason to spend a few days on the Mendocino coast, it’s to watch the whales. Because of the way the Mendocino coastline is formed, you can often spot whales right from the shore, while pods of them often feed and rest their young in Mendocino’s sheltered coves (especially near the Point Cabrillo lighthouse). To book a whale watching boat tour, give Captain Tim of All Aboard Adventures a call at 707.964.1881. He also runs sport fishing charters from his berth in Fort Bragg’s Noyo Harbor. Treat yourself to a room at the Harbor House Inn in Elk for more spectacular views, and be sure to make a reservation at its two-starred Michelin restaurant for the finest in foraged and sustainable locavore dining.
Bodega Bay Whale Watching
The whale watching opportunities at Bodega Bay are superb, particularly from the bluffs of Bodega Head, the small peninsula that shelters Bodega Bay. There are two hiking trails that follow the ocean, allowing you to combine both a seaside stroll and whale watching outing. And on weekends through Mother’s Day (May 8), you’ll find volunteer docents from the Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods who’ll share their knowledge of the gray whale migration with visitors. Donations of $5 to $10 per person are appreciated, as they help the stewards continue to provide free docent-led environmental education programs for school groups. To get to Bodega Head from downtown Bodega Bay, turn west on Eastshore Road, then turn right at the stop sign onto Bay Flat Road and follow it a few miles to the very end. Through April several of Bodega Bay’s fishing charters offer whale-watching trips, such as Bodega Bay Sportfishing. And if you’re looking for a romantic place to stay near Bodega Head, the oceanfront Bodega Bay Lodge sits on seven sylvan acres, with wood-burning fireplaces and gorgeous vistas from many of its 83 rooms.
Point Reyes National Seashore Whale Watching
This whale watching outing makes for a wonderful day trip from the Bay Area. The lighthouse at Point Reyes National Seashore is the top spot on the California coast to see gray whales as they make their northward migrations. But it’s no secret either, so if you plan to drive out to the lighthouse, arrive early as parking is limited and the winter bus shuttle has been discontinued due to Covid. If possible, come on a weekday and dress warmly — it’s often quite cold and windy out there. There’s also nothing wrong with an overnight stay that helps you get an early start; we recommend the cabins and suites of Manka’s Inverness Lodge, now part of Hotel Olema, which includes the delicious Sir and Star restaurant.
San Francisco Bay Whale Watching
Our secret spot to watch whales that’s very close to San Francisco: Point Bonita Lighthouse on the southwest tip of the Marin Headlands. While the lighthouse itself is currently closed to tours, the views of the entrance to the San Francisco Bay are sensational at this prime location for spotting gray whales as they round the point. But if you really want to get a good look at these gentle giants, sign up for a whale watching cruise with Oceanic Society Expeditions, which run 7.5-hour weekend tours April through November. Tours depart from the San Francisco Yacht Harbor near Marina Green Park, pass Point Bonita and then head 27 miles offshore to the Farallon Islands. Expert naturalists are on board to tell you everything you’ve ever wanted to know about whales, including that blue whales as well as some gray whales live near the Farallones year round.
Half Moon Bay Whale Watching
A leisurely 45-minute drive from San Francisco, Half Moon Bay is one of our favorite coastal towns on the California coast. With its pristine beaches, mild climate, and easy access via Highway 1 or, from the Peninsula and East Bay via Highway 92, it’s the perfect solution for anyone in need a peaceful weekend getaway — especially when combined with a whale watching cruise. Contact Captain Duane Winter (a.k.a Capt. Dew) of Mooch Better Fishing at 650.888.5125 for a charter tour from Johnson Pier in Pillar Point Harbor. For a luxurious getaway, add a night at the oceanside Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay.
Monterey Bay Whale Watching
The placid waters of Monterey Bay offer fantastic whale watching opportunities (including while lounging on a hotel’s rooftop hot tub), but you’ll have much better odds of spotting them during a whale watching cruise with Monterey Bay Whale Watch, owned by marine biologist Nancy Black. She’s been observing whales, dolphins and other marine mammals in the bay for more than 30 years. Combine one of her company’s daily 3- and 4-hour tours with a trip to the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium, and you’re guaranteed to have an aquatically enlightening getaway. To try your chances at seeing a cetacean from a hot tub, book a room and a spa treatment at Monterey Plaza Hotel and Spa, which offers two rooftop whirlpools.