NorCal Winter Wildlife Watching

NorCal Winter Wildlife Watching

If you’re looking for something interesting and affordable to do this winter in Northern California, Mother Nature puts on some pretty good free shows. Much of the winter wildlife in Northern California is doing the wild thing, and they don’t care who is 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

Photo: Courtesy of Sarah Stierch

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 mid-December through March, people reserve tickets weeks in advance for a chance to witness a fearsome clash between the 4,000-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 to 4 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 (+$3.99 reservation fee) 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 Reserve California.

Parking is $10 per vehicle. You’ll want to dress warm and bring binoculars and a camera with zoom power. 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 November when they come ashore to molt. (TIP: Once on the Año Nuevo State Park website, you can also click on the “Año Nuevo Island Camera” link on the right side and watch a live video stream of the seals.)    

A Waterfowl Wonderland in Sacramento Valley

Photo: Courtesy of Jianguo Fan

You’d think watching ducks and geese fly around would be kind of boring, but you’re just going to have to trust me on this one. Each winter parts of Sacramento Valley are blanketed with migrating 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 above your head, so close you can hear the sounds of their wings beating (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 and an auto tour that makes it oh so easy to 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

Photo: Courtesy of Agunther

Pacific Grove is called “Butterfly Town USA” for a reason. From November to February, thousands of monarch butterflies migrate here, traveling from as far away as Canada. 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 the Pacific Grove’s Monarch Grove Sanctuary at 250 Ridge Road. Visitors are welcome daily, from sunrise to sunset. Docents are on duty most weekend days.

Tide Pool Adventures Near Half Moon Bay

Photo: Courtesy of Brocken Inaglory

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. Check the tide tables before coming to find out when it’s low tide, as all of the sea creatures are hidden at high tide. It’s a great way to spend the day with the family.    

Elkhorn Slough Safari in Moss Landing

Photo: Courtesy of Elkhorn Slough Safari

I’ve actually received letters from readers about how much fun they had on Elkhorn Slough Safari Nature Boat Tours. 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. Wetlands tours take place on a 27-foot pontoon boat and last about two hours. Tours are scheduled to take advantage of the best wildlife sighting possibilities, so the schedule can vary from one week to the next. Reservations are required; if you don’t see the date you were hoping for online, don’t be afraid to call 831.633.5555 about last-minute openings. There’s no cover on the boat and no bathroom, so plan accordingly.

Looking for more things to do in the area?

Visit our What to Do in Northern California page!

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