When it comes to nature’s beasts, you don’t get much more fascinating than the elephant seal. These incredible creatures are massive (males stretch from 14 to 16 feet long and weigh up to 2 .5 tons), mean (during mating season, bulls establish dominance through violent battles), and were hunted for their oil and nearly wiped out until protected in 1922.
Each year they enact their intense mating rituals at a rocky outcrop just south of San Francisco. Named Punta Año Nuevo because it was first sighted by Spanish explorers on New Year’s Day 1603, the reserve is now the world’s largest mainland northern elephant seal breeding ground—and what a sight to see.
A great time to visit Año Nuevo is from December 15 through March 31, when elephant seals come ashore to give birth and breed. During this time, visits are limited to naturalist-guided walks (three miles, approximately 2.5 hours) that must be booked in advance.
From April through November, visitors may head out on self-guided hikes after obtaining a Visitor’s Permit from the entrance station. While many of the seals will be back at sea during this time, you can still catch some stragglers shedding their outer layer of fur and skin, or a few juveniles who are still learning to swim. You can also take in some of California’s most gorgeous rugged coastline, and meet some of the many species of birds that call this area home.
The hike is considered moderately strenuous, so wear comfortable shoes. And bring warm clothing and a rain jacket as the coastal weather can be unpredictable.
To further enhance the experience, stay at the Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel. Not only is it a certified green business, its cozy, affordable, and, well, a lighthouse—one of America’s tallest lighthouses at that. It’s also got cliff-side hot tub, perfect for pelican and whale watching.
Read about more “wild” adventures in the Bay Area.
It’s best to drive to this one. The park is located 30 miles south of Half Moon Bay, just west of Highway 1. The hardcore, and those staying overnight, could take SamTrans to Cabrillo Highway and Pomponio beach and bike from there. The bus journey with transfers takes just under 3.5 hours, with an additional 1.5 hours of biking.
1 New Years Creek Road
Pescadero, CA 94060
Photos: Marc_Smith, mjambon