Monday, December 7, 2015

Elephant Seals at Ano Nuevo State Park

This past summer we spent a long weekend in San Luis Obispo County, which we capped off with a drive along Highway One. One of our many stops along the drive home was to view the elephant seals in San Simeon. The kids loved watching the massive seals bark and play in the water and enthusiastically imitated them for a good portion of our drive home. Over Thanksgiving weekend we made a last minute decision (as in Saturday night at 10:30) to take a trip down to Ano Nuevo State Park the following morning to visit some more elephant seals! When the kids woke up I told them about our plans and the house was soon filled with the familiar barks of our girls doing their best seal impressions. A pretty good start to the day!

Ano Nuevo State Park is located just off Highway One between Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz and is known for being one of the largest mainland breeding colonies in the world for the northern elephant seal. The peak viewing months are mid-December through March, at which time you can only view the seals on guided tours that cost $7/person (kids 3 and under are free). The seals are present year-round however, so don't fret if a guided tour isn't your cup of tea.

We were lucky to get exceptional weather on our late-November visit. Highs were in the low-60's with perfectly blue skies and a slight breeze. This part of the coast is frequently fogged in, so clear skies felt like an extra special treat. In order to reach the elephant seals, there is a relatively easy 1.5 mile walk (3 miles roundtrip) that is primarily along a well maintained trail but requires walking through soft sand for the last 1/4 of a mile. Along the path (which is stroller friendly!) there are multiple viewing points where you can peer out at the ocean.

About a quarter of a mile into the hike there is a short trail that will take you down to this lovely beach.

The views are spectacular and there is plenty of wildlife to spot (this is definitely a trip worth bringing some binoculars on). We saw large hawks and bird formations as well as several whales breaching off the coast!

Here my youngest is asking if she can "take this one home, please?"

The kids did really well on the walk out to the elephant seals and were especially spirited when it got to the sand portion of the trail. Once you reach the sand there are three viewing areas to see the seals. While I was tempted to go to the furthest viewing point, we eventually decided that the closest one was a safer bet. Each viewing point has volunteers available to answer questions and provide information about the seals. The girls enjoyed watching the seals "wave" at us as well as the occasional attempts at moving along the sand.

The trail is an out-and-back trail, so we headed back the way we came, making the occasional stop to admire the views. I recommend bringing a good stroller if you are visiting with young kids. We ended up carrying the girls a good portion of the walk back, so a carrier or stroller would have made this much easier.

Assuming you are coming from the Bay Area, there are a couple of great options for stops on your drive home. We had never been to Pescadero, so we made a quick detour on our way home to grab some food and check out the shops. Arcangeli Grocery Co is famous for their freshly baked artichoke bread, so we grabbed a loaf and enjoyed it in the small picnic area behind the store. The Pescadero Country Store seemed to be a popular spot and the outdoor picnic area looked like a great place to enjoy a beer and let the kids run around (next time!). Overall, I was a bit underwhelmed with Pescadero, but it's possible my expectations were a bit high. I would give it another shot and would like to make a visit to nearby Harley Farms.


If you are looking for a really exceptional place to eat on your way home, I highly recommend making a stop at Cafe Capistrano in Half Moon Bay. If you still have energy for a bit more exploring, you can see details of our recent trip to the area that included a beautiful walk along the Devil's Slide trail followed by a lovely hike along Pillar Point Bluff and a visit to Francis Beach (see pics below).

Views from the Devil's Slide trail

A hidden beach along the Pillar Point Bluff Trail
Francis Beach on a chilly afternoon!

Winter is one of my favorite times to visit the beach and coastal communities in Northern California. There tends to be less fog and far less people, making for an extra memorable experience. What are your favorite winter trips?

Details: Ano Nuevo State Park is about an hour and a half drive from Berkeley. Admission to the park is $10 per vehicle. If you are visiting between from December-March, you must reserve a spot in one of their guided tours in order to view the elephant seals. There is a short trail that leads down to Cove Beach at Ano Nuevo SP, so if you are planning on a longer visit you can bring along some snacks and make a day out of it.

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