Summer may be officially over, but that doesn’t mean you should abandon your plans for a visit to the coast just yet. “The fall is my favorite time of the year as it is sometimes an Indian Summer with hot weather and big waves,” says HI Pigeon Point Lighthouse hostel’s General Manager, Jeff Parry. Fall and winter are also great in this corner of California because visitors can witness wonderful local wildlife – from great big whales way out in the sea to delicate Monarch butterflies fluttering in the trees – migrating, breeding and generally showing off Mother Nature’s work.
An escape to HI Pigeon Point Lighthouse and its beautiful surroundings is a great way to unplug and recharge, and this handy guide to wildlife spotting in parks around the hostel will help you make the most of your stay.
You can see elephant seals barking, molting, mating and feeding all year at Año Nuevo State Park, where the pinnipeds are protected within the national preserve. Starting in September, you can spot young pups between one and three years old hauling out (spending time on land in between bouts of food foraging) on the beach. It’s a three-mile, moderately strenuous walk to the main lookout, and while the hike is self-guided, guests require a visitor’s permit to have access to the seals. These permits are free, so they tend to be booked up far in advance, but fortunately the folks at HI Pigeon Point keep a number of these for guests to go out in the morning and spend time in the natural preserve (you’ll have to pay for parking and for a park volunteer-led tour if you want it).
From mid-December to March, the northern elephant seals are abundant on the shore as they mate, give birth and nurse newborn pups, and during this season, naturalist-guided walks are mandatory for visitors.
Tip: Be prepared to spend three to four hours walking and viewing the seals, and bring warm layers to protect yourself from the wind.
Because of its rich and diverse combination of habitats, the Pescadero Marsh is alive with a kaleidoscope of species of birds who nest here or use the reserve as a stopover during the yearly migration. The fall is prime bird-watching time because of the appearance of rare and unusual migrating shore birds, like sandpipers and golden-plovers, who use the marsh as a vital food stop on the journey to warmer climates, while the resident ducks, egrets and herons congregate in big numbers during the winter. The large natural preserve is also home to a number of creatures protected by the Endangered Species act, including the San Francisco garter snake, Coho salmon, steelhead trout and the California red-legged frog, making this the place to go when you want to forget that there is a major city less than 50 miles away and simply be in nature.
Tip: Docents lead nature walks in the marsh on the first Sunday of the month at 10:00 a.m. and on the third Sunday of the month at 1:00 p.m. Wear good walking shoes and layers.
From mid-October each year, thousands upon thousands of golden orange and black monarch butterflies form a temporary city in the trees within the Natural Bridges Marine Reserve, which is about a half-hour drive from HI Pigeon Point Lighthouse. The majestic insects come to this part of the United States to escape harsh winter conditions, and the park’s eucalyptus trees protected by a vast canyon make for the perfect shelter and food source for the butterflies. The Monarchs cluster around the tree branches when temperatures drop below 60˚F; otherwise, visitors get to walk amongst the fluttering butterflies during the typically mild fall days. The park also has a demonstration milkweed patch with eggs, caterpillars and chrysalides to show the life cycle of the butterflies. In the springtime, the Monarchs fly back to the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and lay eggs.
Tip: Double up on the creature experience and go tide pooling in this park as well. Remember to wear layers and be quiet and mindful of the delicate butterflies.
During the fall, humpback whales can be seen from the deck in back of HI Pigeon Point Lighthouse, and the first trickle of migrating blue whales heading south can sometimes be spotted, although these don’t come too close to the coast. The best time to see these great big mammoths of the blue is between December and May, which is when they take their 10,000 mile journey up and down the coast to feed and breed. They’ll be fairly easy to spy as they breach and tail slap within seeing distance from the shore at the hostel or at Año Nuevo State Preserve.
Tip: Jeff recommends doing a whale watching tour to the Farallon Islands to see all the wildlife, including whales, dolphins, seals and seabirds that gather here each summer and fall.
HI USA tip: If you’d like to make the most out of your natural adventure at HI Pigeon Point Lighthouse, take a look at our Outdoor Hostel Adventure program for adults and youth. Knowledgeable naturalists are available to give groups an in depth look at the wildlife during these personalized experiences.