Every winter and spring, approximately 18,000 Pacific gray whales embark on an annual migration from their summer feeding grounds in the Arctic Bering and Chukchi Seas to warm birthing lagoons off the coast of Baja California. During the epic 10,000+ mile round-trip journey -- one of the longest in the animal kingdom -- gray whales hug the coastline, offering a rare opportunity for land-dwellers to catch a glimpse of these enigmatic creatures.
Southbound migration for Northern California typically peaks in January but can be viewed from many vantage points along the Pacific coast between December and May. Enjoy front-row seats and discover the magic of a gray whale encounter for yourself at these optimal Northern California locations:
Extending 10 miles into the Pacific Ocean, the Point Reyes peninsula is a fantastic spot to view gray whales on their annual migration. From December to April, Chimney Rock and the Point Reyes Lighthouse in Point Reyes National Seashore offer some of the best viewing. Read more about whale watching in Point Reyes.
Starting on December 28, 2013, The National Park Service will provide a $5 weekend and holiday shuttle bus that runs from Drake's Beach to whale observation areas at the lighthouse and Chimney Rock. On weekends, volunteer docents are on hand at the lighthouse observation deck answering questions about gray whales. In addition, park service rangers lead a special program called Journey of the Whales.
Further down the coast, just north of San Francisco, the Marin Headlands in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area also offers prime opportunities for whale watching, at coastal spots including Point Bonita and Rodeo Beach. Take a leisurely stroll from the HI-Marin Headlands Hostel to the Point Bonita Lighthouse -- the last half-mile of trail provides stunning ocean views and a prime opportunity for spotting whales and seals.
During the northern migration season from March through May, female whales migrating with their young calves can be viewed from the HI-Point Montara Lighthouse Hostel, just 30 minutes south of San Francisco, and from the nearby Gray Whale Cove State Beach.
HI-Point Montara guests can also easily take advantage of whale-watching tours that depart regularly from Pillar Point Harbor in Half Moon Bay.
At the HI-Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel, visitors can spot whales from the boardwalk behind the lighthouse, and visit another excellent overlook at Ano Nuevo State Park, seven miles south of the hostel. Read more about whale watching at Pigeon Point.
Planning a visit?
Sightseeing boats provide the best vantage point to view gray whales, and various operators offer whale-watching tours, field seminars, and educational lectures along the California coast. Our coastal Northern California hostels make excellent bases for these whale-watching excursions!