Hunted to the brink of extinction at the turn of the 20th century, the northern elephant seal has made a strong comeback in the past 100 years, thanks in part to both government restrictions on hunting and their own secluded, deep-sea lifestyle. For just a few months each year, these unique creatures come ashore, returning to various spots along the California coast to compete, mate, and give birth.
It's a powerful ecological pageant that only plays out from mid-December through March/April. Luckily, State and National Parks offer guided walks and observation stations, where visitors can get a peek at these imposing animals in action.
Ano Nuevo State Reserve
December 15, 2009 - March 31, 2010
Ano Nuevo State Reserve boasts the largest mainland breeding colony in the world for the northern elephant seal, and offers guided walks -- rain or shine -- to see the animals.
The only way to access the seals during the breeding season, these popular three-mile walks over rolling sand dunes last about 2.5 hours and are considered moderately strenuous. Visitors should prepare for an outdoor hiking adventure that may include high winds, heavy rains, and cold temperatures. Food and beverages are not sold at the reserve, but picnic tables are available for use before or after guided walks. Special access tours for guests with disabilities are available.
This walk is extremely popular, and visitors often have to book their tickets months in advance to secure a spot on a tour. However, a limited number of tickets are held exclusively for guests of the Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel in nearby Pescadero. These tickets are available for Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays. Ask how you can reserve tickets to this sought-after tour when you book your hostel stay. Please note that groups of 10 or more can't reserve tickets through the hostel and must reserve their tickets online through the State Park.
Tickets to the tour are $7 per person (free for children 3 and under), and parking fees apply ($7 / $6 for seniors 62 and over).
Point Reyes National Seashore
December 26, 2009 - April 25, 2010
The Point Reyes National Seashore offers a specific overlook near Chimney Rock, above Drakes Bay, where visitors can observe a colony of elephant seals through scopes and binoculars. On weekends from 11 a.m. - 4:30 p.m., docents are on hand at the overlook to answer questions.
Afterwards, head over to the nearby historic lifeboat station, and enjoy a special slide program (playing twice daily, depending on staff availability), kids activities, a 10-minute video on elephant seals, and complimentary cocoa, tea, and coffee.
The Point Reyes Hostel is a 26-mile drive from Chimney Rock, and offers a great base camp for a weekend in the park. You can easily split your time between seal-watching and hiking, biking, or other outdoor adventures in the gorgeous Point Reyes National Seashore.