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 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.
Advanced reservations are highly recommended, as tour spots fill out quickly; 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 (tickets for weekday tours can be purchased directly through State Parks), from December 15 through March 30. Ask how you can reserve tickets to this sought-after tour when you book your hostel stay!
If you're looking for a less interactive experience with these majestic mammals, the Point Reyes National Seashore offers a specific overlook near Chimney Rock, above Drakes Bay, where visitors can observe the elephant seals through scopes and binoculars. On weekends from January through April, 11 a.m. - 4 p.m., docents will be on hand at the overlook to answer questions, and a special slide program will play twice daily in the lifeboat station (depending on staff availability).