Isn’t it magical to think that while you’re standing on the shore of a beach, gazing at the blanket of ocean, there is an entire world just underneath the surface, a world that’s home to one of the biggest creatures that has ever lived? And while we hardly ever see them from the shore, there’s a special time of the year – every winter and spring – when the Pacific coast becomes a highway for the great grey whale migration and land-dwellers get to spy these enigmatic animals. The grey whale is California’s most commonly seen migrating whale, and each year, thousands of the gentle giants head south from the icy Bering and Chukchi seas north of Alaska to the warm waters of Baja California, where they give birth to their calves. Then, in the spring time, they head back home to Alaska with their offspring, making the 10,000-mile round-trip trek the longest known distance any mammal migrates on an annual basis.
Whale watching in California is in its prime between December and May, when you can see the whales breaching, spyhopping and tail-slapping from one of the many vantage points along the coast. If you’re looking for front row seats to one of nature’s most marvelous spectacles, take a look at some of these prime locations in Northern California, and get set to have a whale of a time (we had to).
Best Places for Whale Watching
Point Reyes National Seashore
Extending ten miles into the Pacific Ocean, the Point Reyes Peninsula near the lighthouse is probably the best place to view whales during the annual migration, with the peak traffic times being in mid-January (when the whales are heading south) and mid-March (for the northern migration). Chimney Rock, which is on the opposite side of the Point Reyes Lighthouse, also makes for a great viewing spot, and it’s a nice short hike with lovely colorful wildflowers in the spring.
During this season, which attracts visitors from near and far, rangers at the park lead educational programs on the whales’ habits and adaptations on weekends, and volunteer docents are also on hand to answer any questions you might have. Because the park gets so busy, there is a shuttle bus system that runs on weekends and holidays, which picks visitors up from Drake Beach. The shuttles usually run from the last Saturday of December to late March from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and cost $7 for adults (children 16 and under ride for free).
While you’re in the area, this time of the year is also perfect for getting a glimpse of the elephant seals, which populate the beach to breed. The best place to see these curious flippered creatures is from the Elephant Seal Overlook just off the road from Chimney Rock, where you’ll be able to hear the moms vocalizing to their pups, and the males showing off with loud trumpeting that can be heard over a mile. Docents will also be at the overlook on weekends and holidays, armed with spotting scopes, binoculars and tons of knowledge to share.
If you go: Stay at the retreat-like HI Point Reyes hostel and make a real weekend out of it.
The Marin Headlands
Further down the coast and just north of San Francisco, the Marin Headlands in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area is another sweet spot from which you can witness the migration. From the HI Marin Headlands hostel, you can take a short and pretty walk down to Rodeo Beach, or a slightly longer half-mile trail to Point Bonita Lighthouse, which also dishes up delicious views of the Golden Gate Bridge alongside the expanse of ocean where you can spot the whales and seals. You can also take a half an hour drive north to the ridiculously scenic Muir Beach Overlook, which is yet another prime perch for whale watching during the winter months, especially on a clear day.
If you go: HI Marin Headlands makes an excellent base for exploring all the different whale watching spots in the area.
HI Point Montara Lighthouse hostel is a convenient and beautiful location to see the grey whale migration south of San Francisco (about 30 minutes). The oceanic giants are particularly visible during the northern migration from March through May, when the females and their calves stay closer to the coast to avoid predators. There’s also the nearby Grey Whale Cove beach, an aptly named stretch of sand surrounded by dramatic columns of cliffs that plunge into the Pacific, where the shore-hugging whales can easily be seen. Take note that this beach is also known as a clothing-optional spot, so those caught unawares might spot more than just marine mammals.
If you go: Stay at HI Point Montara Lighthouse to be right in the heart of the migration action.
Imagine sitting in a sweet hot tub that overlooks the tumultuous ocean when you spot a fine, smoke-like mist sprouting in the distance: a whale! This scenario is entirely possible since HI Pigeon Point Lighthouse is another conveniently located hostel where you don’t have to venture too far to whale watch. There’s a boardwalk behind the lighthouse building where you could probably sit for hours just watching the waves while the whales and seals swim by. Ano Nuevo State Park, which is just seven miles from the hostel, also offers prime real estate for whale migration season, and is also home to the largest mainland breeding colony of elephant seals in the world.
If you go: The whales are practically in your back yard when you stay at HI Pigeon Point.