On a rocky point overlooking the Pacific Ocean, about 55 miles south of San Francisco, Año Nuevo State Park offers miles of sandy beaches and wonderfully windswept hikes. What sets the park apart from other Northern California coastal locations, however, is the large population of northern elephant seals who live on a 4,000-acre protected reserve within the park boundaries. The massive marine creatures are cousins to more common harbor seals and California sea lions, but can reach 14 feet in length and weigh in at upwards of 4,000 pounds. Visiting Año Nuevo in winter affords the best views of these giant sea animals and an opportunity to learn about their special ecosystem.
The park complex, located on a restored historic dairy ranch, features coastal prairie, marshes, and dune fields that are home to abundant wildlife. At both Año Nuevo Point and Año Nuevo Island, just offshore, up to 8,000 of these critters return each year to breed and give birth.
During the winter breeding season, from mid-December through March, the park’s nature preserve is open for reservation-only guided tours to see the new pups. Trained docents lead the three-mile interpretive walks, which touch on the area’s natural history and provide safe and appropriate access to sights of the seals. “It’s a pretty immersive experience,” says Supervising Ranger Stan Kopacz. “When you’re out on the point and you’re listening to the seals vocalizing, you can forget there are highways and everything else not that far away.”