Last Updated April 26, 2022 4/26/2022

6 Best Places to See Elephant Seals in California

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Cartoonishly clumsy, overwhelmingly cute, and majestically beautiful, the elephant seals are righteous dwellers of the Northern California coast and one of its most awe-inspiring natural attractions. Not only the beaches that these gorgeous mammals chose to inhabit are extra scenic, a vista of hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of wild animals in one place is a bucket list thing to witness. Naturally, such a spectacle brings many people so it’s extremely important to adhere to the rules that the authorities set for a viewing activity and not to interfere with the elephant seal business. In the 21st century, it’s all about sustainable eco-oriented tourism when a human is a respectful guest of the environment he observes.

The awesome news is that elephant seals love California. In recent decades several spots along the coast of the Golden State have become their breeding grounds to a huge cheer from marine enthusiasts and nature lovers. So here are the best places to see elephant seals in California.

Some safety tips for elephant seals observation

Although it feels tempting to come up close and pet the animal, it’s important to remember that the beaches of California are the wilderness for the seals. Any intrusion may lead to an attack, transmission of diseases, and, overall, an unpleasant experience.

That’s why the elephant seals are better observed from the distance. 100 yards is generally regarded as a safe distance for peaceful seal watching. The same stands for taking pictures. While a selfie with an elephant seal may sound like a harmless thing to do, in reality, it can be quite dangerous and state authorities specifically emphasize a prohibition of close-up photography.

So keep your appropriate distance and enjoy the fascinating wild spectacle of the lifecycle of these awesome animals.

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Año Nuevo State Reserve
Año Nuevo State Reserve

Año Nuevo State Reserve

A popular weekend destination from San Francisco, Año Nuevo State Reserve is the location to behold. Countless hiking trails among the pristine Pacific nature would be a gift for those looking for breathtaking panoramas. The greenery, the sandy beaches, the rolling ocean waves. And then there are the elephant seals, Año Nuevo Coast Natural Preserve is one of the most famous and popular spots for observing these creatures. The colonies (a name for a group of animals) can be observed all year round but there is a special procedure to follow in order to see them in Año Nuevo. 

The season is divided into several parts according to the elephant seal activities. For example, from April to August the animals have a molting season, the viewing is only allowed with a free visitor permit on a self-guided tour. Then, September to November sees seals in the juvenile haul out. Finally, from December to March seals have the breeding season, the most impressive of all, when male “bulls” battle each other for females. You will be able to get closer to seals on guided tours. 

Elephant Seal Overlook at Point Reyes
Elephant Seal Overlook at Point Reyes

Elephant Seal Overlook at Point Reyes

Isn’t it beautiful to stand high up on the platform with a prime view of the stunning Northern California coast and observe hundreds of elephant seals living their life on a beach underneath? That’s what the Elephant Seal Overlook at Point Reyes offers. An easy drive from Bay Area, coming here is a very straightforward and accessible wildlife watching experience. For the biggest number of seals come between December and March. Still, as in other spots for elephant seal watching in California, the animals can be seen almost all year round. It is necessary to bring binoculars with you for a more entertaining visit and an unforgettable wildlife show. Hike a little bit further and there’s also a Sea Lion Overlook for even more animals.

Drakes Beach
Drakes Beach

Drakes Beach

A part of Point Reyes, Drakes Beach is among the best places to see the elephant seals up close in California. Here you’re basically standing right next to the animals with a chance to really feel the thrill of a wild encounter. Depending on the season, access to the beach may be limited so keep an eye on the updates from the park authorities. As for the safe distance, the regulations ask you to be at least 25 feet (8 meters) away from the seals to ensure an unintrusive time for everyone. Drakes Beach would be great for wildlife photography enthusiasts due to the close proximity to the colony and a chance to see the wonderful elephant seal pups. 

Piedras Blancas Rookery
Piedras Blancas Rookery

Piedras Blancas Rookery

Imagine a coast entirely filled with elephant seals, thousands of them. Doing their seal things like playing in the sand, fighting each other for female attention, lounging in the waves, yawning with their trunks high in the sky, living their best California life. The name of this place is Piedras Blancas Rookery and it’s an absolute must if you’re into animal watching. A popular sightseeing spot on California’s coast, the viewing platform is just off Highway 1 few miles away from San Simeon. The great thing about this spot is that is completely free and open all year round. Parking is also easy and you have a dirt lot too. The months of January, April, and October are the best times to come to the rookery as the beach sees up to 17 thousand seals going ashore to the cheer of the wildlife-watching crowd. Also, go to the Friends Of The Elephant Seal Visitor Center and Gift Shop south of San Simeon for more context about these fascinating animals in California and cool memorabilia. 

The Marine Mammal Center
The Marine Mammal Center

The Marine Mammal Center

If you’re looking for more information about the elephant seals and would be open to discovering how humans help these creatures, the Marine Mammal Center is a great place to visit. The biggest marine mammal hospital in the world, it’s a place that provides help to thousands of animals found along the shores of California and other spots in the US. Apart from that, the center is also an educational and scientific institution devoted to the research and preservation of marine mammals. It is possible to come here on a tour to learn everything about the institution’s activity, watch the veterinarians at work, and see the seals, of course (not only the elephant ones but also California sea lions, Hawaiian monk seals, Guadalupe fur seals, Southern Sea otters).

Note: The center is currently under renovation. Look for the update on Marine Mammal Center’s official webpage. 

La Jolla - San Diego
La Jolla - San Diego

La Jolla - San Diego

La Jolla is truly a gem among the U.S. coastlines. Residents of San Diego take pride in its long sandy beaches, an abundance of picturesque coves, plenty of exciting activities, and seals too. The most well-known occupants of the shores here are California sea lions and the Pacific harbor seals. However, once in a while their northern mammal friends, elephant seals, show up as well. While it’s hard to guarantee that you’ll see them in La Jolla, the quest to find them seems like a fantastic wildlife spotting adventure for the whole family. So don’t miss a chance to embark on such an exciting La Jolla spotting trip. La Jolla Cove and Boomer Beach are the best places to observe the sea lions. Children’s Pool and Seal rock are for harbor seal spotting. 

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