Where to see the elephant seals: Año Nuevo state park and Piedras Blancas rookery, California
Directions: Año Nuevo is located about an hour south of San Francisco on Hwy 1. Piedras Blancas rookery is off of Hwy 1 about 50 miles north of San Luis Obispo in the town of San Simeon (5 minutes north of Hearst Castle).
Fee: $10 entrance fee for Año Nuevo state park, free for Piedras Blancas rookery
Hike: 1.6 mile hike to viewing platform at Año Nuevo; short walk from parking lot to viewing area/trail at Piedras Blancas rookery
Our first encounter with an elephant seal happened many years ago when we didn’t even know what an elephant seal really looked like. That day we had arrived at our “secret” beach about a 5 minute drive north of Ano Nuevo for a beach day and found this gigantic animal lying right in the middle of the beach. We couldn’t see the head and it wasn’t moving at all, so we questioned whether it was even alive. We gave it a wide berth and walked past it to another area of the beach (out of sight of it). A couple of hours later on the way out, we passed by it again and just as we were commenting on how sad it was that the animal was dead since it hadn’t moved at all, it suddenly looked up and made this deep loud (really loud!) gutteral noise. Let me tell you, we grabbed my daughter so fast (who thankfully was little at the time!) and high-tailed it outta there. The thing about sand is that…you just can’t run fast on it, so the elephant seal must have been laughing hysterically at our attempt to make a quick get away. I know I would have been. I’m so glad no one else was there to watch us panic and “run” through the sand carrying (and periodically dropping and retrieving) our stuff and daughter (who we almost dropped) at our snails pace. After doing some research at home we found out that it was a male Northern elephant seal. I won’t be forgetting what an elephant seal looks like anytime soon.
Last Saturday we headed out to Año Nuevo State Park to check out how the elephant seals were doing this time of year. The Año Nuevo state park website mentions that the female and juvenile elephant seals are back and molting now (May-June) and the park is open for self-guided hiking with a visitor permit. At other times of the year, a docent led guided tour is the only way to see them. Elephant seals can be observed in Año Nuevo year round and this park has been described to be one of the largest mainland breeding colonies in the world. On the Friends of the Elephant Seal website there is a calendar which describes what is happening on the California coast every month with the Northern elephant seals.
Once we arrived at Año Nuevo we headed directly to the visitor center to get our visitor permits. They basically just give you a pamphlet that has a map, rules, info and the words Visitor Permit on it. They only issue permits from 8:30 am to 3:30 pm and expect you to be out of the viewing area by 5 pm.
There is a Marine Education Center that is worth checking out, but since we have viewed the exhibits before and were antsy to see the elephant seals, we went ahead and just started our hike.
The hike to the viewing platform was an easy 1.6 miles with a small section where you have to walk up and down a dune. It’s a very pretty hike with sweeping coastal views, a pond where you can view a variety of birds and wide open fields. When you get to the staging area at about 0.9 miles, a very friendly docent greets you and shows you on the map on your visitor permit which viewing platforms are open and gives you directions on how to get to them.
That day we were sent to the Bight Beach viewing area where we were greeted by two more very friendly (and might I add very knowledgeable) docents. As you walk towards the platform on the boardwalk you actually smell and hear the elephant seals first.
We LOVE to watch wildlife, so we spent a very enjoyable hour just observing the elephant seals, talking to the docents and walking from one platform back to the other to watch the different groups of elephant seals. There is even a couple of powerful viewing telescopes which allowed us to see things very far away.
The adult male elephant seals differ from females in that they have a proboscis (nose) and are much bigger in size. The name elephant seal came about because their proboscis resembles that of an elephant’s trunk, which I figured most people assumed once they saw an adult male.
There is an island directly across from the beach which looks like it has a haunted house on it. This house used to be the house where the lighthouse keeper and his assistants lived back in the 1900s. Unfortunately, the lighthouse tower was torn down to prevent any danger to the wildlife that live on the island. Public access is not permitted, so now it is overrun with wildlife, and it can be viewed through the telescopes at the viewing platforms.
Piedras Blanca rookery, San Simeon
A couple of Decembers ago, we visited the Piedras Blanca rookery which has an extensive viewing area/trail behind a fence to observe the elephant seals. There is a large parking lot right off of Hwy 1, about 5 minutes north of Hearst Castle that you can park in for free. Viewing areas are present on either end of the parking lot and it’s a good idea to take a look at both, you don’t want to miss anything. When we were there, we were able to observe elephant seal pups, probably just recently born, only in the area south of the parking lot. On the north side we were able to see many male elephant seals, or bulls engaging in their competitive behaviors. A lot happens in December, the bulls arrive and fight for dominance, females begin to arrive, and birthing and breeding begin.
There was a male and female elephant seal (who were married and loved each other) who chose right in front of us to start “breeding.” It got reeeeally uncomfortable when a little boy started asking a bunch of reeeeally specific questions reeeeally loudly. The parents, looking horrified knowing the huge mass of people were listening, grabbed their kid and took off mumbling something about telling him later and the kid of course was asking at the top of his lungs why they had to leave. Once they were out of ear shot, the crowd just let out a collective breath and started laughing (with the family, not at them). Kids do say the darndest things!
Elephant seals are fascinating animals with a complex migratory pattern. At one point (early 1900s) they were hunted to the brink of extinction for their oil-rich blubber, but with the help of government protection laws their populations have recovered to an estimated 150,000 seals. We, Californians, are lucky to have them grace our coastline. I hope you get the chance to observe these beautiful animals in their natural habitat.