California whale watching is a popular activity anywhere along the coast, but there are a few outstanding places where you can get a closer unobstructed view. The best way to look for gray whales is to look for the spout, which may be up to 14 feet high.
Once you locate a whale, you can get a closer look with
binoculars. But remember that the whales are moving, so aim your
binoculars in the direction the whale is traveling.
Photo © pj35745 / flickr.com
Patrick's Point State Park: The high bluffs here offer a good vantage point for watching whales. You'll find hiking trails, often with spectacular views, camping and a visitor center.
Both Mendocino and Fort Bragg hold annual Whale Watching Festivals in March.
Point Arena Lighthouse: Point Arena juts out into the Pacific for two miles, offering an excellent vantage point for California whale watching. You can even stay at the lighthouse in one of the 4 keeper homes.
Sonoma Coast State Park: This park is actually made up of a series of beaches. The best one for California whale watching is Bodega Head, the rocky headland at the mouth of Bodega Harbor. The high cliffs will give you an excellent view.
There are three marine sanctuaries in the Bay Area: Cordell Bank, Gulf of the Farallones, and Monterey Bay, making this area particularly rich in marine life. Here are some prime spots where whales can be spotted from shore.
Point Reyes National Seashore: The headlands of the Point Reyes Peninsula jut out 10 miles into the Pacific, making this a great vantage point for watching whales. The Lighthouse and Chimney Rock are the best spots.
Peak whale watching periods are mid January for the northern migration and mid March for the southern migration, but mothers and calves will most likely be close to shore in late April and early May.
The park operates a shuttle bus from the parking lot at Drakes Beach to the Lighthouse and Chimney Rock to ease traffic congestion during peak periods.
Muir Beach Overlook: On a clear day, you can see all the way to the Farallon Islands. There are picnic facilities and an outhouse at this location.
Point Bonita Lighthouse: Located in the Marin Headlands at the tip of Point Bonita, this lighthouse offers incredible views for California whale watching.
Pigeon Point State Historic Park: The Pigeon Point Lighthouse, located between Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz, is closed for repairs. But you'll still get a great view from the high cliffs here. Gray whale cows and their calves can be seen in the protected cove during the spring migration. If you're lucky, you won't even need binoculars.
You can even stay at the hostel located in the park. You'll find an informative park brochure you can download at Pigeon Point State Historic Park.
You can download excellent maps of the Golden Gate National Parks, showing Muir Overlook and Point Bonita from Maps of the GGNRA.
The Monterey Bay area (including Big Sur) is an excellent choice for California whale watching. A deep submarine canyon off the coast here provides nutrient rich waters that attracts many species of whales. In fact, whale watching is pretty much a year round activity in this area.
Monterey's Whalefest is held annually in February.
Point Lobos State Reserve: The Reserve is teeming with life, including whales, seals, sea lions, sea otters, birds and other wildlife. With hiking trails all along the shoreline, you can explore the numerous coves as well.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park: One of many beautiful spots in Big Sur. You'll find a bench at the end of Overlook trail that provides a good vantage point for whale watching. Sometimes whales will even come into the mouth of the cove. You may also see harbor seals, California sea lions and sea otters.
You'll also find numerous whale watching opportunities from the many overlooks and turnouts along Highway 1.
San Simeon State Park: You'll find coastal bluffs and promontories with an unobstructed view at this park. Try the vista point at Moonstone Beach in the southern portion of the park. The park features wetlands, nature preserves, and tidepools, so you'll have the opportunity to view a wide variety of wildlife.
There are trails, campgrounds, and interpretive programs.
Cabrillo National Monument: San Diego Whale Watching offers the best vantage point in Southern California, at the tip of Point Loma. Whale migration peaks here in mid January, but you'll be able to see whales from mid-December through April . You'll find the best views from the Whale Overlook and the Old Point Loma Lighthouse.
Bring your own binoculars, though the visitor center has a limited number available. A movie about the Pacific Gray Whale is shown daily during the whale watch season.