Ready to seek a series of once-in-a-lifetime wild animal sightings? Then it’s time to take a California Central Coast road trip. Along the way, you’ll get the chance to witness wildlife migrations, catch a glimpse of the cutest mammals in the sea, and voyage to California’s very own Galapagos to see animals you simply won’t find anywhere else.
California Central Coast Wildlife 101
Along California’s Central Coast, both land and sea yield incredible chances to spot wildlife in their natural element. Here are some of the animals you might see.
Few animals can compete with the extreme cuteness of sea otters. As the numbers of these endangered mammals climb, so grow your chances of spotting one frolicking along California’s Central Coast. In Morro Bay, start your sea otter search around the docks or along the sand by Morro Rock. Monterey is another spot where you’re more likely to spot an otter—keep your eyes on the water along Fisherman’s Wharf or Cannery Row, or rent a kayak and explore Elkhorn Slough or Lovers Point Park.
Winter is prime whale watching season along this stretch of the Pacific. Head out on a whale-watching expedition for the chance to float alongside gray whales, blue whales, humpback whales, and more. These magnificent creatures—some of which are up to 100 feet long—skirt California’s Coast on their long-distance migrations. For the best chance to see them up close, join a whale watching cruise. Even true landlubbers can spot whales though—the coast along Big Sur, as well as state beaches like Point Sal in Santa Barbara County, and Estero Bluffs and Harmony Headlands, both in San Luis Obispo County, are great spots to see whales from land. Look for gray whales and dolphins from winter through early spring, or during the second half of the year, keep an eye out for humpback whales, blue whales, and killer whales.
Calling all birders: If you haven’t visited California’s Central Coast, it’s time to drop everything, name this your Big Year, and grab your binoculars on the way out the door. That’s because the region is dotted with designated Important Bird Areas—or IBAs. The Central Coast’s pristine stretches of coastal chaparral and oak savannahs, its thriving estuaries and rocky shores attract birds of all sorts—from California Condors to Marbled Godwits. Explore Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, Morro Bay, or Santa Barbara’s Devereux Slough for world-class bird watching.
Northern Elephant Seals
You’ll hear them before you see them. In January, April, and October, echoes of bellowing and grunting lead straight to Hearst-San Simeon State Park, where thousands of elephant seals cluster together on a stretch of beach to play out the annual drama of courtship and birth. Head to the park’s Elephant Seal Boardwalk for prime viewing from a safe distance. Docents are on hand to answer all your elephant seal questions.
From October through February, California’s Central Coast is a colorful highway for the Monarch butterfly migration. Time your Santa Cruz visit for mid-fall to witness the spectacle of trees festooned in a bright orange tapestry of butterflies. Stay still enough and they might even mistake you for a friendly tree and settle upon your limbs for a rest. Pismo Beach’s Monarch Butterfly Grove offers more prime butterfly viewing, especially in December. And the Monarch Dunes Butterfly Habitat in Nipomo and Pacific Grove’s Monarch Grove Butterfly Sanctuary should be additional stops on your butterfly-spotting journey.
Discover the spirit of the American West at the Return to Freedom wild horse sanctuaries near Lompoc and San Luis Obispo. Nearly 400 wild horses roam 1,500 acres of Central Coast, living free in herds. While the sanctuary is not open to the public in a traditional sense, you can visit on a sanctuary tour, as part of a photo safari led by a photographer, or during a volunteer day.
Channel Islands’ Unique Species
Sometimes referred to as California’s Galapagos, the Channel Islands is a five-island archipelago sitting off California’s Central Coast. And while some of the islands of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary are within sight of the mainland, their isolated location and unique island conditions have created eight sub-species of mammals—including the island fox and island deer mouse—that you won’t find anywhere else.