California is the land of beaches, big cities and wine, but the Golden State is also a fantastic place to see wildlife. Seeing animals in the wild is an ideal experience for families traveling in California and fortunately for parents traveling with kids, there are plenty of places to see animals in their native habitats. But don’t forget to teach your kids good wildlife viewing rules: keep your distance and use a quiet voice around wildlife to avoid scaring animals and separating babies from their mothers.
An Elephant Seal playground
One of the best-known places to see wildlife in California is Point Reyes National Seashore. This rugged peninsula juts out 10 miles into the Pacific Ocean, creating natural sanctuaries for a variety of animals. Whales can be seen passing by the cliffs during migration season, from December to April. Elephant seals make the beaches of Point Reyes their home for mating and birthing in late winter and spring. Almost 500 species of birds can be found at Point Reyes. In addition, herds of tule elk live here.
Spot a Sea Otter
Photo by Vlad Karpinskiy
Once called “the greatest meeting of land and sea,” Point Lobos is surrounded by the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Visitors who are patient can also spot sea otters hanging out on kelp near the shore. During the migration season, whales can be seen passing by in the distance. Harbor seals are here year round, but the best time to visit Point Lobos is in April when baby seals can be seen with their mothers. Because seal pups and mothers can be easily frightened and even separated when alarmed, it’s important to keep voices down and keep a respectful distance.
Tour the Bay and get a closer look
The abundance of wildlife in Monterey Bay can be viewed up close at two different locations. Older children can take boats tours of the bay to spot otters, whales and dolphins. Fast Raft is just one company that offers customized eco-tours of the bay on small boats; children 12 and over are allowed, but expect cold conditions out on the bay. The quiet waters of nearby Elkhorn Slough are a natural sanctuary for birds, seals and sea otters. Boat tours are possible for family members of all ages and there are 5 miles of kid-friendly trails to explore on foot.
See Giant Cranes
Photo by Stephan Mazurov
The Central Valley of California is home to a great number of bird species, including many that make this their home during their annual migration. The area’s most famous visitor is the enormous sandhill crane. These cranes settle in central California near the town of Lodi at the Cosumnes River Preserve and Isenberg Crane Reserve. The preserves are about 30 minutes south of Sacramento and near the town of Lodi where you can enjoy a day of wine tasting.
Walk among the kings of the sea
Photo by Anita Ritenour
Año Nuevo State Park is possibly the best place in California to see elephant seals in the wild. Up to 10,000 seals reside on the beaches here, and each season brings a different occasion to view them. Besides elephant seals, the area is home to sea lions, harbor seals, coyote, and a great number of migratory birds. Guided tours and self-guided walks are offered throughout the year; from December 15th through March 31st , 2.5-hour guided walks are held, and reservations must be made in advance. During molting season, only self-guided tours are available and visitors must obtain a permit at the entrance. All walks are on sand, so plan to dress in layers and with comfortable shoes, and consider whether your child is at an age for a walk of such distance.