No matter how long we live in San Francisco, there are certain touristy activities we'll never give up—rowing boats on Stow Lake, playing video games at the Musée Mécanique, drinking Irish coffees at the Buena Vista. And, once every year or two, we even feel compelled to bundle up in our winter warmest to watch the annual migration of California's gray whales (or Eschrichtius robustus for you nerds out there).
Among nature's largest and most magnificent creatures, the gray whale swims some 10,000 miles each year—the longest migration of any mammal. The whales spend about one-third of their lives migrating from the cold, nutrient-rich waters of the Chukchi Sea near Alaska, south to the warm, shallow birthing lagoons of Bahía Concepción and Magdalena Bay in Baja, California for winter; and then it's time to head back up north for the summer feeding season.
The northern migration peaks in mid-March, with late April and early May being the best times to see mothers and calves feeding close to shore, and there are numerous spots in Northern California to see these leviathans on their slow but steady swim along the coast.
So grab your picnic lunch, binoculars, windbreaker and hat, and head to one of the following coastal vantage points within a day's drive of San Francisco—from Año Nuevo State Park (south of Monterey) to Salt Point State Park up north. Look closely and you'll see the creatures breaching the surface, spouting misty fountains from their blowholes, and splashing against the surface—a magical sight that's fleeting...at least until next year.
(Salt Point State Park; Photo: Benjamin Pender)
Salt Point is one of the Sonoma coast’s most scenic destinations, with a network of walking trails running parallel to the Pacific Ocean and panoramic views that promise ample whale-watching opportunities. Check out the three-mile roundtrip Salt Point Trail for coastal views. After March 14, campsites are available by reservation only and fill up quickly (800-444-PARK). For a more fashionable stay, we recommend renting one of the gorgeous, modern vacation homes in nearby Sea Ranch. // parks.ca.gov
(Sandy Cove at Fort Ross)
Eleven miles north of Jenner on Highway 1, located on a wave-cut marine terrace between the ocean to the southwest and the coastal hills to the northeast, Fort Ross State Historic Park offers about 3,400 acres of spectacular wild land. Walk to Sandy Cove, a protected beach just below the fort, for beach combing and whale watching. Ocean access is available at the North Cove at Windermere Point, one mile north of the park entrance, and at the marine terrace by way of the Reef Campground entrance two miles south of the fort. Note that while the grounds are open daily yearround, facilities including parking and restrooms close for the season on March 15. // parks.ca.gov
The Ocean Overlook (about three miles from the visitors center on Highway 1) at Bodega Head State Marine Conservation Area is a primo spot for whale watching, and there are various boating trips offered in the area. Stewards of the Coast volunteers are on site every Saturday and Sunday from noon to 4PM, January through May, weather permitting, except on Easter and during the Fisherman's Festival. // parks.ca.gov
The historic Point Reyes Lighthouse, on the tip of a rugged peninsula that juts 10 miles out into the Pacific Ocean, is one of our favorite spots to watch the wholes go by. The Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary provides a 20-mile wide, nutrient-rich corridor for the whales to migrate, and the areas around Chimney Rock and the historic Point Reyes lighthouse offer some of the best whale watching spots in the region. But all this means you won't be alone: Expect to catch a shuttle bus from Drakes Beach on weekends through Easter. // nps.gov
(Point Montara Lighthouse Hostel; photo: Cheri M. Larsh)
Perched on a bluff overlooking the Pacific, the historic Point Montara Lighthouse Hostel, established as a fog signal station in 1875, is an ideal homebase for anyone looking to make an entire weekend of it. Guests can watch the majestic animals spout, sound, spy-hop, and breach from the boardwalk behind the building. Reservations are highly recommended during the season, especially for weekend stays. // norcalhostels.org/montara
Año Nuevo is best known for the 10,000 or so elephant seals who return here each year to breed, give birth, and molt among the scenic dunes and beaches. Whale watchers can hike out along ocean bluffs to Año Nuevo Point. The area is also on a major migratory route for birds, and is a great spot to see otters, harbor seals, and Steller sea lions on the offshore rocks. // parks.ca.gov
Facts about gray whales:
- Gray whales reach up to about 45 feet in length and about 75,000 pounds.
- The tongue of a gray whale weighs around 500 pounds.
- The whales have a heightened sense of sense of hearing, as sound travels four times faster in water than in air.
- Gray whales travel about 80 miles per day, stopping six or seven times daily for 30-minute rests.
- Whales spouts shoot up to 12 feet from water level.
- Since gray whales became protected in California in 1946, their population has rebounded from about 2,000 to over 21,000.
- In 1994, gray whales were removed from the Endangered Species List.