The endangered condor can be spotted in the wilds of Big Sur. (Courtesy of @ventanawildlifesociety)

Wild Road Trip: Where to Spot the Coolest Creatures Along Highway 1

One of the world's most famous drives is back now that Highway 1 has at last reopened around Big Sur after closure due to the 2017 mudslides that transformed the coast.

If you're in a hurry to get somewhere, you'll want to drive the 101, but for those wishing to stop and smell the roses—or rather, to see the wildlife—there's nothing that compares to this coastal sojourn. Here's where to pull over and sight some of Northern California's most awesome creatures.

Elephant Seals

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San SimeonThe Piedras Blancas elephant seal rookery, seven miles north of San Simeon with a large marked parking lot, is a six-mile protected area where elephant seals can haul out to mate, give birth, rest, or molt. Molting season is in the spring, but for the most excitement, visit from November to March when these giant 2.5 to three-ton animals show up to battle for breeding rights and give birth; you may find upwards of 10,000 animals at the rookery around January and February. While you're there, grab a burger and taste Hearst Ranch wines at Sebastian's General Store, originally built in 1852. Also, take our guide to sights such as Hearst Castle in San Luis Obispo County.Santa CruzYou can also spot elephant seals at Año Nuevo State Park north of Santa Cruz. During breeding and birthing season here, all viewings are via organized tours ($7, plus a $4 reservation fee). During molting season, you can get a free permit; sightings require some hiking over sand dunes.If you're there Friday through Sunday, visit Harley Farms Goat Dairy, where you can tour the farm and sample cheese and goat's milk–based bath products.

Condors in Big Sur

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Nearly extinct, the California condor has been reintroduced into Big Sur and the population is doing well. The birds are more difficult to track down on your own than some of the other wildlife on this list—the Ventana Wildlife Society runs two-hour tours ($75/person). If you can't make a tour, pull out near the entrance to Julia Pfieiffer Burns State Park and look up: You may spot the endangered condors in the sky or in the redwoods.While you're there, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is home to one of Big Sur's most iconic photo ops: McWay Falls. It's a mostly flat, less than half-mile walk to the 80-foot waterfall that rushes into the ocean. If you park along the highway, you can avoid the $10 parking fee.

Monarch Butterflies in Pacific Grove

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Monarch butterflies make their way to the Central Coast in the fall and winter to cluster in the cypress, eucalyptus, and pine trees, and thousands of them come together at the Pacific Grove Butterfly Sanctuary. They hang together in the trees for warmth, but if the temperature gets above the mid-'60s, the clusters will break apart and the butterflies will search for food. (There's also another spot in Santa Cruz at Natural Bridges State Park that the butterflies like.)While you're there, Lover's Point Park is a great place for scuba diving, picnicking, and getting a full view of Monterey Bay. Wondering where to stay and eat? Check out our guide to the Monterey Peninsula.

Tide Pools at Point Lobos

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Stare deep into the tide pools and connect with the poets, nature lovers, and wanderers who've come before you. Weston Beach, at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, is an ideal spot with a variety of accessible pools at various depths where you can nearly always find impressive collections of crabs, sea stars, limpets, and sponges. Remember, do not touch!Don't forget your copy of John Steinbeck's The Log From the Sea of Cortez: "Perhaps this is the […] narrowing we observe in relation to ourselves and the tide pool—a man looking at reality brings his own limitations to the world. If he has strength and energy of mind the tide pool stretches both ways, digs back to electrons and leaps space into the universe and fights out of the moment into non-conceptual time." While you're there, check out Whaler's Cove, opposite the beach, where a former whaler's cabin now houses a little museum where you can learn some history about the area. Ss you walk around, you'll see the sparkle of abalone shells beneath your feet.

Whales in Monterey

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Take your pick of whales—humpback, blue, orca, gray—they all make their way up and down the California coast. Because of Monterey Bay's shape and the deep canyon that runs through it, many whales come to the area to feed, and those just passing through often get quite close to the shore.Gray whales can often be seen late December through June—you'll very likely see orcas there in spring hunting for their next gray feast. Humpback and blue whales love to munch on the krill and anchovies that are often in the bay from May to December. Head out with a whale watching boat out of Monterey for your best bet at an up-close viewing. Or keep an eye out for the tell-tale spouts at any pullout along the coast.Are you a sea life fanatic? Check into the luxurious, waterfront InterContinental Clement Monterey which offers deals that include passes to the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Sea Otters and Harbor Seals at Elkhorn Slough

(Kristin Conard)
Thousands of migrating birds come through Elkhorn Slough, between Watsonville and Monterey, but the southern sea otters and harbor seals who live here are the area's biggest draw for wildlife lovers. You are just about 100 percent guaranteed to see both creatures here year-round, with seals often hauled out on the beach and sea otters looking for snacks like sea urchins, busily cleaning themselves, or rafting with other otters (they may even link paws to help keep from floating away from the group). See them from the shore or take a kayak tour to get a more up-close experience.While you're there, watch for marine life as you chow peel-and-eat prawns and barbecue oysters from the patio at Pacific Grill.

Banana Slugs in Santa Cruz

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When University of California Santa Cruz students were asked what they wanted their mascot to be, the administration thought they might pick something more assertive—like a sea lion, perhaps. Nope: Students there went with the banana slug, that bright yellow creature most often found beneath the redwood trees. Take the Redwood Grove Loop Trail through old growth redwoods in Henry Cowell Redwood Trees State Park for a chance to see one of these iconic creatures.While you're there, relax off the beaten path up at Chaminade Resort & Spa. They've got a great brunch and a lovely spa.

Tule Elk in Point Reyes

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Tule elk is a subspecies of elk that lives only in California. The best time of year to see them, or even more impressively, hear them is during the rut from July to September. The bull elk will bugle as they look for a harem, and overall, the herds are more active. Bring your binoculars for a one-mile hike out at Tomales Point Tule Elk Reserve. While you're there, explore the bay with Blue Waters Kayaking. Especially cool is the nighttime bioluminescence tours where, on moonless nights, you can see the water glow with living organisms. Want to make a weekend of it? Find chic stays and truly delicious food in our guide to the Point Reyes National Seashore.

Sea Lions

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Sea lions—they're loud and rowdy and we can't help but love them! These pups can nearly always be found at San Francisco's Pier 39, the Santa Cruz Wharf, the Coast Guard Pier in Monterey, and at Sea Lion Point in Point Lobos. What's the difference between a harbor seal and a sea lion? The sea lions are the noisy ones! And unlike harbor seals, sea lions also have ear flaps and are able to stand up on their front flippers—expect a show.