A California elephant seal. (Anchor Lee)

Where to See Winter Wildlife in Northern California

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Winter wildlife is abundant in Northern California, from migratory birds to big-as-a-car elephant seals.

See them up close, and make a wild weekend of it by combing your sighting with a hike with a beer.


See Elephant Seals at Año Nuevo State Park

The bad boys of the beach are back, and they're looking for a little lovin'. Every year at this time, elephant seals converge on one of their favorite breeding grounds, 13 miles south of Pescadero on the San Mateo coast: Año Nuevo State Park.

Book a guided hike (through March) and you'll be privy to one of nature's most amazing shows: two-and-a-half-ton male seals vying for the alpha status among a harem of discerning female seals. Be forewarned, things can get downright bullish. Regardless, the behemoth seals are indeed a sight to behold, beauty and beast all at once.

Find out how to book a tour at Weekend Sherpa.

Meet the Flockers: Migratory Birds at Cosumnes River Preserve

It's a bird, not a plane. In fact, it's millions of birds in winter, traveling the Pacific Flyway, a major north-south migration route that includes a stop at the Cosumnes River Preserve just north of Lodi. But there's a lot more to see too, including geese and ducks (including the coveted cinnamon teals)—basically, it's a fabulous feather-fest of waterfowl, shorebirds, and more.

Stop in at the visitor center and do the easy one-mile Wetlands Walk to the west side of the preserve where there's a half-mile boardwalk to a viewing platform. You can also get a driving-tour brochure of the area, which shows the best spots for crane-viewing by car.

Get directions at Weekend Sherpa.

Hoot at Great Horned Owls in Marin

Look out for great horned owls.

(Joshua J. Cotten)

The Owl Trail, Marin's swooping seashore tramp, offers bonuses in winter. You'll have the chance to see the moody waves of the Pacific during unsettled weather; the opportunity to spy migrating gray whales offshore; and sightings of the trail's namesake, great horned owls.

It's just a two-mile round-trip trek, but it's not for those with a fear of heights. The trail parallels Highway 1 between the Muir Beach Overlook (spectacular for sunset viewing) and Slide Ranch. Bring binoculars if you've got them, and keep an eye out for swooshes on the Pacific, signaling spouting whales, or just enjoy the drama of the sea. Slide Ranch, a nonprofit teaching farm, is a crossroads destination on the trail.

Weekend Sherpa has more info and a tip on where to grab a beer afterwards.

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