A Whale of a Good Time Along the West Coast

January 23, 2018Travel Ideas
Channel Islands National Park — Larry Goldman/NPS

Few other animals capture our imaginations the way whales do. These massive, mysterious, and highly intelligent creatures have been captivating the minds and hearts of human beings since the earliest sailors set out on the ocean, and the advances of the modern world have yet to diminish their allure.

Today, whale watching in California’s national parks has become one of the best opportunities in America to see the creatures in action. For prime whale watching, visit in the winter to catch the annual migration of these majestic animals.

Gray whale migration

Aerial view of a gray whale swimming close to the surface at Point Reyes National Seashore
National Park Service

Although many whale species call the waters off California’s coast home,  gray whales provide the biggest spectacle. Every winter, these massive creatures — which reach lengths approaching 50 feet and often live up to 70 years — migrate from the nutrient-rich waters of Alaska to the warm breeding grounds of Baja, California.

All along the coast, gray whales can be seen from November to April as they make their way southward, with peak migration usually occurring around January. They head north again in spring, but are generally too far out to sea to spot from land, making winter the best time to catch a glimpse from shore.

When you visit any of the national parks along the California coast during this season, whale sightings are very likely. Bring a pair of binoculars and keep an eye out for tail splashes and "spouts" up to 15 feet high as whales break the surface to breathe. Breaching behavior is sometimes observed as well when gray whales hurl themselves entirely out of the water and land with an enormous splash. 

Parks to see gray whales

Tall Trees and Giant Mammals

A view of the bay at Redwood National and State Park
S. Krause/NPS

The northernmost national park on the California coast, Redwood National and State Parks is home to a year-round gray whale population that resides near the Klamath River Overlook. Other places to see whales during the winter migration include Crescent Beach Overlook, Gold Bluffs Beach, High Bluff Overlook, the Thomas H. Kuchel Visitor Center, and Wilson Creek. Peak season begins in November and December and picks back up again from March until April.

The Perfect Pacific Point

A gray whale spouting in the ocean behind the lighthouse at Point Reyes National Seashore
National Park Service

Point Reyes National Seashore is situated on a peninsula that juts 10 miles into the Pacific, making it a prime spot for whale watching. Within this park, just over an hour drive from the San Francisco-area, Chimney Rock and Point Reyes Lighthouse offer great vantage points. For even more information about these gentle giants, you can take part in a number of ranger-led programs about whales and elephant seals.

A Water-ey Wildlife Abode

Gray whale spyhopping off the coast of Channel Islands National Park
Tim Hauf/NPS

Spanning several islands off the coast near Santa Barbara, Channel Islands National Park is one of the best places on the West Coast to see whales year-round. The Santa Barbara Channel harbors 27 whale and dolphin species, including blue whales, orcas, and bottlenose dolphins. The park visitor center has a tower with telescopes, and guided whale watching tours explore the area throughout the year.

Moving South

The head of a gray whale with its mouth open at the surface at Cabrillo National Monument
National Park Service

Located in San Diego, Cabrillo National Monument is one of the southernmost places in California to see gray whales, so the annual migration peaks a little later here than in other parks. High spots like Whale Overlook and Old Point Loma Lighthouse are ideal to see whales, and binoculars are available at the park’s visitor center. Given that whales swim 24 hours a day, there’s never a bad time to visit!

California parks never fail to impress visitors, but for whale lovers, winter months offer some of the year’s best opportunities to see these giant mammals. Don’t miss your chance to view the largest animals on earth from the perfect vantage point at these national parks. Next time you want to spot a whale, start by going to #FindYourPark/#EncuentraTuParque!


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