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Visit the Elephant Seals in California’s Ano Nuevo State Park

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North of Santa Cruz along scenic California Highway One is an experience with wildlife your kids won’t soon forget! Head over to Año Nuevo State Park, a natural preserve on the windswept Pacific Ocean. Elephant seal breeding season begins here in mid-December with the arrival of the first male seals. Weighing up to 2 ½ tons, they engage in fights to establish their dominance. The winners, or alpha bulls, wind up doing much of the breeding. Not long after, the more diminutive females, tilting the scales at 1,200 to 2,000 pounds, show up and form “harems” on the reserve’s beaches where they will give birth to the pups conceived in the previous year.

From mid-December through March, naturalist guides take tourists from the visitor’s center down to sand dunes covered beaches to see the mammoth lumbering animals that were once near extinction. During the 1800’s, elephant seals were often slaughtered for the oil that could be extracted from their blubber. Only about 50 to 100 remained by 1892. The population rebounded after the Mexican and U.S. governments granted them protected status. Today they’re approximately 160,000 strong. Año Nuevo is the second largest mainland breeding colony in the world for the northern elephant seal.

Naturalist-guided walks to visit the elephant seals are family-friendly and fun.

Naturalist-guided walks to visit the elephant seals are family-friendly and fun.


Guided tours are offered from December 15 through March 31.  There are two ways in which to enjoy this experience:

  • Guided Walks:  Reservations are highly recommended for these very popular three to four mile hikes. The walk lasts up to three hours and they’re considered to be moderately strenuous. They also operate daily from early morning to mid-afternoon, rain or shine.
  • Equal Access Walks: For visitors in need of mobility assistance, weekend Equal Access Walks are offered. These groups are transported by van to a wooden boardwalk closer the beach. This route is an easier flat hike and can accommodate wheelchairs. 

Book your tour now.


  • Have a chat with the kids:  Before I took my kids to see the elephant seals, we had a serious conversation about safety. I reminded them that the seals are wild animals and wild animals are dangerous.  We made an agreement to stay together and admire the seals from a distance.
  • Conditions can be wet and windy at the coast.  Dress in layers and wear sturdy shoes.
  • Bring bottled water.  There is no water available during the walk.
  • Make sure your camera is fully charged!  You are going to want to preserve this experience for posterity!

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Kristine lives in Mountain View, California, where she is the mother of a gifted girl athlete and a special needs charmer. Like almost everything in her house,…

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