Venture across the picturesque beaches of Northern California's Año Nuevo State Natural Reserve to encounter the world's largest colony of northern elephant seals. Inhabitants of the Eastern Pacific Ocean, these seals migrate from Alaska to as far south as Baja, California, but return each winter to the rocky shores of Año Nuevo to mate. You'll need a reservation for a guided walk during the winter season (December 15 to March 31), but can explore on your own any time between April and November.
Starting from the visitor center, wind through thick deerbrush on the Año Nuevo Point Trail before hanging a left onto the Pond Loop Trail. Keep your eyes open for the abundance of birdlife near the pond as you head toward the Año Nuevo Exhibit Building (featuring a real-time census count of the male, female and pup seals in Ano Nuevo) and the entry-point to the Sand Dunes section of the park.
In the Sand Dunes area, walk amongst the hundreds of elephant seals lounging, playing, feeding and mating on the postcard-like beach. Don't expect privacy on the shore, though: Along with hordes of 14-foot, 2-ton elephant seals, you'll likely run into coyotes on the prowl. Winter is the best time to see the adult seals, though weaned pups will remain at the beach through April.
Guided tours cost $7. Reservations can be made by calling (650-879-2025) or visiting Reserve America.
-Mapped by Dave Miller
- Distance: 5.2
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From the visitor center, head west on the gravely Ano Nuevo Point Trail. Hiking permits are required year-round and can be obtained at the visitor center.
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Turn left at the Y-junction to make a gradual descent on a well-packed sand and gravel trail flanked by thick deerbrush.
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At the Y-junction, hang a left onto the Pond Loop Trail. Keep your eyes open for pelicans and other waterbirds as you weave through tall coastal grasses toward a grove of cypress trees.
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Continue straight at the Y-junction.
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Hang a right at the Y-junction as you leave behind the pond and ascend through cypress trees.
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Turn left at the Y-junction to pick up the Ano Nuevo Point Trail again.
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With the sounds of elephant seals and sea lions in the distance, reach the the Ano Nuevo Exhibit building. From here, the trail cuts close to the coastline and follows a boardwalk. During peak season, you'll need a guide to get past this point.
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Leave the boardwalk behind as the trail cuts onto the beach.
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Enter the Sand Dunes section of the park to encounter colonies of elephant seals and sea lions literally blanketing the area's dunes and coastline. During peak season, your guide will direct you through the frenzy. During the rest of the year, explore the area on your own, adhering to park rules by keeping at least 25 feet away from the seals at all time. When done exploring, retrace your route back to the visitor center.
Mom and Baby
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Wink and Wave
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Bulls on the Beach
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