From San Francisco I headed straight for Ano Nuevo State Park. I’d read that April was a great time of year to see the northern elephant seals that call it home. You can, in fact, find elephant seals here year-round, although access is difficult from December through to February whilst the seals are mating and birthing. By March, most of the adult seals have deserted their pups, leaving them to rest and moult on the shores of Ano Nuevo.
Northern elephant seals have been resting in Ano Nuevo since 1955, and it is now the largest mainland colony of them in the world. Slaughtered in the 1800s for the oil taken from their blubber, by 1892 fewer than 200 seals existed (these last few remained on a remote island off the coast of Baja, California). The increase in numbers only started during the 1920s, when the government finally granted elephant seal’s protected status.
Leaving the small park station, the hike to the staging area next to the beach was a moderately easy, flat four-mile return. From half-way I heard the occasional grunts and bellows of the seal pups, and after climbing over some challenging sand dunes I reached the designated watching area. With amazing views of the beach front resting area, I was so close to the seals that my zoom lens was barely needed; with the closest seal barely five metres away. Mostly sleeping, the remaining baby and adolescent seals were no threat to me.
I stayed watching the seals for over half an hour, mesmerised by their size and the sheer number of them on one beach. A nearby lighthouse and research centre could be viewed in the distance, and a docent (park ranger) explained that California sea lions and sea otters have taken residence there; they avoid the elephant seal colony. I would love to return to Ano Nuevo during the winter months, to see the 2+ tonne male elephant seals battle it out for the alpha male position.
The next day I drove down to the top of the Big Sur. Confirming its title as one of the world’s most scenic drives, the Big Sur did not disappoint in views.
Driving 45 miles in the opposite direction to my accommodation that evening, I’d heard from colleagues at Steppes Travel that Carmel-by-the-Sea (or, just Carmel) was the place to see on the California coast. Arriving in the small town, with cottages and alleyways that appear to be straight out of a storybook, I’m glad I didn’t miss it.
Time was not on my side, unfortunately, but I did squeeze in a leisurely stroll up the boutique shop-lined Ocean Avenue which was every bit as pretty and delightful as the rumours advised. Along the road, little alleyways fit snugly between buildings, leading to rose-covered courtyards and hidden galleries. It is a town where the locals really put in the effort to make it beautiful.
Before heading inland to Kings Canyon National Park I made one final stop at Point Lobos State Reserve, a short journey from Carmel. This stunning coastal park was originally created to protect the Monterey Cypress trees that grow there (it is one of only two Monterey Cypress tree groves remaining), although it is now home to families of California sea lions, harbour seals, sea otters, and many bird species.
I hiked along a couple of the dozens of short trails on offer at Point Lobos; notably the Bird Island Trail, which was a short walk around the top of China beach, where baby harbour seals played in the sea, to a small outcrop just off the land that was covered in Brandt’s Cormorants and other sea birds. Another hike, Sea Lion Point Trail, took me out to Headland Cove where on offshore rocks I saw my first California sea lions, as well as basking harbour seals.
Things to note:
– To see the Elephant Seals at Ano Nuevo a hiking permit is required. These are free of charge, but only a small quantity is available each day. To visit the park, a fee of $10 per car is payable upon entering.
– Pets aren’t allowed into the park, and cannot be left in parked vehicles either.
– The Pescadero area doesn’t offer much for overnight guests; we struggled to find anywhere good to eat, and other than hiking there wasn’t much else to do.
– It’s not luxury, but I stayed at the Pigeon Point Lighthouse, which offers stunning views out over the Pacific Ocean. The day I arrived there had been several species of whale spotted, and the hostel has a private outdoor hot tub, overlooking the sea.
– The fee to enter Point Lobos Reserve is $10 per vehicle, and there are very informative maps available.