Top Wildlife Spots on the California Coast
(and a bit inland!)

Pacific Coast Highway Travel recommends some of the top wildlife spots along the California coast.

Elephant Seal Pup at Piedras BlancasElephant Seal Pup at Piedras Blancas

Photo (c) Donna Dailey

The Pacific Coast Highway is excellent for wildlife watching, with everything from whales, seals and sea lions to... zebra! Zebra? Yes, there's a herd of zebra at Hearst Castle which can be quite a surprise if you happen to spot them.

You can see plenty if you simply drive the highway, but you'll see even more if you're prepared to venture inland a little, or get out onto the ocean on a whale watching cruise. You'll see more than just whales, although as always with wildlife there are no guarantees.

Eagle in flight along the Pacific Coast HighwayEagle in flight along the Pacific Coast Highway

Photo (c) Donna Dailey

In addition to finding great spots where you can see wildlife actually in the wild, there are plenty of good places where you can see wildlife in captivity, often being cared for after injuries. If you ad in major places like the San Diego Zoo, the Pacific Coast Highway is a great drive for lovers of wildlife.

Our Pick of the California Guides

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Here are some of the top spots for wildlife viewing:

Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve

We knew nothing about this place that's just north of Huntington Beach, but we had time to spare so we stopped to find out more. What a total delight it is. It's hard to believe you're just a few miles from Long Beach when you're walking around the sand dunes watching the seabirds and seeing hawks in the sky. https://www.wildlife.ca.gov/Lands/Places-to-Visit/Bolsa-Chica-ER

Dana Point

Dana Point is the place where the Pacific Coast Highway officially starts (or ends) and it's noted for its Festival of Whales, so definitely a good place for whale watching. See our Dana Point page.

Egret at Dana PointEgret at Dana Point

Photo (c) Donna Dailey

Marine Mammal Care Center

In San Pedro to the west of Long Beach, this center cares for and rehabilitates distressed marine creatures. These include the many sea lion pups who get lost, hungry or disoriented while they wait onshore for their mothers, who have to go out a long way to sea in search of food.

Sometimes the mothers meet with accidents, leaving no-one to care for the pups. You'll probably also see elephant seal pups here too.

Monarch Butterfly Grove

Right off the highway by Pismo State Beach to the south of Pismo Beach town, this grove of eucalyptus trees is where you'll see thousands of monarch butterflies each year. They come for the mild climate from about late October to late February/early March In the last few years there have been anything from 25,000-35,000 butterflies there, although there are sometimes boom years when over 100,000 will show up. They have a great website too: http://www.monarchbutterfly.org

Monterey

As well as its fabulous aquarium (a must-see), head to Old Fisherman's Wharf to watch the sea lions around there. 

Morro Bay

This is another of our favorite wildlife spots along the whole California coast, and it's a great little town too! Walk or drive from Morro Bay out to the big rock around the bay and you're sure to see sea otters swimming around in the water. They're fascinating to watch, feeding themselves or wrapping themselves in seaweed. There are lots of cheeky ground squirrels too, and peregrine falcons nest on the rock.

Sea Otter Feeding in Morro BaySea Otter Feeding in Morro Bay

Photo (c) Donna Dailey

Newport Beach

Newport Beach is also a good place from which to take a whale watching cruise.

Whale Watching Cruise at Newport Beach in CaliforniaWhale Watching Cruise at Newport Beach
Photo Courtesy of Newport Beach Whale Watching

Pacific Marine Mammal Center

This place inland from Laguna Beach (https://www.pacificmmc.org/) cares for any orphaned or injured sea lions found anywhere along the Orange County coast, and do an amazing job, also looking after seals and elephant seals too.

Piedras Blancas Elephant Seals

One of our favorite places along the entire California coast is this beach near Hearst Castle and San Simeon. We stop every time we drive by, and always stay far longer than we intend to. See our separate page here.

Elephant Seals at Piedras BlancasElephant Seals at Piedras Blancas

Photo (c) Donna Dailey

Point Lobos State Reserve

We were staying in Monterey one time when someone told us we had to take a walk around the Point Lobos State Reserve, south of Carmel. We're so glad we did, and you can read why here.

Seal and Pup at Point Lobos State Reserve near CarmelSeal and Pup at Point Lobos State Reserve near Carmel

Photo (c) Donna Dailey

Whale Watching

This top experience deserves a page to itself, of course, where you'll also find links to our accounts of the whale watching cruises we've done. Click here.

Wildlife Learning Center

In Sylmar in the San Fernando Valley of northern Los Angeles is the Wildlife Learning Center. This wonderful zoological park cares for abandoned, rescued, displaced, and zoo-born animals, with a view to educating visitors about their behavior.

There are over 100 creatures there including foxes, lynx, a blind screech owl called Zeus (watch the video), and a sloth called Lola who's appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres Show with Kristen Bell.

Other Wildlife pages

  • Encinitas is a beach city in Southern California, famous for surfing, and regularly chosen as one of the best places to live in both California and the USA.

    Encinitas

    Encinitas is a beach city in Southern California, famous for surfing, and regularly chosen as one of the best places to live in both California and the USA.

  • Drive the Pacific Coast Highway and you have to cross Bixby Bridge in California, ten miles north of Big Sur and 30 minutes south of Monterey.

    Bixby Bridge

    Drive the Pacific Coast Highway and you have to cross Bixby Bridge in California, ten miles north of Big Sur and 30 minutes south of Monterey.

  • The Monterey Bay Aquarium on Cannery Row is one of the top sights in Monterey and along the whole Pacific Coast Highway.

    Monterey Bay Aquarium

    The Monterey Bay Aquarium on Cannery Row is one of the top sights in Monterey and along the whole Pacific Coast Highway.

  • The La Jolla Aquarium, officially known as the Birch Aquarium at Scripps overlooks the Pacific Ocean, with sea creatures from seahorses to sharks.

    La Jolla Aquarium

    The La Jolla Aquarium, officially known as the Birch Aquarium at Scripps overlooks the Pacific Ocean, with sea creatures from seahorses to sharks.

  • Dana Point in California is the official start or end of the Pacific Coast Highway, and its attractions include whale watching, and Doheny State Beach.

    Dana Point

    Dana Point in California is the official start or end of the Pacific Coast Highway, and its attractions include whale watching, and Doheny State Beach.

  •  Historic and romantic Vagabond's House Inn Bed and Breakfast in Carmel is a great place to stay with free wine and cheese and generous breakfast.

    Vagabond's House Inn

    Historic and romantic Vagabond's House Inn Bed and Breakfast in Carmel is a great place to stay with free wine and cheese and generous breakfast.

  • Santa Barbara whale watching cruises in southern California can be booked through Condor Express, with whale watching trips leaving from the harbor.

    Santa Barbara Whale Watching

    Santa Barbara whale watching cruises in southern California can be booked through Condor Express, with whale watching trips leaving from the harbor.

  • The Point Reyes National Seashore is an hour’s drive northwest of San Francisco on the Pacific Coast Highway and is maintained by the National Park Service.

    Point Reyes National Seashore

    The Point Reyes National Seashore is an hour’s drive northwest of San Francisco on the Pacific Coast Highway and is maintained by the National Park Service.

  • Oceanside is a typical southern California beach town with a surf culture and with the Pacific Coast Highway running right through it.

    Oceanside

    Oceanside is a typical southern California beach town with a surf culture and with the Pacific Coast Highway running right through it.

  • Carlsbad is a beach city north of San Diego in southern California famous for its flower fields, LEGOLAND resort and water park, surfing and SEA LIFE Aquarium.

    Carlsbad

    Carlsbad is a beach city north of San Diego in southern California famous for its flower fields, LEGOLAND resort and water park, surfing and SEA LIFE Aquarium.

  • The Pacific Coast Highway goes right through Laguna Beach, a relaxed artsy beach resort whose attractions include shopping, galleries, dining, and beaches.

    Laguna Beach

    The Pacific Coast Highway goes right through Laguna Beach, a relaxed artsy beach resort whose attractions include shopping, galleries, dining, and beaches.

  • Whale watching trips and tours in San Diego are one of the California city's best activities but you can watch the whales from the San Diego shoreline too.

    Whale Watching from the San Diego Shoreline

    Whale watching trips and tours in San Diego are one of the California city's best activities but you can watch the whales from the San Diego shoreline too.

  • Crescent City is on the Pacific Coast Highway in northern California and noted for its crescent-shaped beach, Ocean World sea park, and nearby redwoods and state parks.

    Crescent City

    Crescent City is on the Pacific Coast Highway in northern California and noted for its crescent-shaped beach, Ocean World sea park, and nearby redwoods and state parks.

  • San Simeon is a tiny town of a few hundred people close to Hearst Castle on the California coast midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

    San Simeon

    San Simeon is a tiny town of a few hundred people close to Hearst Castle on the California coast midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

  • Santa Catalina Island, or Catalina Island, is off the shore of Southern California and reachable from Long Beach, San Pedro, Newport Beach, and Dana Point.

    Santa Catalina Island

    Santa Catalina Island, or Catalina Island, is off the shore of Southern California and reachable from Long Beach, San Pedro, Newport Beach, and Dana Point.

  • Mendocino in Mendocino County is a small but pretty California coastal town, popular with artists and with travelers. It has featured in many songs and movies.

    Mendocino

    Mendocino in Mendocino County is a small but pretty California coastal town, popular with artists and with travelers. It has featured in many songs and movies.

  • Santa Monica Pier is just off the Pacific Coast Highway in Santa Monica near Los Angeles, with an amusement park, an aquarium and many other attractions.

    Santa Monica Pier

    Santa Monica Pier is just off the Pacific Coast Highway in Santa Monica near Los Angeles, with an amusement park, an aquarium and many other attractions.

  • One of the best California coast guides is the California Coastal Access Guide, describing the coast’s beaches, National Parks, State Parks, with many maps.

    California Coast Guide

    One of the best California coast guides is the California Coastal Access Guide, describing the coast’s beaches, National Parks, State Parks, with many maps.

  • Seeing a humpback whale in the Pacific Ocean off the coasts of California,Washington or Oregon is often the highlight of a whale-watching tour.

    Humpback Whale

    Seeing a humpback whale in the Pacific Ocean off the coasts of California,Washington or Oregon is often the highlight of a whale-watching tour.

  • The Pelican Inn and Suites in Cambria on California's Central Coast has oceanfront views, swimming pool, gardens, and is right on the beach near Hearst Castle.

    Pelican Inn and Suites in Cambria on the Central Coast of California

    The Pelican Inn and Suites in Cambria on California's Central Coast has oceanfront views, swimming pool, gardens, and is right on the beach near Hearst Castle.

  • There are lots of free things to do on the Pacific Coast Highway and here's our list of ten of them including wildlife, the best free views, and free museums.

    Free Things to do on the Pacific Coast Highway

    There are lots of free things to do on the Pacific Coast Highway and here's our list of ten of them including wildlife, the best free views, and free museums.

  • Pacific Grove is a small city on the California coast, next to Monterey and close to Carmel, with attractions including its historic Victorian houses.

    Pacific Grove

    Pacific Grove is a small city on the California coast, next to Monterey and close to Carmel, with attractions including its historic Victorian houses.

  • The Stanford Inn by the Sea in Mendocino on the California coast is an eco-resort with yoga classes and the award-winning Ravens Restaurant.

    Stanford Inn by the Sea Mendocino

    The Stanford Inn by the Sea in Mendocino on the California coast is an eco-resort with yoga classes and the award-winning Ravens Restaurant.

  • Newport Beach is a small city on the Pacific coast of southern California, right on the Pacific Coast Highway and noted for its beaches and surfing.

    Newport Beach

    Newport Beach is a small city on the Pacific coast of southern California, right on the Pacific Coast Highway and noted for its beaches and surfing.

  • La Jolla in southern California is north of San Diego off the Pacific Coast Highway and has museums, restaurants, hotels, beaches, and the Birch Aquarium.

    La Jolla, in southern California

    La Jolla in southern California is north of San Diego off the Pacific Coast Highway and has museums, restaurants, hotels, beaches, and the Birch Aquarium.



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