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.

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • There are plenty of Santa Cruz downtown wine tastings including Beauregard Vineyards,Storrs Winery and Pelican Ranch Winery,all with tasting rooms.

    Santa Cruz Downtown Wine Tastings

    There are plenty of Santa Cruz downtown wine tastings including Beauregard Vineyards,Storrs Winery and Pelican Ranch Winery,all with tasting rooms.

  • The Casa Laguna Hotel and Spa in Laguna Beach is right on the Pacific Coast Highway and has luxury rooms, a swimming pool, and real gourmet breakfasts.

    Laguna Beach Inn and Spa

    The Casa Laguna Hotel and Spa in Laguna Beach is right on the Pacific Coast Highway and has luxury rooms, a swimming pool, and real gourmet breakfasts.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • For a Moss Beach hotel just off the Pacific Coast Highway, the Seal Cove Inn offers good accommodation north of Half Moon Bay, minutes from the ocean.

    Moss Beach Hotel

    For a Moss Beach hotel just off the Pacific Coast Highway, the Seal Cove Inn offers good accommodation north of Half Moon Bay, minutes from the ocean.

  •  Of all Eureka inns, The Carter House Inns are the most romantic and historic, with one of the best restaurants in Northern California.

    Eureka Inns

    Of all Eureka inns, The Carter House Inns are the most romantic and historic, with one of the best restaurants in Northern California.

  • 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.

  • Pismo Beach is a small beach town on California's Central Coast, a resort famous for surfing and clams.

    Pismo Beach

    Pismo Beach is a small beach town on California's Central Coast, a resort famous for surfing and clams.

  • San Clemente in California is a small city on the Pacific Coast Highway midway between San Diego and Los Angeles, noted for its beaches and surfing.

    San Clemente California

    San Clemente in California is a small city on the Pacific Coast Highway midway between San Diego and Los Angeles, noted for its beaches and surfing.

  • The Florence Sea Lion Caves are one of the best wildlife attractions along the Pacific Coast Highway, north of Florence and south of Yachats.

    Florence Sea Lion Caves

    The Florence Sea Lion Caves are one of the best wildlife attractions along the Pacific Coast Highway, north of Florence and south of Yachats.

  • 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.

  • Bodega Bay is a small California coastal town on the borders of Marin County and Sonoma County, and the filming location for Alfred Hitchcock's the Birds.

    Bodega Bay

    Bodega Bay is a small California coastal town on the borders of Marin County and Sonoma County, and the filming location for Alfred Hitchcock's the Birds.

  • 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.

  • The Pacific Coast Highway wildlife on and off the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington is one of the highlights of any trip.

    Pacific Coast Highway Wildlife

    The Pacific Coast Highway wildlife on and off the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington is one of the highlights of any trip.

  • Monterey in California is off the Pacific Coast Highway and home to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Cannery Row, Fisherman’s Wharf, and Monterey State Historic Park.

    Monterey, on the Pacific Coast Highway in California

    Monterey in California is off the Pacific Coast Highway and home to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Cannery Row, Fisherman’s Wharf, and Monterey State Historic Park.

  • Whale watching coupons offering a big discount are available now in Newport Beach for cheap whale watching cruises with Newport Landing Whale Watching.

    Whale Watching Coupons in Newport Beach

    Whale watching coupons offering a big discount are available now in Newport Beach for cheap whale watching cruises with Newport Landing Whale Watching.

  • 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.

  • SeaWorld in San Diego is the original marine theme park, featuring killer whales, dolphins, shark encounters, manatee rescue, and Journey to Atlantis.

    SeaWorld San Diego

    SeaWorld in San Diego is the original marine theme park, featuring killer whales, dolphins, shark encounters, manatee rescue, and Journey to Atlantis.

  • San Diego Zoo Safari Park is a partner of San Diego Zoo and offers the chance to see wildlife in its natural habitat with a wide range of safaris on offer.

    San Diego Zoo Safari Park

    San Diego Zoo Safari Park is a partner of San Diego Zoo and offers the chance to see wildlife in its natural habitat with a wide range of safaris on offer.

  •  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.

  • Lonely Planet's Coastal California guidebook is the ideal travel guide for driving or cycling the Pacific Coast Highway from the Oregon border to Mexico.

    Coastal California Guidebook

    Lonely Planet's Coastal California guidebook is the ideal travel guide for driving or cycling the Pacific Coast Highway from the Oregon border to Mexico.

  • 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.



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