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

  • San Luis Obispo

    San Luis Obispo in California is half-way between Los Angeles and San Francisco, on the Pacific Coast Highway and with lots of things to do and see.

  • 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.

  • Whale Watching in California

    Whale watching in California is one of the most popular things to do along the Pacific Coast Highway, in places like San Diego, San Francisco and many more.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Visiting Hearst Castle

    This Visiting Hearst Castle page gives all the practicalities including location, types of tour, length of tours, how long to allow, and much more information.

  • 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.

  • Unique Inns on the Pacific Coast Highway

    Unique Inns on the Pacific Coast Highway include some of the best independently-owned boutique hotels, spas, and lodges in California, Oregon and Washington.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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 Monica, California

    Santa Monica in California is famous for its pier, and beaches, and is one of the best west coast vacation spots, with hotels, restaurants, surfing, museums.

  • Santa Cruz

    Santa Cruz on the Pacific Coast Highway in California has its famous boardwalk, beaches, wine tastings, Surfing Museum, Mission, and Marine Discovery Center.

  • 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.

  • Santa Barbara

    Standing on the Pacific Coast Highway in California, Santa Barbara is an attractive resort with a historic downtown, sandy beaches, a mission, and good museums.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • San Diego Whale Watching

    San Diego whale watching tours like this from Hornblower Cruises let visitors get up close to see gray whales, dolphins, sea lions and other wildlife.

  • 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.

  • Point Lobos State Reserve near Carmel and Monterey, with photos

    A walk around the Point Lobos State Reserve near Monterey and Carmel provides lots of photo opportunities, especially of the Harbor Seal Birthing Area.

  • Pismo Beach

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



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