18 May California
The most beautiful beaches, the wildest coastlines and the most beautiful parks: California has got everything, including very good whale-watching locations.
Whale watching has a long tradition in California with the first tours taking place in the 1950ies. It was mostly gray whales on their way north that were watched. Humpbacks and finbacks can be seen quite often, too.
As everywhere along the coast of North America, whale watching focuses on migrating gray whales. Every year, they travel back and forth between their feeding grounds in the arctic and their subtropical mating grounds. From November to February they pass California on the way south and again from February to May (April mostly) on their way back north – together with their calves, which is why they stay closer to the coast then.
Along the Californian coast, there are also good chances of seeing blue whales, mostly between May and December (most of them from June to September). Humpbacks and orcas get sighted increasingly often, too, especially in the area around Monterey Bay. Also, numerous kinds of dolphins can be spotted all year long. Watching from the mainland is possible in many places, too.
McKerricher State Park and Mendocino Headlands State Park are among the most important ones in northern California. Whale watchers come here for the southward migration from the middle of December to February and for the northward migration from February to April.
The central coast of California offers a lot more whale watching possibilities: There are more than 20 tour operators and more than 20 designated places for sightings from the mainland. The most important ones are: Point Reyes National Seashore, Sonoma Coast State Park, San Simeon and Montana de Oro State Park. You can also go watching gray whales from San Francisco and the Bay Area from the middle of December to May. There are also blue whale safaris to the Farallon Islands from July to November, as these are the important feeding grounds for gray whales, humpbacks and blue whales. Daytrip tickets are 125 Dollars, starting at San Francisco, Sausalito and Halfmoon Bay.
»The waters in front of Santa Barbara are among the best in the world to see blue whales.«
Gray whale tours start from Monterey from December to April, the main times being February (southward migration) and April (northward migration). Humpbacks and blue whales can be spotted from May to December, blue whales only occasionally, though. You can somewhat rely on spotting orcas at the coast of Monterey and many types of dolphins are here all year long.
For whale watching, Southern California with Santa Barbara, Ventura County, Los Angeles, Newport and San Diego is the most important part of the coast, also when it comes to watching from the mainland (Cabrillo National Monument, Point Vicente Interpretive Center, Crystal Cove State Park). From Newport, Slater Moore makes fantastic drone-videos and photos during the tours with newportwhales. You can see whales from pretty much any elevated position, but there are 25 designated places, which are best for watching whales from land.
At Santa Barbara, the whale population reaches its peak between January and March, when the gray whales are traveling northward closely along the coast with their offspring. Between June and November you can watch humpbacks and blue whales, the best time being from June to September. In the waters of Santa Barbara, blue whale sightings are pretty regular, the area being one of the best to see blue whales worldwide. Numerous types of dolphins and occasionally orcas, too, can be spotted here.
California’s Highway Number One is among the most beautiful coastal roads of the whole world: For more than 1.000 kilometers it leads past the prettiest beaches, the wildest coasts and the highest trees. Also to be found here: The biggest colony of elephant seals of North America.
The California State Route (also: Highway 1), with its lonesome beaches and ragged coasts between San Francisco and Los Angeles, is one of the most beautiful coastal roads of the world and an almost mandatory to-do for every visitor, at least parts of it. The most beautiful segment begins behind Monterey and follows the steep cliffs of Big Sur. Pro-tip: Go south instead of north. That way you will always drive on the coastal side of the road.
Coastal sequoias (or “redwoods”) can grow to a height of 120 meters and can get up to 2.000 years old, making them the biggest and oldest trees in the world. They only grow along the North American west coast from Big Sur to the south of Oregon and are usually found within 20 kilometers of the coast. About 50% of the remaining trees can be found in the Redwood National State Park at the border to Oregon. Drive down the Avenue of the Giants, a 50 kilometer long road, leading directly through the redwoods.
California is world famous for its surfers and beaches. The most popular beaches are at Santa Barbara, Malibu (Baywatch!), Los Angeles (Muscle Beach!) and San Diego. They are good for swimming, while the Pacific is too cold further up north. There, it’s usually surfers in the water with their isolated wetsuits.
»California is Bear Country. There are black and brown bears and in the national parks and you might also encounter cougars.«
California is Bear Country. There are black and brown bears and especially in the national parks, you might also encounter cougars. Usually, they are shy but an encounter with them is more dangerous than meeting a bear. With some luck, the bald eagle, America’s heraldic animal, can be seen here, too – the further north the better. Along the coast of San Francisco (Año Nuevo Island) and at San Simeon (Piedras Blancas Rookery), there are elephant seals, 4 meters tall and weighing 2.5 tons, making them the biggest seals in the world. Elephant seals usually gather twice a year, best to be watched during mating season from December to March.
The Yosemite National Park is 300 kilometers east of San Francisco and the most visited park of the USA, next to Yellowstone. Everybody knows “El Capitan”, the massive slab of stone with its rocky 1.000 meter drop. Tommy Caldwell was the first one to climb it without technical assistance in 2015. With technical utilities, speed climbers like Alex Honnold need about two and a half hours. Some just marvel at it from below.
Southeast of the massive mountain range of the Sierra Nevada is Death Valley National Park, hottest and driest region of the USA. There’s not much to be found here but sand and rocks – and total darkness at night: As there are no artificial sources of light anywhere nearby, there is no better place in the world to watch the stars. Death Valley has therefore been declared a “Dark Sky Place”, prohibiting illumination.