Año Nuevo State Park: The Complete Guide

Northern Elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris) on beach, California, USA
Danita Delimont / Getty Images
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Año Nuevo State Park

Address
1 New Years Creek Rd, Pescadero, CA 94060, USA
Phone +1 650-879-2025

Every winter, a spectacle unfolds along the California coast that's unlike any other. Thousands of northern elephant seals gather on the beaches, returning from a long stay at sea. Within just a few short weeks, it's a flurry of activity as males fight to become the dominant bull, females come ashore, babies are born and weaned. After that, they all return to the ocean again where they will stay for most of the next nine months.

Elephant seals spend most of their life at sea. Starting in late December, they begin to come ashore one by one, starting with the males. Fourteen to sixteen feet long and weighing up to 2.5 tons, the big guys engage in small skirmishes that can escalate into violent battles to establish dominance and the right to settle in the center of the harem and mate with all its females.

Females come ashore next. They bear a single, 75-pound pup, then they gather in large harems. They nurse their young for about a month, mate, and then abandon the youngsters (who now weigh up to 350 pounds) to return to the sea. By March, most of the adults are gone. The young ones, called "weaners," learn how to swim, find food, and survive on their own. 

The only way to see the seals at Año Nuevo during breeding season is on guided tours, which happen daily from December through March and last about 2.5 hours. Reservations are required and the booking window typically opens in mid to late October. The park also offers other coastal trails where you hike safely at a distance from the seals.

Things to Do

The breeding colony at Año Nuevo State Park north of Santa Cruz is just a short hike away from a parking area. Taking a walk from there, visitors get an extraordinary opportunity to see them up close. Volunteer naturalists lead tours, explain the goings-on, and keep the elephant seals and humans safe from each other. If you're lucky, you might see a pup being born or watch a battle between two males. Most of the fights are mere skirmishes, but exciting nevertheless. You may also hear the 2.5-ton bulls make their odd bellowing calls that some people say sounds like a motorcycle in a drain pipe.

Best Hikes & Trails

The main attraction at this state park is the elephant seal colony and there is no way to see them without reserving a spot on the guided hike. All visitors must be accompanied to the preserve area by an experienced guide in order to ensure their own safety, but there are a few other seal-free trails guests are welcome to take on their own.

  • Año Nuevo Point Trail: Hike along the bluffs for a great view of birds and a 19th-century lighthouse. You will only be able to access the first .8 miles of this trail if you don't do the guided hike.
  • Atkinson Bluff Trail: This trail follows the coastline through dunes and prairies and offers access to secluded beaches and Smugglers Cove.
  • Franklin Point Trail: Leaving from the Marine Education Center this trail travels through dunes to another beach with a rocky point.
  • Whitehouse Ridge Trail: Año Nuevo isn't really known for its redwoods but you can find some on this 1.2-mile trail which begins at the parking lot on Whitehouse Creek Road and crosses over into Big Basin Redwoods State Park, where you could extend your hike.

Where to Stay Nearby

Santa Cruz is about 20 miles south of the park, which is where you'll find the most variety in accommodation, but there are a couple of places to stay located closer to the park entrance. There is no camping allowed inside the park.

  • Costanoa: This large and remote resort with a view of the ocean offers a wide variety of accommodation from campsites to cabins and luxury rooms in the lodge. There is a restaurant, spa, and bar on-site and the resort can help arrange activities kayaking and horseback riding.
  • HI Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel: This hostel sits at the foot of a beautiful lighthouse looking out over the coast and offers beds in six-person, three-person, two-person rooms in addition to private rooms with double beds.

How to Get There

Año Nuevo is just off U.S. Highway 1, 20 miles north of Santa Cruz and 27 miles south of Half Moon Bay. From San Francisco, the park is approximately 60 miles away. You'll first need to take US-101 south until you can turn west on I-280, which you'll follow for six miles before turning onto US-1. From north or south, this route offers a scenic view of the Pacific Coast.

Accessibility

The walk to the elephant seal preserve is three miles long and moderately strenuous. The path to the viewing area is not suitable for people with mobility impairments. However, Año Nuevo State Park offers Equal Access Tours, which are two hours long. During this tour, a wheelchair-accessible van will transport guests to a boardwalk from which the elephant seals can be seen. Two guests are allowed to accompany each person who qualifies for an equal access tour. The park also offers tours conducted in American Sign Language (ASL). These are prescheduled, so check the official park website to see when the next ASL tour is.

Tips for Your Visit

  • January and February are the best months to see the action at Año Nuevo, but that's also when the weather tends to be the worst. If you go earlier than that, you'll see the males coming ashore but will be there too soon to see the adorable seal pups. If you go after February, you'll find only the young sea lions but you won't see any adults.
  • It can be rainy and cold even in the summer, so wear long sleeves and shoes you don't mind getting muddy. Even if it's raining, umbrellas are not allowed on the guided walk because they frighten the animals so bring a raincoat or poncho instead.
  • If you can't get to Año Nuevo or your schedule is too unpredictable to allow you to make a reservation, you can also see the elephant seals at Piedras Blancas near Hearst Castle. At that location, you can walk near the breeding colony on a boardwalk path anytime.
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How to See Elephant Seals at Año Nuevo State Park