Santa Cruz is known for its phenomenal wildlife viewing opportunities. Year ’round whale watching, birding and elephant seals, and seasonal monarch butterflies have put Santa Cruz County on the map for many nature enthusiasts. But from November through January there seems to be a crescendo of wildlife that make Santa Cruz a wintertime must-see!
Wintering monarchs, migrating gray whales, breeding elephant seals and upwards of 400 species of birds make these months the perfect time to get out and connect with nature. And a major bonus to your winter getaway — many hotels are partnering up for some great deals for your stay — 3 nights for the price of 2 anyone!? So check out some of our wintertime wildlife must-sees, grab a FREE Birding and Wildlife Watch Guide, and book your stay in Santa Cruz!
Año Nuevo State Park is the site for one of the largest mainland breeding colonies in the world for the northern elephant seal, and lucky for us, it’s just 22 miles north of Santa Cruz along scenic Highway 1. Mating, birthing, nursing, fighting — it all happens up close and personal on a 3-4 mile guided tour. Knowledgeable and passionate docents lead the way over sandy dunes to the best viewing spots, answering questions and sprinkling fun facts along the way. Although the elephant seals are present year round, guided tours are available daily from December 15 through March 31, excluding December 25 and January 24 & 25. Reservations are recommended and can be made through Reserve America.
Seasonal visits to Natural Bridges State Park, California’s only state park butterfly preserve, allow visitors an up-close look at the majestic monarch butterfly. Fall marks the return of thousands of monarch butterflies that spend their winters in a protected grove inside the park, with most departing by the first week of March. Famous for both their grace and stamina, the monarchs make an extraordinary migration of thousands of miles, flying from summer habitats in the United States to warmer climates in Mexico and California for the winter. Take a peaceful self-guided walk among the eucalyptus trees for viewing or join in on a free weekend guided tour of the monarch butterfly grove by park docent naturalists. Guided tours are offered from mid-October to mid-January.
Whale watching in Santa Cruz and the Monterey Bay provides some of the best views of the California Gray Whale, as they pass through the waters off Santa Cruz on their annual migration from Alaska to Mexico in the winter months. Catch sight of these magnificent creatures and other sea life by taking a whale watching tour or a sailing charter on a luxury yacht. An abundance of sea otters, dolphins, porpoises, sea lions and a variety of ocean birds can be spotted as well in the unique ecosystem of the Monterey Bay. And this year has been bringing some extra special sea life to the Bay. We’ve seen tropic-like turquoise waters brought on by an unusual phytoplankton, an abundance of orcas, and tons of off-shore whale watching — so you might be in for a few off-season surprises! Check out NOAA‘s Seasons in the Sea for a month-to-month look at what marine life is in season.
Located along the Pacific Flyway on California’s spectacular Central Coast, Santa Cruz County is a premier birding destination. Its rich diversity of habitats attract upwards of 400 species of resident and migratory birds. In the old-growth forest of Big Basin Redwoods State Park, you can catch sight of the Marbled Murrelet flying through the trees at dawn. You’ll find Snowy Plover skittering across the sandy beaches at Pajaro Dunes. Waterfowl dive and dabble at Wetlands of Watsonville’s freshwater marshes. Hummingbirds dart among the exotic flora at the Arboretum at UCSC. And at the renowned Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, you can walk the trails or kayak the waters to see over 340 different species of birds that pass through or find permanent refuge at the slough.
Don’t forget to check out the killer 3 nights for the price of 2 deals going on from December 1 thru January 31st (some specials run longer). And request your FREE Birding and Wildlife Watch Kit so you will know just where to go and what to look for while you’re here! See you in Santa Cruz this winter!