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Travel BLOG
December 08, 2016

Winter: The Best Time for WILDLIFE in Santa Cruz County

Photo Courtesy of Lisa Schouweiler Photo Courtesy of Lisa Schouweiler

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 in December and January there seems to be a crescendo of wildlife that make Santa Cruz a wintertime must-see! Migrating gray whales, breeding elephant seals, wintering monarchs, and upwards of 400 species of birds make these months the perfect time to get out and enjoy nature. And a major bonus to your winter getaway -- many hotels are partnering up for some great deals for your stay! So check out some of our wintertime wildlife must-sees, grab a FREE Wildlife Watch Kit, and start planning your trip to Santa Cruz!

Año Nuevo Elephant Seals Photo Courtesy of Paul Zaretsky

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 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 for just $7 per person (children 3 and under are free). Reservations are recommended and can be made through Reserve America. Persons requiring mobility assistance or the accompaniment of a service animal may make reservations for special Equal Access Guided Walks

Photo Courtesy of Instagram Fan, @seeing4yourself Photo Courtesy of Instagram Fan, @seeing4yourself

Seasonal visits to Natural Bridges State Park, California's only state park butterfly preserve, allow visitors an intimate 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 weekends from mid-October to mid-January at 11am and 2pm.

Photo Courtesy of Jeff Bleam Photo Courtesy of Jeff Bleam

Winter is known for its frequent sightings of California Gray Whales as 20,000 of these giants pass through the Monterey Bay on their annual winter migration from the cold arctic waters, to the warm lagoons of the Baja Peninsula. Santa Cruz Whale Watching says, from December - April, "the chance of sighting the Gray Whales at this time is very high, somewhere around 90%!" That's some good odds! Catch sight of these magnificent creatures this winter 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, humpbacks (STILL!) and a variety of ocean birds can be spotted as well in the unique ecosystem of the Monterey Bay. Check out NOAA's Seasons in the Sea for a month-to-month look at what marine life is in season.

Photo courtesy of Stephen Shoff Photo Courtesy of Stephen Shoff

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. 

Hope you can enjoy some winter wildlife in Santa Cruz this season! Be sure to tag @visitsantacruz and use #SCWildlife and #SCWhales with all your photos! 

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