Travel Blog

The BEST of Winter Wildlife in Santa Cruz County

Photo Courtesy of Jim Capwell

Santa Cruz is known for its phenomenal wildlife viewing opportunities. Year round whale watching, birding, otters, tide pooling, 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, King Tides, 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 — a few premier 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!

Photo Courtesy of Val Guzman

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). Persons requiring mobility assistance or the accompaniment of a service animal may make reservations for special Equal Access Guided Walks.

Photo Courtesy of Matthew Foreman

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 thru December at 11am and 2pm.

Photo Courtesy of Jim Capwell

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 (which are pretty much year round) 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 Jim Capwell

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.

Photo Courtesy of Rachel Endsley

As you can see, winter brings some of the biggest wildlife stars to the scene with breaching whales, two and a half ton elephant seals, and mesmerizing monarchs, but a few year round favorites are as present as ever – the always cute, sea otters, and the always fun, tide pool creatures. A simple walk along the Santa Cruz Wharf often leads to otter sightings and tide pooling spots are plentiful in the county – especially with those winter King Tides. And for those interested in taking a closer look at some of the native wildlife in Santa Cruz County – be it land or sea – visit the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History and the Seymour Marine Discovery Center where you can learn, see, and sometimes even touch some of the local species.

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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