Travel Blog

The BEST of Winter Wildlife in Santa Cruz County

Photo by Val Guzman

Santa Cruz is known for its phenomenal wildlife viewing opportunities. Year-round whale watching, birding, otters, tide pooling, and forest wildlife have put Santa Cruz County on the map for many nature enthusiasts! But in December, January and February there seems to be a crescendo of wildlife that make Santa Cruz a wintertime must-see! Migrating gray whales, wintering monarchs, King Tides, elephant seals, and upwards of 400 species of birds make these months the perfect time to get out and enjoy nature. So check out some of our wintertime wildlife must-sees below, grab a FREE Wildlife Watch Kit, and book your winter getaway to Santa Cruz!

Wildlife Watch Kit button

And please remember to always explore safely – preserve, protect, and respect the wildlife!

The Monarch Butterflies of Natural Bridges State Beach winter in the eucalyptus every fall and winter. This photo shows a cluster of Monarch Butterflies taken by September Wren in December of 2021
Photo by Meg Venter of @septemberwren

MONARCH BUTTERFLIES
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 monarch butterflies that spend their winters in a protected grove inside the park, with most departing by mid to end of January. 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. And be sure to check out our Monarch Magic blog for more info on these amazing creatures and how you can help in their recovery!

Photo of Elephant Seals at Ano Nuevo State Park. This photo is of a new seal pup and her mom on the sand at Ano Nuevo in December.
Photo courtesy of Año Nuevo State Park

ELEPHANT SEALS
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, excluding December 25 and the last weekend in January for an annual fundraising event. Reservations are recommended for weekends and holidays, but walk-in tickets are available Monday through Friday. Tickets are $7 per person plus a $3.99 reservation fee. The vehicle day-use fee is $10. For reservations and info, visit www.reservecalifornia.com or call 1-800-444-4445.

Photo Courtesy of Jim Capwell

WHALES
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. And be sure to check out this blog for information on taking a whale watching and sea life excursion in Santa Cruz County.

Two pelicans flying over the ocean.
Photo Courtesy of Jim Capwell

BIRDING
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. 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.

A brown rabbit sitting in the forest.

FOREST FAUNA
The forests wildlife is active year-round, but the fresh winter showers can really cause a creature stir. From furry friends like deer, rabbits, squirrels, bobcats, and coyotes to the slimier finds like banana slugs, salamanders, newts, and frogs, the trails of Santa Cruz County’s state parks often lead to dozens of animal sightings. Take a peek at this visit to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park – how many creatures can you spot? Or how about this day at Wilder Ranch State Park? For some great trails to start exploring, check out our Top 5 Hikes in Santa Cruz County.

Red crab sitting on top of seaweed.

OTTERS, TIDE POOLS, & MORE
As you can see, winter brings some of the biggest wildlife stars to the scene with breaching whales 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 (the lowest tides of the year = best tide pooling of the year)! For a neat look at the wildlife at Natural Bridges State Beach, including some up-close peeks into the tide pools, check out this peaceful Moment in Nature video.

Hope you can enjoy some winter wildlife in Santa Cruz this season! Enjoy off-season lodging prices and book your winter getaway in Santa Cruz County! And be sure to tag @visitsantacruz in your posts while you’re here!

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