It’s an awful noise. Like that guy you knew in college who could rip the biggest beer burp ever—but worse.
The racket starts with the elephant seal men, who arrive on the beach first and stake their claim, even if it means head-butting their neighbors with their bulbous, trunkish noses (it’s called a proboscis) and thrusting their cornified chests into each other, throwing themselves around like giant gray slugs. They all want to be in prime position when the elephant seal women show up.
And when the lovelies pull ashore, they pass right by and head for the dunes. Because before any funny business can happen, the women have a serious job to do: birthing babies. They arrive pregnant, and not until their pups are born and nursed for several weeks do they turn their attention to the guys, the alpha males who have been hovering, showing their ardor by protecting their harems from the advances of the other guys. Then the ladies are ready for a quickie before they head back out to sea to feed—and grow the new pup that will be born here next year. The bulls stick around to impregnate as many as 50 cows before they move out, too.
So goes the sex life for the northern elephant seal. Between Dec. 1 and March 31, it’s all on display for visitors who sign up for a $7 guided walk at Año Nuevo State Reserve. It’s noisy, it’s stinky, and you might wonder why anyone would bother to embark on the nearly 4-mile round-trip hike, much of it slogging through sand, to witness such a spectacle. Here’s the reason: This is nature in one of its rawest forms, and there’s something awesome and beautiful about the glistening grayish-silver creatures returning to these beaches year after year, roaring through the circle of life with such vigor.
Año Nuevo State Reserve lies 22 miles north of Santa Cruz and 55 miles south of San Francisco on Highway 1, near the teeny little community of Pescadero. The park’s windswept beaches and dunes are the site of the largest mainland pinniped rookery—seal breeding ground—each winter, and a major molting residence for the elephant seals each summer. At least a few elephant seals are viewable at any given time during the year at Año Nuevo, but prime time is right now. The bulls start hauling themselves ashore and fighting for their land rights in December, the cows start arriving and birthing pups from late December through early February, and by mid-March, most of the grownups have returned to the sea, leaving the milk-fattened youngsters to basque in the early spring sun and frolic with each other. During these four months, the seals can only be seen during docent-guided walks, by reservation only.
Pigeon Point Lighthouse in Pescadero
The docents know their stuff, many having been on the job for numerous seasons. Bring your walking shoes and layer up on shirts and jackets—winds can be stiff out here, and tours go rain or shine, no umbrellas allowed. It’s about a 4-mile walk out to the lookouts and back, and you’ll be tromping through sand dunes for part of it. You’ll be disappointed if you forget your binoculars or don’t know how to zoom your cell phone camera—although you can see plenty, you can get only so close to the elephant seals.
On the hike out, you might learn about the area’s history—Año Nuevo is a rocky point named by Father Antonio de la Ascension, diarist of an expedition led by Spanish maritime explorer Sebastian Vizcaino; they sailed by it on New Year’s Day in 1603. You will likely hear about the area’s geology, how it’s no secret that this whole part of the state is rife with seismic activity—usually blamed on the San Andreas Fault. But hold on tight: Running throughout Año Nuevo, the San Gregorio Fault system (including the amusingly named Frijoles Fault) is thought to be capable of producing up to a 7.5-magnitude earthquake.
You’ll learn plenty about elephant seals and their reproductive habits, and as you near the beaches, you’ll hear and smell the animals before you see them. The seals themselves are a glorious, tubular mass of gray matter, heaving themselves around on undulating blubber bellies. Listen for the cows as they call to their pups—when the babies are born, the mothers begin their bonding routine by imprinting on their youngster with a specific vocalization. If a pup loses mama, the two find each other again with that one-of-a-kind call. Behold the power portrayed by two fighting males; it’s enough to make you glad you’re not allowed to get any closer. This might be state parks land in San Mateo County, but at no point in your journey will you forget that this is still an undeveloped wild outpost governed by beasts.
While at the park, seek out the visitor center and Marine Education Center, where natural history exhibits include wall displays that cite nuggets of information about elephant seals—how, for example, a lactating female produces milk that’s 55 percent fat (compare that to human milk, which is 4.5 percent fat). The onsite bookstore sells books, postcards, stuffed sea creatures and other marine-related treasures. Check out the whitewashed old buildings from the Steele Dairy Ranch, including the barn and creamery.
When you’re finished at Año Nuevo, explore some of the following attractions in the area. Also included here: a few options for spending the night nearby.
PIGEON POINT LIGHT STATION STATE HISTORIC PARK—This iconic lighthouse just north of Año Nuevo runs half-hour guided history walks every Friday through Monday. The lighthouse building is closed to the public, but the lighthouse keeper’s housing has been restored and operates as a hostel. (Shared-room rates start at $27 a night—bring an extra $8 for a half-hour soak in the hot tub.) Visit the interpretive center in the fog signal building, and watch for gray whales as they migrate later in winter. Investigate the tidepools north of the point—crabs and anemones abound.
BUTANO STATE PARK—Despite its collection of hiking trails under towering redwoods, Butano stays pretty quiet in the winter, providing an opportunity for a get-away-from-it-all stroll under mossy giants. Butano contains a collection of fire roads that lead to narrow, woodsy footpaths that wind into the drippy canyon, where wild mushrooms and skittering newts lend a fairy-tale ambience. Don’t eat the mushrooms—it’s no fairy tale if you end up in the ER.
PESCADERO STATE BEACH AND MARSH NATURAL PRESERVE—This wind-scoured mile-long shoreline beckons car-weary visitors to stretch their legs and run, to peer out to sea from grassy dunes or consume sandwiches by the water. Across the road, the Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve, a hotspot on the Pacific Flyway, lures birders on the lookout for great blue heron and egrets, among other feathered faves. Take the Sequoia- Audubon Trail, which passes Butano and Pescadero creeks, and you’ll find yourself among lush native plants such as yarrow and wild mustard. Those dramatic, cream-colored, feather-topped shoots are pampas grass—majestic, but apparently on land management’s most-hated list because of its ability to choke out beneficial vegetation. On the north side of the marsh, point the binocs into the eucalyptus trees for a glimpse of the great blue herons’ nests.
PIE RANCH—Near Año Nuevo, the triangle-shaped ranch is mostly an educational endeavor to teach the merits of sustainable farming, but on the third Saturday of each month, it invites the public in to a workday and barn dance. Work on the farm, take a tour ($12–$20), join the potluck and then dosey-do all evening long at the dance inside the barn ($15–$20, on a sliding scale). All ages welcome.
HISTORIC PESCADERO—This little town, just down Pescadero Road off Highway 1, is a blink-and-you’ll-miss it spot with a few stops you won’t want to forego. At the gas station, discover some great Mexican food at Mercado & Taqueria de Amigos. It’s cash only, and tacos, burritos and other specialties ring up at very reasonable prices—a carne asada plate on the special board goes for $5.75, for example, and could feed two people, easy. The chips-and-salsa bar is included. Duarte’s Tavern has been run by the Duarte family since 1894 and today, still in the same landmark building, it sports a menu chock full of artichokes (a local crop). Go for an artichoke omelet, cream of artichoke soup or chilled artichoke hearts with aioli. Fresh fish is a specialty here, too, with local halibut, snapper, petrale sole and sand dabs. Down the street, artichokes turn up again, this time in the bread at Norm’s Market/Arcangeli Grocery Co. The store’s country-style Italian artichoke and garlic breads, enormous cinnamon rolls, preserves, bread dips and marinateds (olives, garlic, peppers) grace the shelves. The Sante Arcangeli Family Wines’ tasting room pours flights of four to six wines on Friday, Saturday and Sunday afternoon. At Downtown Local, a cool little coffeehouse/gift shop/movie theater, listen to an LP, slurp a mocha or sip a kombucha. Wander through Luna Sea Gallery for gifts—lotions, books, candles, cards, handcrafted home decor. Next door, Stage Road Shops has a good selection of stained glass and handmade jewelry. Made in Pescadero, a furniture shop with lovely handcrafted wooden beds, armoires, sideboards, rockers, benches, you name it, will have you dreaming of redecorating. Another home decor/garden spot, Topia, will leave you aching to redecorate, particularly your yard.
HARLEY FARMS GOAT DAIRY—Visit this goat dairy farm to learn all about American Alpine goats and the chevre, fromage blanc, feta and ricotta created from their milk. Meet the llamas who guard the goat herd, and the dogs, cats, chickens and ducks that wander the property. The farm shop is open daily and sells site-produced cheeses, goat milk soaps and lotions and and other goat-made items.