Año Nuevo State Park

Top choice in The Peninsula

Just over a dozen miles southeast of Pescadero State Beach, Año Nuevo State Natural Reserve is home base for one of the world's largest mainland breeding colonies of northern elephant seals. More raucous than a full-moon beach rave, thousands of boisterous elephant seals party down year-round on the dunes of Año Nuevo Point, their squeals and barks reaching fever pitch during the winter pupping season.

Northern elephant seals were just as fearless two centuries ago as they are today. Unfortunately, club-toting seal trappers were not as friendly as camera-toting tourists; during the 19th century, northern elephant seals were driven to the edge of extinction. Only a handful survived around the Guadalupe Islands off the Mexican state of Baja California. With the availability of substitutes for seal oil and the conservationist attitudes of more recent times, northern elephant seals made a comeback, reappearing on the Southern California coast during the 1920s. They returned to Año Nuevo Beach in 1955.

During the mating and birthing time from mid-December to the end of March (peak season), visitors are only permitted access to the reserve on heavily booked guided tours. For the busiest period, from mid-January to mid-February, it’s recommended you book two months ahead. Although the park office can answer general questions, tour bookings must be made through ReserveCalifornia either by phone or online (www.reservecalifornia.com/CaliforniaWebHome/Activities/ProgramsAndTours.aspx).

The rest of the year, advance reservations aren’t necessary, but visitor permits from the entrance station are required; arrive before 3pm in September, October or November or 3:30pm April to August. From the ranger station it’s a 3- to 5-mile round-trip hike on sand; allow two to three hours. Dogs are not allowed on-site and no visitors are permitted during the first two weeks of December.

The park is less than 7 miles southeast of Pigeon Point or over 20 miles northwest of Santa Cruz.

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