The RIGHT Places: Where California's Critters are Hiding

With hundreds of species of wildlife, there is always something new for visitors to discover in California’s great outdoors. Whether out on a backpacking excursion in the middle of the wilderness or strolling through one of the state’s largest cities, California affords visitors the opportunity to see a broad variety of wildlife, many of which are specific to the Golden State.

According to the California Travel and Tourism Commission (CTTC), the winter and spring months are the most dramatic seasons to visit Huntington Beach, part of the Orange County Region, because the city lies within the famous Pacific Flyway, a corridor extending from Alaska to Patagonia that serves as a pathway for millions of migrating birds, of which 70 species can be counted in one month. The Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve is a 1,700-acre coastal wetland sanctuary and is home to nearly 200 birds and 50 species of marine life. The 114-acre Huntington Beach Wetlands, including Talbert Marsh, offers the largest colony of nesting California least terns in North America, in addition to herons, egrets, stilts and pelicans.

Located 18 miles west of Delano and just north of Bakersfield in the Central Valley Region, the Kern National Wildlife Refuge offers nearly 11,300 acres of pristine grasslands and marshes, along with the endangered Buena Vista Lake shrew, San Joaquin kit fox and blunt-nosed leopard lizard. The Wind Wolves Preserve, 30 miles south of Bakersfield, is the largest non-profit preserve on the West Coast with its 97,000 acres, and is home to 200 tule elk. In Yolo County, tens of thousands of waterfowl and shorebirds can be seen resting and feeding during the winter and spring migration months (October to April) at the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area, one of the country’s largest public/private restoration projects, where 16,000 acres of land have been restored to wetlands and other associated habitats. Visitors can view birds and other wildlife along the auto tour route and walking trails. Ninety miles north of Sacramento in Willows, the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex offers five national wildlife refuges and three wildlife management areas that comprise more than 35,000 acres of wetlands and uplands. The refuge and easements serve as resting and feeding areas for nearly half of the migratory birds on the Pacific Flyway. The best times to visit are November and January.

In the Southern California mountains, Lake Arrowhead, part of the Inland Empire Region, also boasts a wide variety of bird species, including year-round populations of waterfowl along with migratory birds seasonally. The area’s mixed conifer and deciduous forest is also home to a myriad of woodland bird species. Travelers to the region may see the acorn woodpecker, bald eagle, red-tailed hawk, turkey vulture, black-capped chickadee, pelican, mountain bluebird and scrub jay.

In the North Coast Region, Mendocino County is one of the best spots in the world for whale watching. The migrating whales pass by once going south between the months of November and February, and again heading north between February and June. Visitors can often observe the gentle giants of the Pacific right from shore, while pods nestle in Mendocino’s tame coves — especially Point Cabrillo, under the lighthouse — to feed their young and rest. Whale watching festivals take place the first weekend in March in Mendocino and mid-March in Fort Bragg. Just north of Fort Bragg on Highway 1, Seal Rock and Laguna Point at MacKerricher State Park are exceptional observation points for harbor seals, especially in April and May during the “pupping season,” when mothers and their young frolic in the surf. Wheelchair accessible viewing is available here. In Redwood National and State Parks in Crescent City, wildlife enthusiasts can view Roosevelt elk, the largest of the big game animals in North America, with bucks weighing up to 1,000 pounds.

Monterey Bay is home to a stunning array of mammals, seabirds, fish, invertebrates and plants, many of which cluster in the waters along Cannery Row in the Central Coast Region. For the best close encounters, many visitors take to kayaks, where they can view sea lions, seals and sea otters. Travelers can also spot sea lions, seals, dolphins and Pacific gray whales during the winter season (December to March) and blue whales (June to September) on trips to Anacapa Island that depart from Oxnard’s Channel Islands Harbor. A favorite gathering spot for elephant seals is Piedras Blancas along Highway 1, approximately 4.4 miles north of the entrance to Hearst Castle. Winter is the peak viewing season as the elephant seals gather to give birth and mate. California also hosts its share of exotic creatures, including more than 100 ostriches and some emus at Ostrich Land, a 33-acre breeding farm in Buellton, as well as alpacas, the gentle cousins of llamas, at Alpacas de Los Olivos in Los Olivos.

One of the best places in the world to view roadrunners is the Living Desert in Palm Desert, part of the Deserts Region. The 1,000-acre park also boasts many other birds, including the cactus wren, black-throated sparrow and Costa’s hummingbird. Wildlife-viewing enthusiasts can also get their share of reptiles, with zebra-tailed lizards and desert iguanas making the park their home. Taking the 10-minute ride aboard the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway has been likened to taking a road trip from Mexico to Alaska. Visitors travel from Valley Station at 2,643 feet to 8,516 feet, where they may see mule deer, California grey squirrels and Steller’s jays.

In the High Sierra Region, Yosemite National Park offers 90 different species of animals. Many of the area’s mammals, such as deer and squirrels, are fairly common and can be readily seen every day. Others, such as the wolverine and the Sierra Nevada red fox, are extremely rare and might be sighted only once a decade. Located 7 miles north of Truckee, the Sagehen Creek Trail is a great spot for sighting wild turkeys. Nearby Lake Tahoe is home to black bears, which can sometimes be spotted while out hiking the Tahoe Rim Trail, a 165-mile loop trail that runs along the ridges and mountaintops circling Lake Tahoe. In Mono County, Mono Lake’s bird migration attracts millions of birds and thousands of birdwatchers. The annual Mono Basin Bird Chatauqua, held the third weekend in June, offers field trips, lectures and bird-calling contests. Three subspecies of bighorn sheep live in the United States, and two of them are within minutes of one another in Inyo County. Flocks of desert bighorn and Sierra bighorn can be seen from Pine Creek and Silver Canyon roads, east and west of Bishop. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks also offer fantastic wildlife viewing, including the big brown bat, ornate shrew, coyote, beaver and muskrat.

Similar to the coasts of Northern California, the Los Angeles County Region is also a hot spot for whale watching. One of the prime viewing spots to see the migration of the Pacific gray whale (December through April) is Point Vicente Park on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, located less than an hour from downtown Los Angeles. From this hilltop location, the views of the coastline are sweeping, and the Interpretive Center offers whale watching educational programs all winter. To kick off the whale migration season, wildlife viewing enthusiasts can attend the Whale Fiesta in San Pedro, held every January, where families and sandcastle craftsmen alike celebrate the season of the Pacific gray whale by building life-sized whales out of sand.

Every January, the Shasta Cascade Region offers the Snow Goose Festival in Chico, where tens of thousands of these majestic birds winter in Northern California. The festival hosts more than 40 birding and wildlife field trips, as well as wildlife presentations, activities and workshops. For egrets, beavers and river otters, visitors head to the Oroville State Wildlife Area, adjacent to the Feather River in Oroville, with its 11,870 acres of riparian forest bordered by 12 miles of river channels. Eight miles east of Yreka, the Shasta Valley Wildlife Area offers 4,655 acres of Great Basin juniper woodland, riparian forest, seasonal wetlands and crops lands, with Mt. Shasta as a backdrop. Mule deer, porcupines and coyotes are among the many animals found here. Located near Lassen Volcanic National Park in Shingletown, the Wild Horse Sanctuary is home to more than 300 wild mustangs and burros, many of which were rescued from federal lands in the Western United States, who live out their lives on this 5,000-acre sanctuary. Guests can enjoy trail rides May through October, where they view wild horses in a natural setting rich in Native American and pioneer history.

In the San Diego County Region, the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is the largest state park in California, with more than 500 miles of dirt roads, 12 wilderness areas and numerous hiking trails. Amid the 600,000 acres of untouched wilderness, guests encounter a land teeming with wildlife, including roadrunners, golden eagles, kit foxes, mule deer, bighorn sheep, iguanas and red diamond rattlesnakes. The Kelp Beds in Point Loma are the fastest growing organisms in the world, growing two feet a day in ideal conditions. Diving and snorkeling vary depending on weather, but due to the large amount of kelp, fish and other marine life are always seen in abundance. The depths of the kelp beds vary from 35 to 70 feet, with visibility ranging between 10 to 20 feet.

The sea lions at San Francisco’s Pier 39 in the San Francisco Bay Area Region have become an international sensation. The boisterous and playful animals gather at Pier 39’s K-Dock, which is now officially designated a “Watchable Wildlife” viewing area. On weekends, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Marine Mammal Center volunteer docents are available at the dock to answer such questions as how to recognize a California sea lion, as well as questions about their range, habitat and adaptability. From October through February of every year, the monarch, perhaps the most recognizable butterfly in the country, thrives in Santa Cruz’s coast side Natural Bridges State Park. Its annual winter home is a special grove of eucalyptus trees, which provides shelter and milkweed for nourishment. Natural Bridges is California’s only State Monarch Preserve, and the beauties are celebrated with a Welcome Back Monarchs Day every October. Just north of Santa Cruz on Highway 1, visitors to Año Nuevo State Reserve can get a rare glimpse of the northern elephant seal. Here lies the largest mainland breeding colony of this seal in the world. Although they can be seen here year-round, the best time to view the northern elephant seal is December through March. Tour reservations are required and recommended during the winter months.

More than five million visitors enjoy the 23-mile American River Parkway, located in the Gold Country Region, every year. The river’s most populous inhabitants are celebrated in October each year during the American River Salmon Festival in Rancho Cordova. In Carmichael, just outside of Sacramento, the Effie Yeaw Nature Center offers a 77-acre nature preserve and has self-guided interpretive trails through the riparian woodland along the American River. Wildlife including deer, coyotes, migratory songbirds and wild turkeys can be seen when exploring the riverbank trails through the preserve’s lush oak woodlands. Every fall, wildlife viewing enthusiasts can also watch mature Chinook salmon journey from the ocean up the American River, using their keen sense of smell to guide them back to the gravel beds where they hatched from eggs several years before.

The CTTC is a non-profit organization with a mission to develop and maintain marketing programs – in partnership with the state’s travel industry – that keep California top-of-mind as a premier travel destination. According to the CTTC, travel and tourism expenditures total $96.7 billion annually in California, support jobs for 924,100 Californians and generate $5.8 billion in state and local tax revenues. For more information about the CTTC and for a free California Visitor’s Guide, go to