Best Places to Spot Winter Wildlife in Marin
Posted in Blogging Marin on Wednesday, December 21, 2022 by MCVB Staff
By Megan Eileen McDonough
One of the best perks of living in Marin is the county’s pleasant weather year-round. For visitors, summer might seem like an obvious choice for a visit, but don’t underestimate the beauty of Marin in winter. In fact, winter is the ideal time to catch a glimpse of California gray whales, elephant seals and even egrets. From Point Reyes National Seashore to Audubon Canyon Ranch, you’ll see a special moment in the lives of these mammals.
California Gray Whales
Every year, California gray whales start their lengthy migration, a journey that takes them from their feeding grounds in Alaska to the much warmer waters near Baja California. As such, Point Reyes National Seashore has become the go-to spot for seeing these mammals in action. The migration season usually starts around mid-December and concludes around the end of February, with mid-January being the best time to see them.
Since winter is a popular time to watch for whales and elephant seals, you’ll likely have some stiff competition for the best views. Most people would recommend Point Reyes Lighthouse because of its height and position along the coast. Alternatively, head to Chimney Rock on the other side of the ridge for optimal observations. The parking lot at the Chimney Rock Trailhead can only accommodate twenty vehicles. As a result, parking space availability is very limited, particularly in the afternoon.
Can’t make it to Marin by February? No problem! You can still see the California gray whales during their return journey home. Mid-March is the best time to visit, but you can still spot plenty of whales through the end of May. In fact, late April through early May is prime viewing time for mothers swimming with their calves.
Whales aren’t the only marine mammals you’ll see this winter in Marin. Point Reyes is also home of the northern elephant seal, along with harbor seals and sea lions. Elephant seals are large and loud and full of personality. You’ll likely see them sprawled out along the beaches in the area, lounging around and basking in the sunshine.
For the best views, head to Chimney Rock and the surrounding area. There are actually a few specific lookouts—the elephant seals at the Sea Lion Lookout and the Elephant Seal Overlook—both located near Chimney Rock. While it’s not recommended to get too close to the seals, there will be docents on hand with binoculars should you want a closer look. From there, you can observe the animals’ behavior, including mothers birthing the pups.
Fun fact: After being absent for more than 150 years, elephant seals returned to the Point Reyes Headlands in the early 1970s.
Bird-watching is a popular pastime in Marin, and come winter, all eyes are on the four-legged, long-necked egrets. If you see one, you’ll likely see a bunch, as they typically travel and play in groups. Many egrets call Northern California, and Marin in particular, home for part of the year.
One of the best places to see these graceful white birds is in Audubon Canyon Ranch. Located on the edge of the Bolinas Lagoon, this is a popular nesting spot for both egrets and grey herons. During nesting season, you’ll have no trouble spotting egrets, including some pretty adorable babies, in the surrounding trees.