Best Whale Watching from Northern California Trails: Where, When, and How

Love whale watching in Northern California? Then hike coastal trails to spot gray, humpback, and blue, and fin whales from some of the prettiest coastline on the planet.

Humpback whale breaching. Humpback whales are common off the California Coast, including Del Norte County and Humboldt County.
Humpback whales frequent the Pacific Ocean off the California coast. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

Why Whale Watching in Northern California?

Okay, whales migrate up and down the entire of the Pacific coast, including California, Oregon, and Washington. However, Northern California is blessed with a gorgeous and rugged coastline that’s easily accessed by hiking trails and short walking paths, and even directly from roads — prime places to see whales. Plus there are all those beaches, which also offer opportunities to spot cetaceans (although views are better the higher you are above the ocean).

When Are the Best Seasons to See Whales in Northern California?

You can actually spot them year-round, and it varies by species (see details near the end of the article), but spring and fall are prime migration times. Note that migrating whales move south in fall and north in spring.

Best Tips For Seeing Whales from the Northern California Coast

Do this to maximize the probability that you’ll see whales:

  1. As discussed just above, pick the right time of year: fall and spring.
  2. You’ll see better the higher you are above the ocean. Hike a trail out to an ocean bluff, or find a roadside viewing area that’s elevated well above the ocean surface.
  3. Look for spouting (sprays of water), tails above the surface, and breaching (partial exits from the water, followed by a big splash).
  4. Bring binoculars.
  5. Pick a clear day. (Fog often lifts by late morning or early afternoon.)
  6. The smaller the waves, the better your chances of spotting whales. (Check NOAA/National Weather Service for wave-height forecasts.)
  7. Look for spouting first, since it’s the most frequent evidence of whales.
  8. Whales swim south in fall and north in spring, so if you see a spout in the fall, look just a little bit south of the spout for further evidence of the whale. The opposite applies in spring.

Remember, if you want solitude, walk a hiking trail out to a good perch.

Whale-Watching Tours by Boat

Boat tours to view whales are available from the larger harbor towns along the Northern California coast, from Santa Cruz to San Francisco on up to Eureka and Crescent City. Do a Google search for the areas you’re most interested in, and be sure to include the name of the harbor town.

Best Whale-Watching Spots Along the Northern California Coast

I’ve broken down the list of whale-watching spots along the Northern California coast into three main regions: Santa Cruz County, San Mateo County, and San Francisco County/City; Marin County, Sonoma County, and Mendocino County; and Humboldt County and Del Norte County.

Be aware that there are many other great locations than the ones listed here. The most important criteria for viewing whales: being on the coast with both a bit of elevation and a good view of the open ocean.

Most of the places listed below require hiking a trail out to the coastline, but a few are accessible via a short walk from a parking lot, or even from the parking lot itself.

Best Whale-Watching Spots: Santa Cruz, San Mateo, and San Francisco Counties

West Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz residents and visitors can walk the paved path that runs along West Cliff Drive and the Pacific Ocean, from near downtown to Natural Bridges State Beach. West Cliff Drive is also a great place to watch local surfers.

Wilder Ranch State Park

Wilder Ranch State Park borders Highway 1. Hikers can explore a network of trails that lead to bluffs overlooking the ocean.

Año Nuevo State Park

Justly famous for its large numbers of elephant seals and Stellar sea lions, you can also spot whales from the trails along the Año Nuevo State Park bluffs on the west side of Highway 1.

Pigeon Point Lighthouse

Stop by Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park to easily gain a view from on high.

Wavecrest Open Space Reserve, Half Moon Bay

Hiking trails in Wavecrest Open Space Reserve allow full views of the ocean and a great chance to spot whales.

Gray whales are often viewed off the coast of Northern California and are favorites of whale watchers. (Courtesy NOAA)
Gray whales are often viewed off the coast of Northern California. (Courtesy NOAA)

Pillar Point, Moss Beach

Visit Moss Beach and hike the trail to the top of Pillar Point. Take in the views of the San Mateo Coast, plus the world-famous Mavericks wave break.

Pedro Point Headlands

Located adjacent to Linda Mar just south of Pacifica, Pedro Point Headlands is a project of Pacifica Land Trust. Trails run out to the headlands.

San Francisco Coastline

Your best whale-watching option from the coast of San Francisco is at/near the Cliff House.

Best Whale-Watching Spots: Marin, Sonoma, and Mendocino Counties

Point Bonita Lighthouse

Only open certain days and for limited hours, the Point Bonita Lighthouse is definitely worth your time. Make sure you check the website first.

Point Reyes National Seashore

Point Reyes National Seashore offers multiple opportunities for whale watching out at the headlands, especially at Chimney Rock and Point Reyes Lighthouse. Details here.

Blue whale tail. Blue whales migrate along the coast of Northern California.
Blue whale tail. (Courtesy Gregory Smith, Flickr)

Bodega Head Near Bodega Bay

Walk the Bodega Head Trail, part of Sonoma Coast State Park.

Salt Point State Park

Salt Point State Park overlooks the Salt Point State Marine Conservation Area. Hiking the Salt Point Trail north toward Stump Beach gives full views out over the ocean. More info.

Gualala Point Regional Park

Hike the Bluff Top Trail in Gualala Point Regional Park out to aptly named Whale Watch Point. One of Sonoma County’s most beautiful spots, but rarely has many visitors.

Mendocino Headlands State Park

The network of trails starts near downtown Mendocino and winds along the cliffs of Mendocino Headlands State Park. Great opportunity to enjoy a beautiful coastal town, beach access, and prime whale watching opportunities.

Point Cabrillo Light Station State Historic Park

Point Cabrillo Light Station State Historic Park awaits a bit north of Mendocino. It features a lighthouse  and several hiking trails that allow a broad vista of the Pacific Ocean.

Jug Handle State Natural Reserve

The bluff-top whale-watching spots at Jug Handle State Natural Reserve are a short hike on the trail from the main parking area near Highway 1. There’s also an excellent beach, and a hiking trail running inland near Jug Handle Creek.

A hiking trail at Jug Handle State Natural Reserve leads to bluffs above the ocean: a prime whale-watching spot.
A hiking trail at Jug Handle State Natural Reserve leads to ocean bluffs — a prime whale-watching spot.

MacKerricher State Park

Park above MacKerricher State Park’s main beach near Lake Cleone and then take the short, level trail out to Laguna Point. Look beyond nearby Seal Rocks to search for cetaceans.

Best Whale-Watching Spots: Humboldt County and Del Norte County

Del Norte County and Humboldt County are blessed with gorgeous and rugged coastline, plus plenty of beaches — prime places to see whales (and also explore tide pools).

And when you’re in Del Norte and Humboldt Counties, you’re also in or near Redwood National and State Parks, the subject of my most recent guidebook Hike the Parks: Redwood National & State Parks (Mountaineers Books, 2019). Where relevant below, I put the hike number from Hike the Parks: Redwood National & State Parks in parentheses: (Hike XX).

Trinidad Head (Hike 1)

A quick drive from Highway 101 takes you through the beautiful small town of Trinidad to Trinidad Beach. On the south side of Trinidad Beach, take the trail that winds around and up Trinidad Head; along the path you’ll find viewpoints with westerly vistas, perfect for spotting whales.

Patrick’s Point State Park Headlands (Hikes 2 and 3)

Another quick drive off Highway 101 brings you to Patrick’s Point State Park. The Rim Trail links a series of small paths that lead out to promontories that provide excellent opportunities for spotting whales. More info on the park here.

Wedding Rock on coast of Patrick's Point State Park: an excellent spot to watch for whales
Wedding Rock on coast of Patrick’s Point State Park: an excellent spot to watch for whales

Coastal Drive, Redwood National Park

Take Exit 768 off Highway 101 and drive Klamath Beach Road to Alder Camp Road. The Coastal Drive passes several good viewpoints high above the Pacific, and also multiple trails that lead to unobstructed vantage points.

Mouth of the Klamath River Overlook (Hikes 22 and 23)

Requa Road north of Klamath climbs to a parking lot/trailhead that’s high above the meeting of the Klamath River and the Pacific Ocean. Watch for whales from here, or do all or part of Hike 22 (Mouth of the Klamath River Overlook) or Hike 23 (Coastal Trail to Hidden Beach).

Crescent Beach Overlook and the Coastal Trail to Enderts Beach (Hike 26)

The Crescent Beach Overlook gives a vista of Crescent Beach, Crescent City, and the Pacific coast, along with Pacific Ocean views and whales in season.
Crescent Beach from the Crescent Beach Overlook. Also a great spot to watch for whales in the open Pacific Ocean.

Just north of Crescent City, take Endert’s Beach Road, which climbs up to the parking lot beside the Crescent Beach Overlook. The overlook allows excellent views west over the ocean (look for whales) and north over Crescent Beach, which leads to Crescent City. You can also hike south along the Coastal Trail to Endert’s Beach, with several good viewpoints along the way.

Crescent City: Pebble Beach Drive and Point St. George (Hike 27)

Pebble Beach Drive stops at several viewpoints of Castle Rock National Wildlife Refuge before ending at the road that leads out to Point St. George, where hiking trails run along isolated bluffs with an open vista of the Pacific Ocean (including the St. George Reef Lighthouse six miles offshore).

What Whale Species Can You See in Northern California?

There are four main species you’ll see doing their thing in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Northern California…

Gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus)

Appearance: Body is mottled gray; dorsal fin absent; bumps and ridges on tail; blow is frequently heart-shaped; tail often prominent above the surface before dives; length up to 46 feet.

Migration pattern: Gray whales migrate from Alaska down to Baja California

Best time to see gray whales in Northern California: October through July, but you’ll have your best chance December through June.

Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae)

Appearance: The humpback’s body is dark gray with patches of black and white underneath; extended flippers that are black and white; knobs on head; two-step dorsal fin; blow is singular and round; raises  flukes before diving; length up to 52 feet.

Migration pattern: Migrates from southern British Columbia down to the coasts of Mexico and Central America.

Best time to see humpback whales in Northern California: summer and fall.

Blue Whale (Balaenoptera musculus)

Appearance: Blue whales (the world’s largest animals) are blue-gray in appearance, with a tiny dorsal fin on the back; flukes usually raised up before diving; columnar blow rises high; length up to 85 feet.

Migration pattern: Migrates from Oregon down to the coasts of Mexico and Central America.

Best time to see blue whales in Northern California: From May through September.

Fin Whale (Balaenoptera physalus)

Appearance: Fin whales are dark gray to black on the tops of their bodies, while the bottoms of their bodies are white; chevron pattern behind the head; long, relatively slender body; blow looks like an upside-down cone; length up to 79 feet.

Migration pattern: can be a year-round resident.

Best time to see fin whales in Northern California: summer and winter, but can be seen any time of year.

Fin Whales swim year-round near the coast of Northern California.
Fin Whales swim near the coast of Northern California year-round. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Your Take

Questions or comments about whale watching in Northern California? Want to share your favorite spot or trail? Leave a comment below…

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