Is autumn too early to make a New Year's resolution?
Not if that resolution is to plan a winter trip to An~o Nuevo State Reserve. The reserve attracts visitors from all over the world who want a close-up look at the largest mainland population of elephant seals.
From December through April, a colony of the huge creatures visits An~o Nuevo Island and Point in order to breed and bear young. To protect them (and the humans who hike out to see them), the Wildlife Protection area of the reserve is open only to naturalist-guided tours during these months.
Guided hikes to see the elephant seals at An~o Nuevo Reserve begin this year on Dec. 15 and continue every day through March 31, except Dec. 25 and Jan. 27. Reservations can be made through the state parks reservation system operated by Destinet (formerly MISTIX), by phoning (800) 444-7275. The reservation fee is $4 per person. The admission fee to the reserve is $4 per car, paid at the reserve entrance. Reservations are now being accepted up to eight weeks in advance, or as late as one day before your tour.
The first guided walk of the day begins at 8:45 a.m. and the last walk in midafternoon. Walks cover three miles over sand dunes and take about 2 1/2 hours.
The elephant seals do steal the show, but there's more than bellowing pinnipeds to see at An~o Nuevo State Reserve. North of the restricted access around An~o Nuevo Point is a coastline with rocky coves, low dunes and a wildflower-strewn meadowland.
The dunes north of An~o Nuevo Point are colorfully dotted with yellow sand verbena, morning glory and beach strawberry. Archeologists have discovered evidence--chipped tools and mounds of seashells--of a lengthy occupation by Native Americans.
My favorite hike visits Franklin Point, named for the clipper ship John Franklin, which rammed into the rocks here in 1865. At low tide, the point's tide pools can be visited. Seals and sea otters can often be glimpsed from Franklin Point.
Directions to trail head: An~o Nuevo State Reserve is located just west of California 1, about 20 miles north of Santa Cruz and 30 miles south of Half Moon Bay. To reach the trail head, continue north on California 1, 2.2 miles beyond the main An~o Nuevo State Reserve entrance, to a turnout on the west side of the road.
The hike: Follow the dirt road a short half-mile west across grassy bluffs to a small cypress and eucalyptus grove. Head north over low bluffs, perhaps detouring to visit the wild beach just below. A mile out, a right-forking path leads to California 1, but you take the left fork and descend toward a cove at the mouth of Whitehouse Creek.
You'll cross the creek and continue hiking north along the bluffs to Franklin Point. Retrace your steps or head north on more tentative, poison oak-compromised trail.
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Ano Nuevo Bluff Trails
WHERE: Ano Nuevo State Reserve, near Santa Cruz.
DISTANCE: To Franklin Point is 3 miles round trip; to Gazos Coastal Access is 5 miles round trip.
TERRAIN: Sand dunes, bluffs, rock coves.
HIGHLIGHTS: Wildlife-watching, isolated beaches.
DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: Easy-moderate.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: For Elephant Seal Guided Walks reservations, tel. Destinet at (800)444-PARK; for Ano Nuevo State Reserve information, tel. (415) 879-2025