This winter treat yourself to a wildlife drama that attracts visitors from all over the world: the elephant seals at Ano Nuevo State Reserve, north of Santa Cruz.
From December through March, the huge creatures visit Ano Nuevo Point and the small island just offshore to breed and bear young. (Males can tip the scales at 5,000 pounds; the females weigh in at a relatively svelte 1,200 to 2,000 pounds.) To protect the elephant seals and the humans who want to see them, this part of the reserve is open only to naturalist-guided tours during these months.
The walks are about three miles and last about 2 1/2 hours. Reservations are required, and the cost is $4 per person.
Another option is a self-guided hike away from the restricted habitat. It begins from a turnout on the west side of Highway 1, about 2 1/4 miles north of the reserve's main entrance. The route follows Cascade Creek Trail and the park's bluff trails along the coastline north of Point Ano Nuevo. Hikers have access to an engaging series of coves, sand dunes and wildflower-bedecked headlands.
After 1 1/2 miles you will reach Franklin Point, a good spot for viewing seals and sea otters. At low tide, check out the tide pools. Most folks will want to turn around and backtrack to the starting point.
The adventurous can keep hiking along the bluffs one mile to Gazos Creek Coastal Access, but beware of a considerable amount of poison oak along the path.
If you miss breeding season, there's always molting season. April through August, elephant seals come ashore to shed their outer layer of skin and fur. The animals rest on the beaches during this process, which lasts about four to six weeks per seal. Hikers with a permit can walk unaccompanied through the reserve during these months.
And then there's "haul-out" season, September through November. While most adult elephant seals are busy feeding out at sea, juveniles haul themselves out of the water and onto the beaches. Hikers with a permit can walk unaccompanied through the reserve during these months too.
Ano Nuevo is west of Highway 1, about 22 miles north of Santa Cruz and 30 miles south of Half Moon Bay. For an excellent introduction to the saga of California's elephant seals, stop by the visitor center, a restored century-old barn.
See more of John McKinney's tips at www.thetrailmaster.com.