Wild About California

Tap into your inner Man V. Wild at these outstanding wildlife destinations.

From lumbering rhinos and leaping gazelles, to shimmering flocks of a million snow geese taking flight, it’s easy to get the goose-bump thrill of wild animal encounters all over California. Some experiences recreate safaris or critter encounters in far-flung corners of world, giving you more than the typical zoo experience. Others are the real thing, California style—from spectacular migrations to animal-rich ecosystems.

Find out where you can be surrounded by wildlife—from around the globe—in spectacular recreated settings. Locations are listed south to north.

San Diego Zoo Safari Park . This sprawling compound in Escondido, a ½-hour north of San Diego, includes an exciting safari-type experience, letting you explore savannah ecosystems filled with zebras, giraffes, ostriches and other exotic animals roaming free in huge enclosures. Choose from guided caravans, flyovers via zip-line rides, Segway tours, and even sleepovers.

The Living Desert . Gecko Gulch, Eagle Canyon, Ant Lab, and Monarch of the Desert Jaguar Exhibit—things are definitely lively at this fascinating attraction in Palm Desert (just south of Palm Springs). Most notable is a chance to see California’s elusive desert wildlife, including mountain lions and falcons, in beautifully naturalized settings.

Monterey Bay Aquarium . Walk underwater. Or at least that’s what it feels like at this extraordinary facility and its enormous, multi-story tanks, housed in a spectacular building literally hanging over wildlife-packed Monterey Bay. Lose yourself in the magic of an aqua-blue world of swaying native kelp forests, darting schools of fish, and shifty-eyed sharks.

Six Flags Discovery Kingdom . On the east side of San Francisco Bay in Vallejo, you can flip out on thrill rides and chill out with awesome animal experiences, including Backstage Safaris for a behind-the-scenes tours and interactions with fascinating wildlife, including otters, elephants, porcupines (ouch), and two-toed sloths.

Safari West . This 400-acre private preserve tucked into the Sonoma countryside delivers a startlingly authentic safari experience. Knowledgeable guides drive open-air jeeps to experience free-roaming wildlife in naturalized enclosures. Some 80 species include cheetah, giraffe, Cape buffalo, and zebra. Ask about sleepovers in safari-style tents.

Here’s how to experience extraordinary native wildlife—in huge concentrations—in their natural environments.

Migratory waterfowl
Come fall, nature puts on an unforgettable show at Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge . This nearly 40,000-acre preserve near the California/Oregon border is a seasonal stopover for millions of migratory geese and ducks, which darken the sky and cover every inch of water. North of Sacramento two more noteworthy waterfowl refuges include Gray Lodge State Wildlife Area , and 35,000-acre Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge .

Elephant seals
Seeing these enormous pinnipeds hauled up on beaches and bellowing from the surf is one of California’s more astounding wildlife encounters. One of the best places to see them is Año Nuevo State Park , on the coast about 1½ hours south of San Francisco. December to March, guided walks let you view 5,000-pound males battling to be top dog (or seal), and females nursing pups in the dunes. Also try Piedros Blancas , near San Simeon (home to Hearst Castle), and Pt. Reyes National Seashore , north of San Francisco.

Native elk
While some believe deer simply turn into elk as the elevation goes up, truth is these magnificent animals are their own distinct species, and two types of native elk roam California. Roosevelt elk thrive in the lush North Coast region; top spots include Gold Bluffs Beach in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park and Elk Meadow at Redwood National Park . Slightly smaller but equally majestic tule elk live further south; to see them, head for Pt. Reyes National Seashore , north of San Francisco, and Tule Elk State Reserve, west of Bakersfield.

“Thar she blows” might sound like it comes from another century, but it’s still a common refrain off the California coast, particularly December through March, when California gray whales make their annual swim between Alaska feeding grounds and breeding and calving areas off the coast of Baja, Mexico. Other cetaceans ply our coastal waters, including dolphins, porpoises, orcas, and the mightiest of all, blue whales—all can be spotted on ½- and full-day whale-watching excursions. Mendocino , along the North Coast, is one of the most popular places to see the seasonal migration (you can also whale-watch from coastal bluffs), and the town hosts a spirited whale festival in March. Other excellent starting points for guided cruises include Fort Bragg (whale fest in mid-March), Moss Landing (also great for sea otters), Santa Cruz county Monterey , Santa Barbara (kayak with porpoises!), and San Diego .

Photo by Harriot Manley/Sunset Publishing