California’s western border is edged by oceans, bays, and other tidal waterways filled with life. While you're not likely to run into Nemo (unless you're lost like Dory), you will find popsicle-orange garibaldi (California's state fish) swimming in kelp beds offshore, plus whales, sea lions, anemones, and a skyful of seabirds. A great way to experience these remarkable habitats is to visit one of the state’s 120-plus protected sanctuaries or preserves, not just to see wildlife, but to kayak, swim, snorkel, and SCUBA dive too.
“These are places underwater and along the water to play—where you can kayak, SCUBA dive, surf, tide pool, and watch your kids build sandcastles on the beach,” says Rikki Dunsmore, project manager at the California Marine Sanctuary Foundation.
To help you discover this remarkable network of preserves, we asked Dunsmore and her colleagues to pick 10 sites that offer outstanding—and varied—ocean experiences. Some preserves are in or near state parks with coast-hugging campsites. (Reserve well in advance for these choice spots, especially in summer.) A bit of savvy advice before you go: Check the tide tables for the area you plan to visit. Reef and beach areas might disappear under high tides, leaving you splashing in the surf, or worse yet, getting stranded as the tide comes in.
— Ken McAlpine
This packed-with-wildlife preserve roughly 18 miles north of Mendocino makes you feel like you’re taking on your own personal waterfront safari. This wild stretch of rugged, unspoiled coastline—technically consisting of three preserves protecting the shoreline here—includes one of California’s least developed estuaries, as well as one of its longest dune systems. The result: habitats galore for all kinds of critters. This is a place where you might as well glue your binoculars to your face. More than 90 species of birds live, nest, or make annual migratory stopovers on and around Ten Mile Beach. Whales spout in the Pacific, seals loll along the rocky shore, and river otters make their home in the estuary.
Fortunately for us Homo sapiens, it’s a very easy place to visit. There’s plenty of parking at Ten Mile Estuary (outstanding for wildlife-watching with kids). From here, it’s a short walk to the mouth of the estuary. Nearby MacKerricher State Park has hiking trails, an idyllic cove, and a campground, and you can ride horses along the beach. (Check out trail rides offered by nearby Ricochet Ridge Ranch.) The relaxed former logging town of Fort Bragg is just three miles south. On your way down to Fort Bragg stop at Glass Beach; polished bits of sea glass create a child-at-heart’s sparkling dream (just look; no collecting allowed).
This lightly visited area, protecting offshore sea caves filled with honking, squawking, and even neon-colored life, is a terrific destination for kayakers. Don’t have gear? No problem. Kayak Mendocino, a local outfitter, rents everything you need at adjacent Van Damme State Park, and 90-minute guided kayak tours let you get a close-up look at the caves and their resident seals (the honkers), seabirds (the squawkers), and brilliantly colored sea stars (the neon) dotting the rocks. On calm days, consider renting a stand-up paddleboard for a new way to skim across the surface.
On terra firma, explore 10 miles of trails with such intriguing oddities as the Pygmy Forest, where unique conditions create a woodland scene in miniature, populated by cypress trees as short as six inches (they normally soar to 50 feet or more). For a scene straight out of Jurassic Park, explore the fern-carpeted canyon of Little River. There’s camping at the park, or spoil yourself at Little River Inn, a Victorian-style charmer with cozy rooms and a restaurant featuring fresh, local seafood.
This Marine Conservation Area comprises the shoreline of Salt Point State Park and surrounding ocean, including Gerstle Cove, the watery highlight of one of California’s first underwater parks. Waters here teem with life, including swaying strands of bull kelp, making it popular with wetsuit divers, but everyone can enjoy the colorful sea stars, bizarre chitons, scurrying crabs, and other sea life in the spread of tide pools along the shore.
Salt Point State Park contains some 20 miles of spectacular coastal trails. Be sure to visit the wooden deck at Sentinel Rock for ultra-scenic views of wave-washed sea stacks. Bring a cozy beach blanket for a visit to park’s secluded beach at Stump Beach Cove. Salt Point’s pretty campsites get snapped up fast, so be sure to book well in advance, especially on weekends and in summer.
About six miles south on State 1, Fort Ross State Historic Park let you step back to the 1800s when Russian fur trappers, farmers, and Native Americans lived in this impressive waterfront compound circled by a wooden wall. Nearby, relax at Fort Ross Vineyard & Winery, savoring Sonoma County wines and a(nother) jaw-dropping coastal panorama.
This massive sanctuary protects 3,295 square miles off the northern and central California coast. It’s an oceanic Eden, where the sea swirls with marine life. Gray, humpback, and blue whales, as well as orcas, all visit in different seasons, while pods of porpoises, dolphins, sea lions, and seals hang around throughout the year.
More life lives on or around the dramatic Farallon Islands, almost barren lumps that rise out of the sea some 30 miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge. Sea lions and seals are found here, and the skies fill with countless seabirds. Farallon National Wildlife Refuge protects the largest seabird rookery in the contiguous U.S., with nesting species including tufted puffins, rhinoceros auklets, and pigeon guillemots.
The Farallon Islands are an oceanic Eden, where the sea swirls with marine life, including whales, dolphins, seals, and sea turtles.
This water world of nature is remote, but not inaccessible. From May through November, full-day guided cruises offered by the Oceanic Society let you ride out to the Farallon Islands, with experienced naturalists adding color commentary and helping you spot animals. Scheduled trips depart from the San Francisco’s waterfront, and further north, in the Marin County town of Sausalito.
With all that life under the waves, it’s not surprising that the ocean here is also home to great white sharks. Looking for the memory of a lifetime? Great White Adventures offers day trips from late September through November, and you don’t need to be a certified diver to stand in the safety of a specially designed underwater shark cages and possibly see white sharks in their undersea realm. Elegant, indifferent, and wine-cask thick as they glide by, these unparalleled hunters might give you the willies, but you can’t deny their incredible grace and physical power.
If you can’t make the trek to the Farallon Islands, check the schedule for events at the California Academy of Sciences (calacademy.org) in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Special talks and exhibits often focus on the unique creatures along the West Coast.
This little gem in Moss Beach, some 20 miles south of San Francisco, has some of the best tide pooling in California. At low tide, look down and scan the natural rocky reefs just offshore to discover a vibrant world of crabs, sea stars, swaying anemones, and bat stars. In shallow pools, look for the darting movements of tiny camouflaged fish called a sculpin. And you can’t miss the resident population of hundreds of harbor seals that haul up on the rocks or bob in the waves.
Friends of Fitzgerald Marine Reserve offers docent-led tours, or wander on your own— green-jacketed docents are happy to answer questions even if you’re not on a tour. Time your visit when the tide is out (zero or negative tides are best). If the tide is up, take a walk through the nearby grove of wind-carved Monterey cypress. Get great sunset views from surrounding ocean bluffs; December through March, scan the horizon for the spouts of migrating gray whales. At the end of the day, enjoy fresh-off-the-boat seafood at nearby Moss Beach Distillery, or head just down the road to kick back by the outdoor fire pits at Half Moon Bay Brewing Company. For a splurge, spend the night at Moss Beach’s garden-wrapped Seal Cove Inn.
This expansive estuary explodes with life, and even better, it’s really easy to see it. Kids love clambering aboard a 27-foot open-air pontoon boat with Elkhorn Slough Safari to poke around the slough, learning why sea otters thrive in this protected habitat—meaty clams and other sea-otter favorites thrive here. Other fascinating sightings include throngs of harbor seals hauled up on shoals, staring with limpid eyes and bodies shaped like overblown cigars. Binoculars are hardly needed to spot herons, egrets, white pelicans, and other interesting birds—more than 300 species are found here.
Older kids (and grownups) have fun paddling a kayak through the slough’s many channels. Rent gear and get instruction from Kayak Connection; guided tours are also available.
You can also explore on foot. Five miles of hiking trails wind around the preserve, accessing tidal creeks, freshwater marshes, and oak woodlands. Elkhorn Slough Foundation runs a hands-on education center, and offers guided walks and activities throughout the year.
Save time to explore the village of Moss Landing, where fishermen in the lively harbor often sell their catch right off the boat. Stroll past the research labs of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (not open to the public) to line up at Phil’s Fish Market for legendary cioppino, so good it went head-to-head with chef Bobby Flay’s version on the Food Network’s Throwdown with Bobby Flay.
This beautiful coastal park feels a million miles away from anything tourist-y. Walk a poppy-trimmed path to the tip of the park’s dramatic, limestone point to look down into turquoise-blue water, long bands of bull kelp swaying in the waves. Bring binoculars to scan the water for sea otters, harbor seals, and sea lions, or, further out to sea, look for spouting whales (gray whales December through March; blue whales in summer).
If you like to SCUBA dive, you’ll want to go beneath the surface here—but it will take planning ahead. The reserve protects an underwater tapestry of kelp, fish, nudibranchs, sea stars, and anemones. To protect the delicate ecosystem, dives are limited, so make reservations well in advance. Several local companies rent equipment, and guided dive trips here and in neighboring Monterey Bay are available.
This under-the-radar refuge ranks as one of the best wildlife experiences in the state—and as a nice bonus, it’s free. Five miles up the coast from Hearst Castle, up to 17,000 walrus-like elephant seals—the West Coast’s largest pinnipeds—pile up like bloated bratwursts on the narrow strip of rocky beach known as Piedras Blancas (white rocks), literally steps from cars whizzing along the highway. In January 2017 President Barack Obama made this site part of the California Coastal National Monument.
If you’re an animal lover, get ready to spend hours in this land-based seal rookery, where the huge marine mammals breed, birth, molt, and rest. Giant bulls, some measuring 16 feet from nose to tail and tipping the scales at more than 4,000 pounds, inflate their trunk-like snouts to create a distinctive, roaring bellow that cuts through the sound of crashing surf. The smaller females soak up the sun or tend to their pups.
Peak season is December through May; smaller numbers of seals may be seen during other months. Helpful docents from Friends of the Elephant Seal are on site to answer questions.
Take in more views—and the rich history—of Piedras Blancas during a tour of the 70-foot-tall Piedras Blancas Light Station, which are offered year-round. Constructed in 1874 on a rugged spit, the lighthouse has in the past shared the site with other buildings, including a 1906 Victorian-style edifice that was eventually sold for $1 and moved to nearby Cambria, where it was converted into a private residence. William Randolph Hearst paid homage to the humble light station at his Hearst Castle: He had a likeness of it added to a crest found above the entrance to the living room inside Casa del Monte, one of his three guest cottages.
Just 45 minutes in a high-speed ferry from the coast of Los Angeles at Long Beach, Catalina Island tempts visitors with a treasure trove of historic buildings, sunny beaches, and quaint shops. But gems lie just beyond the shoreline of this island getaway, like an undersea world of swaying kelp, enormous black sea bass, bright orange garibaldi (the state fish), and two historic shipwrecks.
Local outfitters like Catalina Divers Supply offer SCUBA and snorkeling rentals, as well as guided trips and fully equipped dive boats. The Avalon Underwater Park, off Casino Point, is a justly popular dive spot; look for spiny lobsters and harmless horn sharks. For a fun alternative that’s great for adventurous kids ages eight and up, head to Avalon’s Descanso Beach to check out the watery world with a guided SNUBA tour. In this half-breed between snorkeling and SCUBA, a special breathing apparatus and tube let you breathe normally without requiring your own tank. Or join a Sea Trek adventure, donning a specially equipped diving-bell helmet to breathe normally underwater, spotting schools of fish and maybe even a bat ray.
If you really don't want to get wet, take a ride in the island’s own semi-submersible, the Sea Wolf, which dips five feet below the surface of Avalon Bay. There’s also a fleet of glass-bottom boats offering 40-minute cruises; ask about special night tours.
Families flock to Crystal Cove not just for its three miles of idyllic beachfront (protected as Crystal Cove State Park), but also for its amazing tide pools. This Orange County stunner, straddled by Newport Beach to the north and Laguna Beach to the south, is also a designated marine conservation area. Tide pools overflow with kid favorites like anemones, sea stars, and hermit crabs. Time your visit for low tide, then head to Reef Point and Pelican Point to search for critters among the rocks and pools. There’s also plenty to see if you head out into the water; look for bright orange garibaldis, bat rays, and other native fish, and—if you’re lucky—an octopus hiding in a rocky crevice.
Stretch out your stay with a night in one of the park’s rustic coastal cottages along the bluff. Just be warned: Lodgings fill up many months in advance, and there’s usually a long waiting list. Another option: Pitch a tent or bed down in an RV in the park’s campsite. Whatever you do, make sure you’re on the beach when the sun sets. Watching the dark silhouettes of your children trying to get one more minute peering for creatures in the tide pools as dusk descends is a painting beyond price.
This complex of marine sanctuaries, including some of the oldest in California, protects habitats ranging from sandy flats and rocky reefs to kelp forests and submarine canyons. Just off the coast of La Jolla, these ocean waters teem with life, and sea lions, dolphins, migrating whales, and safe-to-swim-with leopard sharks come here to feed. The waters also serve as a laboratory; the famed Scripps Institution of Oceanography overlooks La Jolla Shores.
For nature lovers, it’s a saltwater Disneyland. Rent kayaks to nose along the rocky coast and look for sea caves. Local outfitters like La Jolla Kayak lead sea-cave kayaking tours, as well as snorkeling tours. December through April, kayaking here is a great way to look for migratory whales. And if you prefer to stay on solid ground, just hang out on the beach, then walk over to Birch Aquarium (part of the Scripps Institution) for up-close views of marine life—all without getting wet.