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California’s Amazing Coastal Preserves

Search for Nemo and Dory's ocean friends on the edge of the Pacific

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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

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