Now that the sun is out again, it’s a good time to visit the northern elephant seals at Año Nuevo State Park on the San Mateo County coast.  

Año Nuevo is not the giant animals’ only roost in California, but it’s their largest gathering site, located in a spectacular setting that’s about 20 miles north of Santa Cruz and 25 miles south of Half Moon Bay. Several thousand elephant seals come and go during the busy winter season, starting in December. They spend their time on the beach there, birthing babies, mating and fighting.  

The elephant seals can only be seen during their winter visits by signing up for docent-led guided tours, given through March 31. The tours last 2.5 hours and cover three to four miles of walking and hiking from a parking area to an area overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Most of the trail is on a flat dirt trail, but the final stretches are over sand dunes.  

A male elephant seal shows his prominent nose. (Photo by Alison Sokoloff)  

To safely view the seals, some of which weigh two tons, the 15-person tour groups gaze down from bluffs. Elephant seals spend much of their time at Año Nuevo resting in the sun, moving occasionally to cover themselves with sand.  

But there’s so much else going on that crowded beach below. Male seals fight for dominance with other males, and also look for female mates. Female seals are on the beach in large numbers. The females give birth to pups early in winter, then nurse for a month before weaning them. Mating season begins in earnest in mid-February. Pups play and learn to swim in the tidepools before heading to sea.  

It’s a loud, smelly and fascinating scene, especially when male seals go nose to nose in fights. The seals communicate with what sounds like grunts, claps and yells. Shorebirds fly in and out. Human visitors are close enough to notice details like whiskers on a male seal’s face or nails on its flippers.

On a late January visit, the park’s daily elephant seal census listed 155 males in residence. They were vastly outnumbered by 1,583 females, along with 856 pups and about 50 weaners.  

On a recent tour, docent Sheila Wroblewski noted that the heavy rains have allowed some elephant seals to move away from the waterfront at the state park and rest instead at inland puddles and waterways. Docents and park rangers have to quickly change tour routes so that their groups keep at least 25 feet away from the animals.  

Docent Sheila Wroblewski begins the Año Nuevo State Park tour with a warning to keep distance from the elephant seals. (Photo by Larry Sokoloff) 

Año Nuevo State Park also includes a Marine Education Center that visitors can enter before or after a tour. Housed in a former dairy farm, the center contains exhibits on the sea mammals, who were hunted to the edge of extinction in the 19th century, only to recover to a population of several hundred thousand today.

Sea elephants lead an active lifecycle that includes swimming to Alaska, Hawaii and Baja California. Many of the animals return to Año Nuevo at other times of the year to molt (shed) their fur and skin. When the winter birthing season ends, the tours end, and human visitors can hike the elephant preserve after procuring a free visitor permit at the park. There are picnic tables and restrooms near the parking lot.  

Año Nuevo State Park is located on Highway 1 at the southern edge of San Mateo County at 1 New Years Creek Road, Pescadero. Tickets for tours cost $11 and parking costs $10. To make reservations for guided walks, visit www.reservecalifornia or or call 800-444-4445. Non-refundable tickets must be purchased online at least two days in advance.