One of the best parts about California is all the wildlife encounters that you can have here. Whether it’s observing elephant seals on the coast, seeing monarch butterflies migrate in the winter, going on a whale-watching cruise, or catching sight of a bear on a backpacking trip in the mountains, there are tons of opportunities for viewing wildlife in California!
Even after living in California for most of my life, there are new animal sightseeing locations that I discover every year. Thanks to conservation efforts, wildlife is again flourishing in our Golden State and there are plenty of places where you can safely observe wild animals in their natural habitat.
Here are some of the best locations for seeing wild animals in California!
Best Places For Viewing Wildlife In California:
1. Elephant Seals In Big Sur
Elephant Seal Viewing Point is a must-see stop for those heading on a Big Sur road trip. This viewpoint is located right off Highway 1 and offers the opportunity to see Northern elephant seals up close.
Northern elephant seals are some of the largest seals in the world. The males can weigh up to 5000 pounds (which is about the same weight as our Ram Promaster campervan).
The best times to observe elephant seals are in late January, early May, and late October when you’ll see the most action. You can also check out live cams on the Friends Of The Elephant Seal website before heading out to Big Sur.
Elephant Seal Viewing Point is free and open year-round making it one of the most popular locations for watching wildlife in California. There are paved walkways and boardwalks set up on top of cliffs along with fences to prevent people from going down to the beach and disturbing the resting animals.
During the 1800s elephant seals were nearly hunted to extinction. A few elephant seals hid out on the islands in Baja California and slowly started to repopulate. Elephant seals arrived in Big Sur in 1990 and thanks to preservation efforts have recovered to a colony of 25,000.
Location: Elephant Seal Vista Point
2. Sea Otters In Morro Bay
California is home to many wild animals, but none are cuter than the sea otters! These adorable marine mammals are known to be very playful and reside on the Central Coast near marinas and preserves full of kelp forests and seafood for feeding.
If you’re wondering where to see sea otters in California, you’ll want to head over to the small Central Coast towns such as Morro Bay, Los Osos, Cayucos, Cambria, and San Simeon to name a few. Morro Bay T Pier is an especially popular viewing area where you can see sea otters floating around in the marina, often with their young pups resting on mom’s bellies.
Sea otters are native to the Pacific Ocean but were nearly hunted to extinction for their thick fur coats. Now they are listed under Endangered Species Act and are slowly recovering.
The best times for seeing sea otters in Morro Bay are winter and spring. As you walk down the Embarcadero boardwalk, keep an eye out for these cuties floating in the harbor. Be sure to bring binoculars or a zoom camera as they’re pretty small and hard to capture on a phone.
Location: Morro Bay T Pier (Otter Viewing Area)
3. Deer In Yosemite National Park
Yosemite is a scenic National Park and one of the best places to see wildlife in California. The Yosemite Valley is an especially popular place where you can often witness California mule deer munching on grass and plants in the surrounding meadows.
The most optimal times to see California deer in Yosemite are around sunrise and sunset when they’re the most active. For the best chance to see wildlife, I recommend hiking Cook’s Meadow Loop Trail or heading on a drive around Yosemite Valley Loop Road.
In the fall you might see bucks with giant antlers which is such an incredible experience! If you do see deer in Yosemite, keep a safe distance and do not feed them. Not only it’s illegal to feed wildlife, but it can also lead to injuries.
While deer are not perceived as dangerous animals in California, there are more injuries caused annually in Yosemite by deer than by black bears. Deer are wild and unpredictable so stay away.
Location: Sentinel/Cook’s Meadow Loop
4. Monarch Butterflies In Pismo Beach
Every winter Monarch Butterflies migrate from the North to spend the colder months on the California Coast. There are several locations in California where you can see these beautiful butterflies. One that we visit the most is Monarch Butterfly Grove in Pismo Beach.
Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove is one of the largest butterfly groves in all of California. Here you can often observe over 10,000 butterflies that seek shelter in the winter. Often the preserve staff sets up binoculars so visitors can view the butterflies up close.
The best time to visit this Monarch Butterfly Grove is from November to February when you can see giant clusters of butterflies huddling together in the trees. If you come outside of this time frame, there might not be any left as they migrate back North.
The Pismo Beach Butterfly Preserve is located next to the North Beach Campground. You can also take the short Meadow Creek Trail that leads there or try to grab one of the few parking spots in front of the grove.
Location: Monarch Butterfly Grove
5. Channel Islands Fox On Santa Cruz Island
Located near the Ventura Coast, Channel Islands is one of the most beautiful outdoor spaces in all of California. Due to the remote location, these islands are also home to rare California animal species not found anywhere else in the world.
One of those animals is the Channel Islands fox which only lives on these islands. It is speculated that the foxes either floated to the Channel Islands thousands of years ago or were brought here by the Chumash Native people.
Due to the abundant wildlife and lack of predators, the adorable Channel Island foxes thrived until Golden Eagles nearly brought them to extinction. Thanks to preservation efforts, the foxes were saved and now there are over 1300 wild foxes living on the islands.
A couple of years ago I visited Santa Cruz Island as a day trip from Ventura. During my visit, we saw several foxes while hiking around the island. They’re about the size of a small cat, orange in color, and so cute!
Location: Channel Islands National Park
Read Next: 10 Best Hiking Trails In Ventura, California
6. San Simeon Zebras By Hearst Castle
Did you know that there are wild zebras in California? While it might sound strange, the Central California Coast sure is home to a herd of wild zebras.
The zebras were originally brought over by William Randolph Hearst as part of his private zoo. William Randolph Hearst also built the famous Hearst Castle which is now a museum open to visitors.
Eventually, the zoo was dismantled and many of the animals were sold, but the zebras remained on the hills surrounding the Hearst Castle. Now there are over 120 zebras grazing in the coastal San Simeon hills alongside cattle.
The zebras can often be seen north of Highway 1 near Hearst Castle. Zebras can’t be domesticated so they remain completely wild living off the land.
Location: Hearst Castle
Plan your trip to the Central Coast with our guide covering the 18 best places to stay in San Simeon, California!
7. Bison On Catalina Island
Catalina Island is one of the best places to head for outdoor adventures in California. It is also home to the iconic 38-mile-long Trans Catalina Trail that we ourselves backpacked over the course of several days.
One of the most unique species that reside on Catalina Island is the bison, also called the buffalo. These wild animals were brought to the island in the 1920s for filming a Western movie and left after. Due to a lack of predators, the buffalo herd grew bigger over the years. Now the Catalina Island Conservation group keeps the herd at the size of 150 buffalos to protect other native species on the island.
We spotted bison several times during our multi-day backpacking trip. While the bison look like gentle giants from the distance, do not approach them to take photos. Weighting up to 1800 pounds and with the ability to run up to 35 miles per hour, these gentle beasts can turn into deadly predators in the blink of an eye.
If you see wild buffalo while biking, hiking, and exploring Catalina Island, be sure to keep a distance of at least 100 feet. You can also book a guided buffalo tour with Catalina Tours or Visit Catalina Island which will take you to all the best spots on the island where you can observe the buffalo from a safe distance.
During your visit, you can also stop by the Airport In The Sky restaurant that sells buffalo burgers (thankfully they don’t use Catalina Island buffalo to make them).
Location: Santa Catalina Island
8. California Sea Lions At Pier 39 In San Francisco
San Francisco is one of the largest cities in California and a major tourist destination. One of my favorite places to visit in San Francisco is Pier 39 which is also home to a colony of California sea lions. We recently went on a road trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco and this was our last stop before heading back home.
The sea lions arrived in San Francisco in 1990 after many of the boats were removed from the marina due to an earthquake. The sea lions took advantage of the empty docks and made it their permanent home.
Now visitors flock to Pier 39 to see the California sea lions lounging on the wooden docks, playing, barking, and interacting with each other. These sea lions have become a major tourist attraction bringing business to local restaurants and shops. This pier is one of the best locations for California wildlife photography, just be sure to come early in the morning before the tourist crowds arrive for the day.
It’s free to visit Pier 39 and see these giants lounging in the marina making it a fun activity for the entire family. You can also check out a live webcam on the Pier39 website before heading out there.
Location: Sea Lion Viewing Area
From Pier 39 you can also go on a San Francisco Bay Sailing Cruise to see some of the top San Francisco sights up close including Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island, and Sausalito.
9. Whale Watching In Newport Beach
There are several locations where you can go whale watching in California. If you live in Orange County, Newport is where you’ll want to head for whale-watching tours!
A Whale-Watching Cruise from Newport Beach is one of the best ways to see these giants up close. The boat tours operate year-round and depending on the season, you might spot humpback whales, minke whales, grey whales, finback whales, and blue whales. Other marine mammals that you might get to see include sea lions, seals, dolphins, and birds.
The tours typically last 2-3 hours so you’ll get a chance to see plenty of wildlife. Along the way, you can learn more about the marine life in California from experienced captains and crew.
10. Desert Bighorn Sheep In Joshua Tree National Park
While dry locations seem like the last places where you might see animals, there is plenty of wildlife in the California desert as well! Despite receiving only several inches of rainfall per year, Joshua Tree National Park is home to over 57 mammal species.
One that you might come across the most is the California bighorn sheep. There are 100-200 bighorn sheep that reside in Joshua Tree which are recognizable for their giant, curved horns.
We saw a few bighorn sheep at the summit of Ryan Mountain as we hiked around. These animals are very active during the day and seek shelter on rocky mountaintops away from large predators like mountain lions.
Barker Dam is another popular location where you might spot animals searching for water sources in the dry desert landscape.
Location: Joshua Tree National Park
11. Tule Elk At Wind Wolves Preserve
California is home to three different elk species, including the tule elk. While at one point there were over 500,000 tule elk residing in our state, due to growing Gold Rush settlements, urban sprawl, and hunting, by 1870 tule elk dwindled down to just a few. By 1873 the animal species became protected and nearly extinct.
Thanks to conservation efforts, the tule elk numbers have recovered to over 5,700 in California. To manage the growing population, the animals were relocated to several different areas including Tule Elk State Natural Reserve, Point Reyes National Seashore, and Wind Wolves Preserve.
In 1998 only 19 tule elk were relocated to the Wind Wolves Preserve in Kern County and now the herd has grown to 400 elk. Other protected animal and plant species at this preserve include kit foxes, endangered tri-colored blackbirds, and Bakersfield cactus.
During our visit to the Wind Wolves Preserve, we saw tule elk from afar. For the best chance to see these animals, you can hike the 8-mile-long Tule Elk Trail to Tule Elk Overlook.
Hiking Tip: It’s best to visit Wind Wolves Preserve in early spring or in late fall. In the summer Central Valley temperatures reach over 100 degrees which can be very dangerous for hiking.
Location: Wind Wolves Preserve
12. Black Bears In Sierra Nevada Mountains
In the Sierra Nevada Mountains, you can have some of the best wildlife experiences in California. If you’re wondering where to see bears in California, this is where you’ll want to go!
There is plenty of wildlife in California mountains and one animal that especially thrives here is the black bear. There are estimated to be 25,000 to 35,000 black bears in California so the chances of seeing one on a hiking or backpacking trip are pretty high.
Most of the bears reside in the Central and Northern California mountains. We usually see black bears when traveling to Mammoth Lakes, Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia National Parks. You can often see them in meadows munching on plants or in the backcountry.
Black bears are not as big and aggressive as grizzly bears that are now extinct in California. We’ve never had an issue with seeing black bears in the wilderness, but as a precaution, it’s best to carry bear spray, make loud noises and wave your arms if you do come across one.
13. Ostriches In Solvang
Another destination that is worth checking out is Ostrichland USA near Solvang! This tourist attraction is home to over 100 ostriches and emus that visitors can see up close and feed. While these ostriches are not in the wild, it is a great activity for families with kids.
Ostrichland is open to visitors every day from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm. The entrance is $7 for adults, $3 for kids under 12, and $5 for military. For $1 you can purchase a bowl of bird food to feed the birds. Just be sure to watch your fingers as some birds can get aggressive when eating.
Ostriches are some of the oldest, largest, and heaviest birds on Earth. They are very quick and can at fast speeds up to 43 miles per hour!
Over the years, the birds at Ostrichland have become some of the most famous California Coast animals. This is a quick and fun stop for those traveling up the Central Coast or heading out for wine tasting in Santa Barbara.
After your visit be sure to stop by the gift shop where you can check out souvenirs to take back home.
Location: Ostrichland USA
14. Wild Burros In Death Valley
Death Valley holds the record for being the hottest place on Earth. Yet, there is plenty of wildlife that calls Death Valley home, including invasive burros.
Wild donkeys are not native to California and were brought over during the Gold Rush. Later the donkeys were abandoned and in the wild grew to large numbers up to 4000.
Due to overpopulation, invasive burros are a threat to local plants and backcountry animals such as bighorn sheep but do provide a food source to the mountain lions.
While the chances of seeing wild burros in Death Valley are pretty low (after all, it is the biggest National Park in California), some of the best locations for spotting burros include Saline Valley, Butte Valley, and along the Emigrant Canyon Road.
Location: Death Valley National Park
15. Bird Watching In Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve
While Southern California isn’t exactly known for having an abundance of parks and wildlife, there are some natural spaces that were created in urban areas to protect the local animals and birds. Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve is a popular location for nature and wildlife viewing in California that covers 1300 acres of land just north of Huntington Beach.
We used to live within walking distance from the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve and often came here for walking and bird watching after work or on the weekends. There are a couple of miles of trails that lead next to marshlands with plenty of bird-watching opportunities along the way.
Location: Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve
Looking for more things to do in California? Be sure to check out some of our other popular posts below:
- 30 Best Central California Coast Attractions For Visitors
- 25 Best Beaches On The Central Coast In California
- 15 Amazing Redwood Hikes Near Santa Cruz
- 10 Best Hotels In Morro Bay For a Coastal Getaway
- 10 Unforgettable Places To Stay In San Luis Obispo
- 12 Fun Things To Do Around Bakersfield Like a Local
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