To many, Monterey County is little more than a 99-mile golfing pit stop between wine country and San Francisco. But the region is also one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet — the only place in the world to see whales year-round, and one of the last habitats for the California condor, the largest land bird in North America. The majority of this wildlife can be found in the water — with harbor seals, sea lions, sea otters, and six species of dolphins — but you can also look to the sky for the endangered Western Snowy Plover or Smith’s Blue Butterfly. In short, the county is one of the best, most accessible places in the nation to see wildlife. Here’s where to start.
Monterey, according to naturalist and boat captain Kate Spencer, is a “birder’s paradise” because of the wildly diverse habitats. Birdwatchers come from all over the world to participate in specialized tours alternating between bird and whale watching.
Book a spot on a trip with Shearwater Journey and spot the 6-foot winged Black-Footed Albatross as it glides past Monterey on its way from Hawaii.
In the wetlands, you can turn to Elkhorn Slough National Estuary Reserve with 346 species of resident or migratory birds. Like in the Bay, touring by boat is also an option for Elkhorn, namely the Elkhorn Slough Safari, where you can board a pontoon boat and spot Brant, Osprey, and Peregrine Falcon.
For even more birding spots, hit the mile-long Carmel River State Beach to see species like the Great Blue Heron, the Virginia Rail, the Brown Pelican, and the Greater Yellowlegs. In the same vein, you could head over to Lake San Antonio where there are bald and golden eagles, red-tailed hawks, and American coots.
If you’re fortunate enough to be in the area from around October to mid-February, head over to Pacific Grove where you can see thousands of Monarch butterflies that are waiting out the winter. A Monarch Grove Butterfly Sanctuary, according to Spencer, is one of the easiest and most incredible sights especially on the warmer days.
Some of the most remarkable aspects of Monterey County's wildlife are centralized to the coastline. Monterey Bay is one of the largest protected marine sanctuaries in the country. Begin your marine exploration in the area and head to Old Fisherman's Wharf where seals, sea lions, sea otters, whales, dolphins, pelicans, and intertidal marine creatures (anemones, hermit crabs, starfish, barnacles, etc.) are abundant. SeaPhoto, an app specifically for the Monterey Bay Sanctuary, will help identify more than 550 of the Bay's marine species.
(Stephen Wilkes / Getty Images)
Whales often steal the spotlight here especially during Gray Whale migration season, which starts late December to mid-May. But this isn't the only time to see whales. "Few know that humpback and blue whales come here to stay for the long feeding season April through November every year." Transient mammal-hunting type killer whales are often seen throughout the year here as well, says Spencer.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium remains an ideal spot to see, interact, and learn about the cast of characters in and around the Bay. Keep an ear to the ground while going through the exhibits to see one of the UFOs (Unscheduled Feeding Opportunities).
Away from the shoreline a number of animals like black bears, mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, gray foxes, and feral pigs call this place home. The more diehard nature-lover will appreciate the potential sighting of the deer-like pronghorn antelope, which is oddly neither deer nor antelope, or the tule elk, a breed of elk solely found in California. Mountain lions and ringtail cats, a relative of the raccoon, are rarely spotted.
(Lisa Romerein/ Getty Images)
In addition to abundant wildlife, the state parks in the area provide outdoor enthusiasts with everything they could possibly want from hiking, camping, and kayaking to horseback riding, scuba diving, and mountain biking.
Tucked in the Carmel Valley is Garland Ranch State Park, with more than 4,000 acres of land for hiking, horseback riding, some mountain biking, and seasonal fishing. Highlights at Garland include Snively's Ridge, a 2,000-foot summit overlooking the valley and the bay and Garzas Canyon, to get your redwood fix.
Amphibians and reptiles are often forgotten in the hype of the whales, birds, and butterflies, but when exploring keep your eyes peeled for the herps. The frogs are characteristic to the area, most notably the red-legged frog, which was made famous in John Steinbeck's Cannery Row, are hanging in there despite ecological distress.