Gray Whale Watching Northern California

03.21.13


Gray Expectations

The annual gray whale migration is on, and spying them doesn’t have to be just a fluke. Here are three notable places for seeing these behemoths in action. Ready, set, blowhole!


Salt Point State Park Whale Watch Camping

Salty and Sweet!

It's high time for spying gray whales at one of Sonoma coast’s most scenic destinations. Reached via Highway 1's topsy-turvy curves, Salt Point State Park has a coastline that rivals Big Sur. The park’s day-use area has a network of walking trails paralleling the Pacific, dishing out panoramic views made more dramatic by the sound of the pounding surf below (the Salt Point Trail runs along the coast to Stump Beach Cove and is 2.5 miles round-trip). No matter where you meander here, there’s no shortage of Sonoma coast beauty: honeycombed sandstone, rocky promontories, windswept grasslands, even a pygmy forest just inland. Full disclosure: drive-in whale watching is fully an option here if the weather gets fickle. The expansive parking lot makes a spectacular seaside perch, as does the sea-facing balcony at the charming visitor center. Whoa, was that a blowhole? Fluke at two o'clock!

BONUS: Currently still in the off-season, camping at Salt Point State Park is first come, first served (until May 15, when reservations are required by calling 800-444-PARK). Campers seeking close proximity to the Pacific should go for the Gerstle Cove campsites, located right on the bluffs. Of the 30 sites here, 18 and 19 are on the highest ground and have ocean views.

Salt Point State Park is about 90 miles north of San Francisco, alongside Hwy. 1. Dogs are not allowed on the trails but they are allowed at the campground.


Mori Point Whale Watch

Mori Amore

Pacifica’s Mori Point was privately held for decades before becoming an addition to the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. Improvements are afoot (better marked trails, land preservation plots), but one thing remains the same: Mori’s got mojo for whale watching! Thank its exposed promontory, a perch for stunning ocean views. Reach it via Bootlegger’s Steps—a set of seaside stairs that may elicit a few huffs and puffs. No fences means unobstructed views for spotting grays at Mori Point, and cliffs are more than 100 feet high in places (while gawking, watch where you’re walking). Strolling south leads to 105 acres of open bluffs to explore. We recommend following the Coastal Trail and going up to the peak on the back side (the east side), where you’ll get an even higher vantage of the Pacific. The peak is marked by a small labyrinth that’s looking a little weathered. You can’t really get lost finding your way back, though some of the trails are steep. We recommend taking the unmaintained trail along the bluffs to loop back amid freshly flourishing wildflowers and banner views of the ocean. Peering down, the Pacific unfolds in layers of light blue, navy blue, gray…wait…gray!

BONUS: With the motto "If it's smokin', we're open," Pacifica's Gorilla Barbeque is a glorious dedication to the fine art of grilling meat. Chances are good you'll stand in line for 15 minutes before getting to the order counter, but it’s worth the wait!

To reach Mori Point going south on Hwy. 1 in Pacifica, look for the "End Freeway 1/4 Mile" sign. Make a right onto the second street after the sign (across from the Orchids Gift Shop Gallery). Drive 100 feet and park. Walk west past the gate on a wide dirt fire road for 0.25 mile. When you nearly reach the beach, go left and up the stairs to the promontory. Dog-friendly!

Owl Trail Hike Whale Watch

Owl of a Good Overlook

The Owl Trail, Marin's swooping seashore tramp, offers a special bonus in winter and spring: the chance to see migrating gray whales offshore. The 2-mile round-trip trek—not for those with a fear of heights—parallels Highway 1 between the Muir Beach Overlook and Slide Ranch. Pack your binoculars and your patience, and keep an eye out along the way for swooshes on the Pacific, signaling spouting whales in the distance. Bonus sightings include the trail's namesake great horned owls, along with a flock of curious sheep that live at Slide Ranch, a nonprofit teaching farm that's a crossroads destination on the trail. Upon reaching the ranch, continue past the office building and take the path—steep at one point—down to North Beach. Explore tide pools and take a breather on a giant rock, keeping your eyes peeled for those large gray wonders of the sea.

The Owl Trail starts from an unmarked trailhead at the north end of Muir Beach Overlook parking lot. Take this north for 1 mile all the way to Slide Ranch, and return the way you came. No dogs.

Spring Break Special

Even adults need a recess now and again, and Sorensen’s Resort combines the best of relaxation and outdoor adventures. Even better is the special offer they’re giving Weekend Sherpa readers (see Bonus below). Tucked 20 miles south of Lake Tahoe in beautiful Hope Valley (dubbed the California Alps) Sorensen’s is pure wilderness charm: 36 cabins—including nine lovely log cabins—along with Bed and Breakfast rooms, most with wood-burning fireplaces and mini-kitchens. Husband-and-wife owners John and Patty Brissenden and their stellar staff are friendly, kind, and in the know! They’ll give you the inside scoop on miles upon miles of trails for adventures, many starting right from your cabin door. Relax in their on-site wood-fired sauna or venture 20 minutes to soak your bones in Grover Hot Springs. At night, kick back next to the corner fireplace at the resort’s intimate, farm-to-table restaurant. The wine list is excellent and the food is fresh. Save room for the homemade berry cobbler. Book your adult spring break at Sorensen’s!

BONUS: Mention the "Weekend Sherpa Special" when booking a multi-night stay and receive a special offer such as dinner for two, a gourmet breakfast, or even an extra night on the house!

Sorensen's Resort, 14255 Hwy 88, Hope Valley; (800) 423-9949. *Bonus depends on value and length of stay. Inquire when booking. This offer is good until June 14, 2013, and includes holidays. Offer cannot be combined with other Sorensen’s promotions. Mention this ad when making your reservation. Some cabins are dog-friendly!

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