Whether it’s by foot, bike or car, I love to be on our local coastline taking in the glorious Pacific Ocean. There’s only one thing that can make it more magical – when you spot a whale! This time of year we’re especially lucky to witness Gray whales just offshore. They’re headed south to warmer waters where they’ll raise their newborn calves. It is one of the longest migrations of any mammal on earth and one you can witness from so many coastal spots in San Mateo and Santa Cruz Counties. 

Gray whale poking its head out of the water
We can determine the type of whale by paying attention to observable traits. Color and eye placement reveal that this is a Gray Whale!

I live in Santa Cruz and the best whale-watching moment I’ve ever had here might surprise you. I was not on a boat, nor was I wearing a fancy pair of binoculars. It was just while I was taking a short walk along West Cliff Drive. I was on the coastal trail there when I heard someone excitedly yell out, “WHALE!” I turned around and in that perfect moment saw a huge whale fully jump, or breach, out of the Pacific Ocean. 

The best part of whale watching is sharing the joy of it with people around you. Whether you’re with friends or surrounded by strangers, seeing a whale off the shoreline always makes the day a little brighter. Often, it happens when you least expect it. I hope you can find time soon to get out there and enjoy the views from coastal lands. There are lots of epic coastal hikes to check out, and below are some places in San Mateo and Santa Cruz Counties perfect for spotting a whale!

Where to See Whales

Tips Before You Go

When to Go

Whale watching season in the Bay Area is practically year round, depending on what kind of whales you’re hoping to see. Gray whales and Orcas are most visible from December to February. Humpbacks are most present from May to November, and Blue Whales pop up between June and October! As for time of day, most whale sightings are likely to occur in the mornings and late afternoons. 

What to Bring

As with any visit to the coast, it’s a good idea to come prepared with layers of clothing, sunglasses, a hat and sunscreen. To maximize your whale viewing experience, it’s always beneficial to have a pair of binoculars, to view distant creatures more clearly!

What to Look For

Gray whale mothers with calves tend to swim closer to the shore and also tend to swim a little slower, making them easier to spot from our cliff-side trails. Photo: Croft, 2015 CC

A telltale sign of a whale close to the surface is a spout of sea spray, which is evidence of a whale taking a breath. When whales come up to breathe, we can spot a spout of air – sometimes called a “puffy blow” – emerging from the water. Look for spouts that may precede a whale coming above the surface! If you’ve got a really keen eye, you can also look for what’s known as a “whale footprint” on the surface of the water. A whale footprint is visible as a smooth, circular disruption at the surface caused by the whale’s tail when it dives. Whale footprints imply that a whale is close by. 

How to Tell Whales Apart

Depending on how much of its body the whale reveals, you may be able to identify what species you’re seeing. However, if you just get a brief glance, you may have to pay close attention to some very specific details to make a guess. Some things to notice are placement of dorsal fins, tail shape and body color. You can learn more about the differing characteristics here

When to Give Up

Though we can pinpoint the optimal places and times to see whales, spotting one is never guaranteed. These are wild animals, after all, with their own agendas! Patience is important, but remember not to stay out too long in the elements. There will always be opportunities to go out and look again!

San Mateo County

Pillar Point is in Moss Beach, just north of Half Moon Bay. This POST-protected landscape boasts several A+ vantage points to gaze out at the ocean.  There are also a couple of benches along the way where you might sit and watch for whales. Even if you don’t spot any marine mammals, there are iconic views and other wildlife, like red-tailed hawks, to look out for. If you opt for street parking at the top of the bluff on Bernal Avenue, you can enjoy a mostly flat section of the trail that works well for strollers and wheelchairs.

Another POST-protected destination is the Cowell-Purisima Trail. The north end of the route starts just south of Half Moon Bay. There is a wide, hard-packed dirt path that leads slightly downhill to a bluff. This is a great spot to set your sights on both whales and seals, and you can also hike south from here for more great viewing spots. The trail is bike-friendly and mostly wheelchair accessible, except for some steep terrain at the middle near Purisima Creek. Fun fact: this trail is part of the California Coastal Trail which will one day span the entire length of the state.

One of our favorite day-trip destinations, Pigeon Point offers some of the best whale watching along this stretch of coastline. Whether you prefer to be on foot or sitting down, there are plenty of idyllic spots to observe passing wildlife. Gray and humpback whales migrate through this area annually—south in November and north in April. The array of seabirds seeking refuge on the rocky coast are wildly entertaining too! And when you’ve had your fill of salt air, you can slip into the visitor’s center to learn more about the site’s rich history.

Santa Cruz County

West Cliff Drive stretches three miles along the Santa Cruz coast. The scenic path provides great opportunities for spotting both whales and dolphins swimming parallel to the shore. The trail begins at the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf and ends at Natural Bridges State Beach, though you can walk the path in shorter sections if you prefer. Potential whale sightings aren’t the only appeal of this trip – you’ll also pass by Lighthouse Point, walk through Cypress Trees and peer down at surfers in the water below!

The Rio Del Mar trail is one of the best spots to take an easy, leisurely walk along the Santa Cruz Coast. The 5.7 mile out-and-back usually takes under two hours to complete. Dogs are allowed on the path with a leash, and sea birds are sure to be flocking to and fro. The ocean is in full view for the entirety of this trip, so if a whale makes an appearance, you should easily catch it. When you’ve finished taking in the sights, maybe you’ll treat yourself to a nice meal at Seascape Beach Resort, located at the northern end of the trail.

This easy trail is an ideal whale watching spot for hikers of diverse ages and abilities. The coastal path provides stunning views of cliffs, secluded beaches and rocky outcroppings that host birds and sea lions. It’s a prime location to spot a migrating whale, but even if you don’t, the plethora of other marine wildlife may hold you over. Plus, the Wilder Ranch historic dairy farm buildings are an attraction of themselves. Though the trail is ten miles long round trip, you can shorten your journey by turning back at any number of stunning points along the trail, such as 4-mile beach or Strawberry Beach. No matter how far you choose to go, keep your eyes peeled for signs of whale activity! 


So, next time you find yourself exploring our local coastline, keep an eye out for whale tails and sea spray! As I’ve experienced firsthand in Santa Cruz, the magic of whale watching isn’t confined to boat tours or fancy gear. Sometimes, it’s a spontaneous spectacle along a coastal trail. The joy of witnessing these majestic creatures breach the ocean’s surface is something truly special, and the thrill multiplies when shared with others. So, venture out on those epic coastal strolls, and let the breathtaking views and unexpected wildlife sightings add a touch of wonder to your day. Happy whale watching!

About Post

Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) protects open space on the Peninsula and in the South Bay for the benefit of all. Since its founding in 1977, POST has been responsible for saving more than 87,000 acres as permanently protected land in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties. Learn more

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