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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

Grab your binoculars and head west—it’s whale watching season in the Bay Area. Gray whales are just offshore this time of year passing the Golden State’s rugged coastline on their way south to warmer waters where they’ll rear their newborn calves. It is one of the longest migrations of any mammal on earth and one you can be a witness to from many of our coastal trails.

That’s right, you don’t need to be on a boat to see whales. There are plenty of places on the coast where you can watch for whales from shore. And it’s not just gray whales, but minke, humpback and blue whales are all visible from the coast. Music to your ears I’m sure, especially if you get seasick on boats like me.

There are loads of options for coastal hikes. But below are two POST-protected properties that I’m especially fond of and have epic views of the Pacific, perfect for your next whale watching adventure. Now’s the time, so get out there and participate in the beauty of the season!

beach hike - POST

Jean Lauer Trail – Pillar Point Bluff

Overview: A relatively flat hike with views of the surrounding coast side

Distance: 3 miles round-trip

Difficulty: Easy

Hiking time: 1.5 hours

Season: All year, but the fall is particularly nice.

Driving directions: click here

Managing agency:  San Mateo County Parks

See below of a trail map:

Pillar Point is in Moss Beach, just north of Half Moon Bay. The trailhead off of Airport Street starts with a raised wooden walkway over a small area of wetlands, then transitions to a hard-packed dirt trail.

When you get to the base of the bluffs, you are faced with a choice on how to get to the top: to the right is a well-packed gentle grade and to the left is a steeper path, which is shorter, but it has been degraded a little by winter rains. I don’t recommend the latter trail for anyone with mobility issues, or anyone with strollers.

For those looking for a wheelchair-accessible trail, there is street parking at the top of the bluff on Bernal Avenue and an entrance to the trail from there. Once you get to the top of the bluffs, the trail is mostly flat or gently-sloped and well maintained.

There are several good vantage points to watch the ocean and even a couple of benches along the way where you might sit and watch for whales. Even if you don’t spot any whales, there are great views all along this trail and other wildlife, like red-tailed hawks, to be on the lookout for.



Cowell Purisima Trail – Cowell Ranch

Overview: A relatively flat hike with views of the surrounding coast side

Distance: 7.2 miles round-trip

Difficulty: Easy

Hiking time: 4 hours

Season: All year, but the fall is particularly nice.

Driving directions: click here

Managing agency:  San Mateo County Parks

See below of a trail map:

The north end of the Cowell-Purisma trail starts just south of Half Moon Bay. You can park at the Cowell Ranch Beach parking lot to access both this trailhead and the Cowell Ranch Beach.

There is a wide, hard-packed dirt trail that leads slightly downhill to a bluff between the public beach (accessed by a long staircase, just before the bluff) and another (inaccessible) cove which is a protected space for harbor seals. The bluff is a great place for both whale watching and seal viewing, and you can also hike south from here for more great viewing spots.

The Cowell-Purisma trail is approximately 3.6 miles from one end to the other, winding along the cliffs above the ocean, or you can turn around at Purisma Creek if you want a shorter hike.

It can also be accessed from another trailhead at the southern end of the trail. The trail is bike-friendly and mostly wheelchair accessible (with the exception of some steep terrain near the middle at Purisma Creek that is not recommended for wheelchairs). Unfortunately, no dogs are allowed on this trail and it is open only on weekends and holidays.

Download Our Coastal Hikes Guide:

Coastal Hikes Guide - POST

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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 76,000 acres as permanently protected land in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties.

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