10 Great Places To See Wildlife Near Santa Cruz

Monterey Bay is one of the richest marine parks in the world, and fertile waters draw wildlife of all shapes, sizes and species.

By: Crystal Birns + Save to a List

1. Sea Lions at the Santa Cruz Wharf

The California sea lion population has tripled in the past 40 years, and the Santa Cruz Wharf, built in 1914, is a common resting spot for these gorgeous pinnipeds. Park anywhere on the wharf (first 30 minutes are free, then there's a small fee) then walk out toward the end. Just listen for loud barking. Sometimes you can find a group of animals on a dock to your left about 3/4 of the way out on the wharf. Every once in a while you might even see an otter sunning with the sea lions (as in this picture). If no sea lions are there, then you can regularly see them in the viewing areas outside The Dolphin (the restaurant at the top of the wharf). As the water rises with the tide it becomes easier for a sea lion to jump up to a crossbeam for a quick snooze - if you hang out long enough you might see one make the attempt. 

2. Black-Crowned Night Herons at the Harbor

Santa Cruz Upper Harbor (inland from Murray Street, called Woods Lagoon in Google Maps) is a great spot to see night herons. There are a handful of fish tables on either side of the harbor, each of which are surrounded by trees often filled with night herons waiting patiently for their next meal. I typically access the Harbor from Brommer Street. You can park in a metered spot (bring coins) near the RV park. Then walk on the west side - you'll pass two fish tables on the way to the lighthouse. Look in the trees above the tables, or you may just see one perched on a table, as in this picture. Many of the birds are juveniles (like the one above) but there are also full grown ones. The Harbor is also a great place to see sea lions, otters, great blue herons, cormorants and seagulls.

3. Sea Otters at Moss Landing

Moss Landing is a bit of a drive from Santa Cruz, but so worth it. I usually find this raft of otters off Jetty Road: Take Jetty Road .7 miles from Highway 1, then park and look over toward the slough (away from the beach). They are often just hanging out in the water right there. On the way to that spot you're also likely to pass a bunch of sea lions sunning on a spit of sand. And hundreds of birds. 

If you have more time in Moss Landing and want to see more wildlife, walk out to Highway 1 then walk south toward the power plant about .3 miles. You'll see a rusted building (usually with a boat in front) to your left with what looks like a driveway approaching, but that driveway is the beginning of a public trail. Follow that and you'll find yourself close-up to the slough and with views more like this.

5. Butterflies at Lighthouse Field

Monarch butterflies make an annual fall migration to Santa Cruz County (as well as other locations from California to Mexico). Their overall numbers have declined 90% across the US but some years there are still a lot of butterflies in Santa Cruz. My favorite spot to see them is right off Pelton Ave in Santa Cruz, a short walk from Steamer Lane Supply. You can park on Pelton and then access this trail. The butterflies migrate here October through March or so but I feel like November/December is when their numbers are highest. The temperature needs to be over 60 degrees for them to fly so on a cold morning you'll often see them huddled, almost camouflaged against tree branches.

6. Pelicans on West Cliff Drive


Pelicans are just so cool, and when the season is right hundreds of them can be seen along the coast from Davenport to West Cliff Drive and farther south. West Cliff Drive is near my house so it's my favorite place to see pelicans. There is a big rock right where Columbia Street meets West Cliff where they often congregate - that's where this picture was taken. A few other great spots nearby to see pelicans are Four Mile Beach, the parking lot at Natural Bridges and Pleasure Point.

7. Hummingbirds at the Arboretum

The Arboretum is part of the UC Santa Cruz campus off Empire Grade. In my experience there are dozens of hummingbirds just about every time I walk around - I think they particularly like the South African Garden blooms. The Arboretum requests a $5 donation - you can either pay in the store or there's a pay box near the entrance if you have cash. You can park at the entrance and explore from there or keep going up the hill and park on top. 

8. Spot Seals at Bean Hollow 

Bean Hollow is a bit of a drive up the coast but it's such a cool spot. We usually drive North on Highway 1 until we pass the first Bean Hollow State Beach parking lot and a little ways up on your left you'll see this pullout. Park and there's a small trail to get you to the bluffs, just watch out for poison oak. From the bluffs look for seals on the dark rocks close to the shore. They are well camouflaged but often there. Also don't miss the beach at Bean Hollow - it is one of the only California spots where you can see tafoni - a sort of honeycomb or swiss-cheese-like pattern in the rocks.

9. Feed the Ducks at Westlake Park

If you have any little or big kids in your life who like to feed ducks this is a great spot for it. This picture is of my mom who the ducks like a lot. Bring some seeds or nuts (they especially love sunflower seeds) park anywhere around the lake, spot the ducks and they will be happy to see you. You will also see a lot of coots - they like to get fed too. Also if it's a sunny day look for small turtles sunning in the lake.

10. See Whales in Monterey Bay

OK this is more seasonal than place-specific, but Monterey Bay is a federally protected area, part of the largest US national marine sanctuary, which is one of the reasons (maybe the biggest reason) that there is so much wildlife here. The largest animals that come through - for migration and feeding - are whales. Humpback whales, killer whales, blue whales and grey whales all come through the bay at different times throughout the year. Whales can sometimes be seen from shore but a better way to view them is from a boat.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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