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Ten Amazing Wildlife Experiences to include on your next Highway 1 Road Trip

There’s no doubt about it—Highway 1 is wild. With elephant seals sunbathing, monarch butterflies fluttering and seabirds soaring, there are countless wildlife experiences unfolding along Highway 1’s 100 miles of Pacific coastline. Spanning the dramatic cliffs of Ragged Point in the north to the serene dunes of Oceano and Nipomo in the south, Highway 1 is home to more than 30 species of whales and dolphins, 300 species of birds, plus otters, seals and even Hearst’s mysterious zebras. Traverse 50 miles of protected coastline—among the most extensive in California—encompassing the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, several Marine Protected Areas, Los Padres National Forest and the largest number of Whale Trail locations in the state. With teeming tidepools, awe-inspiring cliffs and secluded beaches, these habitats remain unchanged by the hands of time. Now, it’s your turn to catch a front-row seat to Highway 1’s most amazing wildlife wonders. Let’s go!

Photo credit required to Vincent Shay Photography
Photo credit required to Vincent Shay Photography

1. Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary

Delve deeper into coastal wildlife. The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is a must-visit for travelers looking to celebrate and conserve coastal wildlife. Encompassing over 6,000 square miles of protected waters, this globally-recognized sanctuary serves as a vital home for marine life of all stripes. Witness the majesty of migrating gray whales, dolphins at play and diverse marine species thriving in their natural habitat. Beyond its scenic beauty, the sanctuary offers  interactive exhibits and guided tours, allowing visitors of all ages to learn more about the ecosystems that define the region. Whether you’re a wildlife enthusiast, a conservation advocate or a traveler seeking an enriching experience, a visit to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is your key to the Pacific.

Million Dollar View Ragged Point
Million Dollar View Ragged Point

2. Big Sur/Ragged Point Coastline

Cruise through dramatic views (and enjoy unmatched photo opps). Embark on a world class journey along the Big Sur and Ragged Point coastline, an iconic stretch of Highway 1. Untamed wilderness beckons at every turn: explore cliffside hiking trails, black sand beaches and sparkling waterfalls. Along the way, keep an eye out for mighty California condors, falcons and other birds of prey lucky enough to nest along this “million dollar view.” Traverse winding roads carved into the rugged terrain, pull off for epic panoramas and witness epic wildlife. With towering old-growth redwood trees, twisted live oaks and pristine ocean habitat, a diverse cast of characters converge here, from gray whales and seabirds to bobcat and the elusive mountain lion. For those ready to explore Highway 1’s rugged grandeur, this is the “scenic route.”

San Simeon Elephant Seal
San Simeon Elephant Seal

3. Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery

Observe Highway 1’s majestic giants. At the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, visitors are privy to a rare sight: elephant seals in their natural habitat. Free and open to the public, this popular Highway 1 road stop is home to a robust population of migrating elephant seals (viewing is particularly good during winter, when the animals can be observed molting and birthing pups). This unique attraction is accessible and easy to explore, allowing visitors of all ages to get a first-hand look at these wild creatures. Plus, the nearby Friends of the Elephant Seals Visitor Center encourages folks to better dive deeper through informative exhibits and expert insights. For those yearning to witness wildlife up close, a visit to Piedras Blancas promises an unforgettable peek into a fascinating world.

Coastal Discovery Center Family San Simeon
Coastal Discovery Center Family San Simeon

4. Coastal Discovery Center at San Simeon Bay

Savor quiet bayside moments. Nestled on Highway 1 along the San Simeon Bay, the Coastal Discovery Center is a haven for nature lovers of all ages. The center invites visitors to meander along a serene trail rife with ocean views and animal sightings. Immerse yourself in the rhythmic melodies of barking sea lions, catch glimpses of harbor seals basking along the shoreline and witness the dance of coastal birds. Beyond thriving wildlife, the Coastal Discovery Center offers a unique blend of informative exhibits and enrichment suited for kids and parents alike. Here, visitors can press pause for a peaceful and educational escape backdropped by beautiful San Simeon Bay waters.

WR Hearst Beach with dog
William Randolph Hearst Memorial Beach

5. William Randolph Hearst Memorial Beach

Uncover historical allure and natural splendor. One of Highway 1’s hidden gems, William Ranch Hearst Memorial Beach is steeped in rich history. The park is a testament to the opulent vision of media magnate William Randolph Hearst, whose iconic Hearst Castle (built between 1919 and 1947) is nestled within nearby hills. Find the beach situated along the old historic town of San Simeon, a popular road stop for wildlife lovers and hungry travelers alike. Visitors will find incredible birdwatching here as well as hiking, swimming, picnicking and sunbathing opportunities—no different from activities celebrity travelers enjoyed during Hearst’s heyday. However, the real headline comes with zebra sightings, which often occur along the nearby pasture adjacent to Highway 1. Yes, these are modern descendants of Hearst’s famed herd!

Heron at Fiscalini Ranch Preserve

6. Fiscalini Ranch Preserve

Embark on a nature walk that wows. Located in the cozy alcove of Cambria, the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve is a world unto itself. Adorned with a network of trails spanning ocean bluffs and grassy marine terrace, explore a serene landscape adored by hikers and wanderers alike. Several coastal lookout spots can be found along the gently rolling terrain, with whales spotted offshore during migration season. More than a scenic escape for visitors, this peaceful preserve is a true sanctuary for wildlife: Among the flora and fauna, spy fluttering butterflies, bashful deer and a vibrant array of avian friends.

Estero Bluffs in Cayucos
Estero Bluffs in Cayucos

7. Estero Bluffs State Park

Stroll into easy and enchanting. There’s nothing quite like a breezy afternoon spent at uncrowded Estero Bluffs State Park in Cayucos. Find the park’s serene bluffs perched at the northern end of Cayucos, a laid back surf town. Here, coastal birdlife flourishes and time moves a little slower. Beachcomb along the sand, look for offshore whales during migration season or go searching for a real life shipwreck forgotten by time. Along the way, uncover tidepools brimming with urchins, sea stars and anemone. Whether you traverse the four miles of trails or simply take a break to stretch your legs, know that you’ve encountered some of Highway 1’s lesser-known unspoiled coastline.

Geese Sweet Springs Nature Preserve
Geese at Sweet Springs Nature Preserve

8. Sweet Springs Nature Preserve

Unearth a hidden oasis. Follow feathered friends to Sweet Springs Nature Preserve in Los Osos, home to salt marshes, freshwater ponds and a scenic eucalyptus grove. Thanks to these varied habitats, a plethora of bird species can be found soaring, calling and nesting here. Spanning 32 acres, enjoy a blend of scenic hiking trails, interpretive signs, memorial benches and an old fashioned wooden footbridge. There’s no need to rush along this serene expanse. A mix of diverse ecosystems makes Sweet Springs Nature Preserve the perfect place to soak up the symphony of birdsong. Needless to say, avid bird watchers will be charmed (don’t forget those binoculars).

Montana De Oro Tide Pools
Montaña De Oro Tide Pools

9. Montaña de Oro State Park

Climb the coast. Famous for its wildflower-flanked “mountains of gold,” Montaña de Oro State Park boasts extensive hiking trails, unique beaches and incredible vistas. Located at the southern end of the Estero Bay, this 8,000-acre state park is also home to seabirds and shorebirds, local otters and seals. Watch for native wildlife while exploring the park’s rolling sand dunes or popular trails (like the challenging 1,347-foot Valencia Peak summit). You can also break out that mountain bike, kayak, surfboard or fishing rod. Truly, there’s countless ways to soak up the sunshine here. Plus, Montaña de Oro’s rugged tidepools and pebbly beaches reveal a watery world of hermit crabs, urchins and sea crabs—always fascinating to observe.

Pismo Preserve Trails
Pismo Preserve

10. Pismo Preserve

Travel from oaks to the ocean. Perched in the sun-drenched hills overlooking Pismo Beach, the 880-acre Pismo Preserve is a wonderland for hikers, mountain bikers, equestrians and local wildlife. While exploring the preserve’s 11 miles of single-track trail and ranch roads (including an ADA-accessible trail), keep an eye out for a rainbow of bird species, deer, turkeys and perhaps even an offshore whale or two. From ancient oak groves to elevated vistas showcasing the sparkling Pacific Ocean, this preserve puts visitors face-to-face with a diverse array of habitat (note that trail loops can be combined and personalized). Check out the online Wildlife Camera Project, which captures a host of nocturnal residents, including foxes, bobcats, coyotes and mountain lions.

See you on Highway 1

Now you’re well prepared to take a walk on Highway 1’s wild side. While observing these sights, be sure to consider the delicate dance between human and animal life. Each Highway 1 wildlife experience, from majestic elephant seals in San Simeon to the serene Coastal Discovery Center at San Simeon Bay, is made possible by ongoing conservation efforts large and small. Everyone can do their part to ensure that this precious coastal terrain remains healthy and happy. Respect local habitats and tread lightly, ensuring that future generations can continue to witness the untamed beauty of Highway 1. 

Plan to review these wildlife viewing tips before you head out on your grand adventure.