If you were to drive on the scenic Pacific Coast Highway about 55 miles south of San Francisco, you would run smack dab into Año Nuevo State Park. This gorgeous park is a favorite among locals, offering an assortment of habitats to hike through and a chance to view iconic coastal species, from birds to whales to beaches filled with northern elephant seals.

Scroll down to see the beauty of this coastal state park and learn about the many sights it has to offer visitors.

Ano Nuevo stairs


Ano Nuevo sign

Año Nuevo has a long history, from the Quiroste people — a group of Ohlone Indians who lived here seasonally for thousands of years — to the point's "discovery" in 1603 by Don Sebastian Vizcaíno, to the European settlers who created a mission nearby in Santa Cruz in the 1700s, to the ranchers who laid claim to the area during the 1800s and into the mid-1900s. Año Nuevo has been a state park since 1958 and since then has restored the area as a natural preserve for native wildlife, and has offered visitors incredible views of the rocky coastline. 

With many trails accessible from the road and park entrance, visitors are welcomed in to learn about the incredible diversity of ecosystems and wildlife, including several iconic but endangered species, that call Año Nuevo home.


Ano Nuevo male elephant seals

One of the biggest attractions that brings visitors to Año Nuevo are the northern elephant seals. Elephant seals spend about 80 percent of their lives at sea, coming to shore only for molting and mating. While the seals arrive to molt at different times of year based on age and sex, it is during the winter between December and March that mating takes place and the seals arrive en masse. The sight of thousands of seals crowding the beaches is spectacular.

It is during this time that huge males, each weighing upwards of two tons, clash in bloody battles on the beach as they stake out their turf and claim all the females on their stretch of beach. The fights between the largest males, or "Beach Masters," can be tremendous and of course draw curious and awestruck visitors to watch.


ano nuevo mother seal and pup

But another reason why people are drawn to the beaches of Año Nuevo during winter is that it is pupping season. Females begin coming to shore in early December. Within a few days of arriving, a female will give birth to one pup, which she will nurse with her rich milk until late March, when she heads back to sea leaving her pup behind to learn to fend for itself. The pups are adorable, and if you visit you may find yourself spending hours watching these awkward and humorous dark-coated pinnipeds. 

Northern elephant seals were nearly wiped out during the 1800s, when they were slaughtered for the oil rendered from their blubber. Only about 200 individuals remained by the late 1800s. In 1922, the Mexican government provided protected status to the species, with the U.S. doing the same a few years later. Since then, elephant seals have rebounded with over 100,000 alive today, and they are finding their way back to historic rookery sites. The first seals to reappear at Año Nuevo arrived in 1955, and the first birth here occurred in 1975. Today, this local breeding range extends from Año Nuevo all the way up to Point Reyes. 


Ano Nuevo trail

To provide space for the females to give birth, the area of Año Nuevo where the females come ashore is closed during the first two weeks of December. After this important birthing period, the park provides guided tours from Dec. 15 through March 31, which allow visitors to see the seals at a close range while minimizing disturbance to the animals. Once the mating season comes to a close, visitors can hike out to the beach areas on their own and view the seals that have come ashore to molt. 

However, all year long visitors can enjoy the many trails along the shoreline and farther inland throughout the park's range. In fact, there is as much to explore in the park's inland areas as there is along the beach.


Ano Nuevo beach

Año Nuevo is not simply a park for people to enjoy the outdoors. It is also a vital area offering protection for wildlife, and the protection doesn't end at the shoreline. The area extending out into the sea is a marine protected area, one of 15 along the Central Coast that are part of the Marine Life Protection Act. Under this act, no living marine resources can be taken from the park. 

This conservation of the resources has allowed a wonderful diversity of species to thrive. A window into the success of the efforts of the park is the tide pools, where more than 300 species of invertebrates can be observed, from the more common hermit crabs and anemones to some species that are more rare. 


Ano Nuevo brown pelican

Año Nuevo is a birder's paradise. Over the water, viewers will see sea birds and shore birds, including brown pelicans — the only species of pelican to make spectacular aerial dives for their food, and a species with a wonderful conservation success story — gulls, plovers, oyster catchers and turnstones. Near the ponds and freshwater resources, visitors can spot mallards, loons, grebes and marsh wrens. Keep an eye on the bushes and grasses and to see quail, warblers, meadowlarks and red-winged blackbirds. And look up into the sky for raptors including kites, northern harriers and red-tailed hawks. 


Ano Nuevo sea otter

One thread that is woven throughout the more recent history of Año Nuevo is that of conservation success. This park is home to, or a rest stop for, many species that are recovering or have recovered from overhunting during the 1800s. We have talked about the northern elephant seals, but also found off the coast of Año Nuevo are two more iconic species of conservation success: humpback whales and sea otters. 

Humpback whales were hunted to near extinction, with only around 1,500 surviving when hunting was banned globally. Thanks to protection from whaling, the species has rebounded and can be spotted offshore from Año Nuevo during their annual migrations. Similarly, sea otters were hunted for their pelts and were actually thought to be functionally extinct in the early 1900s and entirely extinct along the central coast shore line, until a tiny population was spotted near Monterey Bay. Thanks to government protections, the numbers have started to recover and the sea otter is considered one of the greatest success stories in marine conservation. Sea otters returned to Año Nuevo in the early 1980s and can now be spotted off shore feeding on urchins, clams and abalone. 


Ano Nuevo iceplant

Año Nuevo is home to several microclimates, each featuring a unique habitat. Not only are there beaches and dunes, but the park also features willow thickets, stands of coast redwoods and Douglas firs, and wildflowers like evening primrose and California poppies. Each of these habitats offers food and shelter to different types of animals — everything from small rodents up to coyotes and bobcats thrive in the park. One of the most common and iconic plant species is ice plant, pictured here. It acts as a ground cover, stabilizing sand along the coastline. And it blooms with vividly colored flowers that range from an eye-popping magenta to purples and yellows.


Ano Nuevo lighthouse

Año Nuevo is known for its rocky coastline, which was considered especially dangerous for ships as traffic picked up during the 1800s. A lighthouse was installed on Año Nuevo Island in 1890, which warned ships of the dangerous shore on foggy nights. However, an automatic buoy replaced the light tower in 1948, and the former lighthouse keeper's residence on the island has been maintained in a state of arrested decay ever since. 

Because the island is important bird nesting habitat, no one is allowed to visit the old lighthouse. But there is a gorgeous lighthouse just up the road to the north, Pigeon Point lighthouse, pictured here. While not part of Año Nuevo state park, it is a must-see attraction when visiting and is part of the history of the area. 


Ano Nuevo wild mustard

One of the best aspects of Año Nuevo state park is that there is something to see year-round. There is no "off season" at this gorgeous preserve, and there is something unique and beautiful to see during any month of the year. When traveling California's coastline, make sure to pencil in a stop at this state park and enjoy the hiking, birdwatching and other activities this beautiful location has to offer.

This is part of Explore America's Parks, a series of user's guides to national, state and local park systems across the United States. We'll be adding new parks all summer, so check back for more.

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Photos: Jaymi Heimbuch