Each year along the West Coast, migrating whales travel from feeding grounds in the north to mating grounds in the south and back again (start and end points vary by species), offering humans ample opportunities to witness the spectacle. While California gray whales may be in the spotlight—they travel between Alaska and Mexico during their 10,000-mile round-trip migration—orcas, humpbacks, and blues are part of the overall whale parade. Pack your sunscreen, binoculars, and camera with telephoto lens, and hit these prime land locations for sighting whales.
The rich waters of Monterey Bay follow Monterey Canyon—one of the deepest canyons on the West Coast—which runs close to shore, so it’s common to spy whales feeding here from beaches and cliff vantage points along the Big Sur coastline. Orcas and minke whales are in residence in any season, but it’s the blue (June–October), humpback (April–December), and California gray whales (December–May) that increase your chances to see that telltale spout from the shoreline. Get even closer to the action with a boat trip out into the bay with Monterey Bay Whale Watch.
Key spots: Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
Point Reyes National Seashore
If the coastline itself serves as a figurative front-row seat for whale watchers, at Point Reyes National Seashore you’re standing in the aisle touching the stage. The headlands of the Point Reyes peninsula extend about 10 miles into the Pacific Ocean, getting viewers extra close to the California gray whale migration as the mammals pass through the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. Here, the peak of the southern migration is about mid-January, and the peak of the northern migration is about mid-March.
Key spots: Chimney Rock, Point Reyes Lighthouse
Make it a weekend: Plan a trip to Bodega Bay.
The coastal village of Mendocino, perched on bluffs overlooking the ocean, is ideally suited for spotting migrating whales due to its high vantage point. But you don’t have to spend all your time in town. There are great spots for whale watching all along the coast, where nearly any turnoff can provide a good view. Crowds of cetacean fans often peak in March, around the annual whale festivals in Mendocino (March 3–4, 2018), Little River (March 10–12, 2018), and Fort Bragg (March 17–18, 2018).
Key spots: Point Arena Lighthouse, Mendocino Headlands State Park
On a rocky bluff north of Eureka and Humboldt Bay, the small town of Trinidad is another optimal spot to catch the whale migration. The Trinidad area is one of the most spectacular and pristine segments of the California coast, and watching whales thread their way between offshore rocks and islands combines wildlife viewing with beautiful ocean vistas. Swing by from September to January for the southern migration season, and March to June for the northern migration.
Key spots: Trinidad Head, Trinidad State Beach
During each migration, when approximately 18,000 California grays pass close to the Oregon Coast, it’s possible to spot whales in nearly any bay along their route. To coincide with peak whale activity, Oregon State Parks has two official watch weeks: between the Christmas holiday and New Year’s Day and during the last week of March. During these time periods, hundreds of “Whale Watching Spoken Here” volunteers assist visitors in spotting the great marine mammals. To find your ideal spot, watch for the signs at 24 sites along the coast, including points near Coos Bay, Bandon, and Brookings in Southern Oregon.
Key spots: Cape Sebastian State Scenic Corridor, Cape Ferrelo