The annual south-to-north Pacific gray whale migration hits its stride along the Sonoma Coast from late winter through spring. On this journey, whales travel from the warm birthing lagoons along the Baja Peninsula to the frigid feeding grounds of Alaska’s Bering Sea.
The migration is notable for the fact mother whales are accompanied by offspring making their first trip north, and these mother-calf pairs tend to travel closer to shore than the individual adults heading north.
February, March and April are great times to set out along Sonoma County’s 55-mile coast for a glimpse of migrating whales spouting water through blowholes and displaying their flukes (tails) as they dive in search of krill, the tiny shrimp they eat.
Gualala Point Regional Park: Situated where the Gualala River enters the Pacific Ocean, this park offers views that go on forever and a vast expanse of white sandy beach where you can walk, collect shells, and admire the driftwood. The aptly named Whale Watch Point on the bluff high above the beach is the best location for spotting whales. Spend the night in the park's campground, nestled in a forest along the river, then rise early, walk to the bluff, and maybe you’ll spot the first whale of the day. “Take binoculars,” said Regional Parks Ranger Susan Bechtel, who also recommends using a viewing chart like this guide from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Sea Ranch Access Coastal Trails: Just south of Gualala, The Sea Ranch extends for 10 miles along this stunningly beautiful strip of the Sonoma coast. The headlands here are known for their panoramic views of sea, sky, rocky outcrops, and migrating whales. The Sea Ranch is a private community, but the public can use six coastal access trails that cross the wind-swept bluffs. Trailheads are clearly marked along Highway 1.
“Any of the Sea Ranch access points is good for whale-watching,” said Ranger Bechtel, “but up on the bluffs is better than down on the beaches.”
Five access trails range from one-quarter mile to two-thirds of a mile — Black Point, Pebble Beach, Stengel Beach, Shell Beach and Walk on Beach. In addition, the 3-mile Bluff Top Trail from Walk on Beach takes you to Gualala Point and Whale Watch Point. All the trails offer views, the sound of crashing surf and the invigorating feel of brisk sea air. Download the map for all trails: Coastal Access: North Coast Access Trails.
Stillwater Cove Regional Park: Located between The Sea Ranch and Fort Ross State Historic Park, Stillwater Cove also is known for its ocean views. “The North Bluff is the best spot,” said Bechtel. Settle into an isolated spot overlooking the ocean, sit back, and enjoy the extensive view. Stillwater also has 20 campsites, so book ahead.
One of the most popular areas to watch for whales is on the county’s southern coast in Bodega Bay.
The half-mile Pinnacle Gulch Coastal Access Trail descends a brushy canyon to a beautiful and peaceful beach with sensational views. Bring a picnic and relax or try your luck at fishing, all while keeping a ready eye out for cetaceans cruising by. Return the way you came, making for a one-mile hike. For a 1.9-mile loop back to your car, walk along the beach at low tide and return on the Shorttail Gulch Trail.
Perhaps the best-known whale watching spot in the area is nearby Bodega Head, part of Sonoma Coast State Park. On weekends from late winter through Mother's Day, volunteers are at Bodega Head to answer questions and share their knowledge of whales and the migration.
From Bodega Harbor, you can book a whale-watch boat trip that offers a chance to get noticeably closer to whales while remaining at a safe distance. Whale-watching boat trip may be offered by Bodega Bay Sportfishing, Bodega Charters, Fish On Charters and other local outfitters.
And sometimes, you just get lucky. In the photo above, beachgoers in Jenner happened to be in the right place at the right time when a whale surfaced just yards from them.
Suzie Rodriguez is a Sonoma-based writer, editor, lifelong outdoors enthusiast and past president of Bay Area Travel Writers.
Published: February 2017/Updated: February 2021