Where to watch: Wildlife through the seasons

By Michele Roest

No matter what time of year you visit 
the Central Coast, the area is rich with wildlife viewing opportunities.

In the summer, take a trip to one of the area’s lakes. Celebrated by anglers and birdwatchers alike, they also offer great camping and recreational activities. Off the coast, summer is the best time for watching feeding frenzies of marine seabirds, dolphins, sea lions, and whales as they feast on migrating species of anchovies, sardines, and mackerel.

In the fall, look to the skies. Some of the best Monarch Butterfly clustering sites are right off the California 101 Highway in San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Ventura Counties. Don’t miss a chance to see thousands of these colorful insects at 
their overwintering areas.

Winter is the best time to visit the coast and watch shorebirds, or to take a trip to San Luis Obispo’s North Coast to view northern elephant seals. More than 17,000 elephant seals can gather at once in this area!

Spring, of course, brings out the wildflowers, but it is also prime time for seeing gray whales. Peak numbers travel north along 
the Central Coast from March through May. Pick any coastal overlook and scan the 
horizon for whale blows.

As always, be sure to check websites 
before you venture out. 
Some areas may still be temporarily closed due to the current pandemic.


Lake Views

California reservoirs offer thousands of acres of open space for hiking, walking, picnicking, kayaking, and enjoying nature. Most have boat ramps and boat rentals. Be sure to check in advance for any seasonal restrictions before you go.

Visit tranquil Lake Casitas in the summer. A no-body-contact lake, Casitas offers stunning hiking and biking trails, boating, kayaking, and plenty of places to rest and relax. The lake is well known as one of the best bass fishing lakes in the state. 

Getting there: Take Highway 33 to Santa Ana Road.

For more: casitaswater.org

Cachuma Lake Recreation Area in Santa Barbara is dog-friendly and easy to access off Highway 101 in Santa Barbara. Like Lake Casitas, swimming and contact with lake water is not allowed but the lake is open to kayaking, boating, and fishing. Cachuma’s lake-bottom topography provides a great habitat for various kinds of fish, including bass, crappie, bluegill, red-ear sunfish, and rainbow trout. The abundance of fish in the lake makes it an amazing place to see fish-eating raptors, such as osprey and bald eagles.

Views in the east end of Lake Cachuma. (Photo by Kristin Loft)

Getting There: Take Cachuma Lake/Highway 154 exit off Highway 101 in Santa Barbara. Make a left at the stop sign and drive approximately 14 miles.

For more, see countyofsb.org/parks/cachuma.sbc

Lopez Lake Recreation Area is located about 10 miles east of Arroyo Grande in San Luis Obispo County. It’s surrounded by oak woodland and coastal sage scrub habitat. The 1,000 acres of lake surface invites boats, personal watercraft, and windsurfers alike. Kayakers and canoers enjoy the quiet northern arms of the lake. It’s also a super place to go fishing, either from the shoreline or a boat (rentals are available).

Lopez Lake is as great for families as it is for nature lovers. (Photo by Erik Dungan)

Getting There: Take the Grand Avenue exit off Highway 101 in Arroyo Grande. Turn east and drive through charming old town Arroyo Grande. Take a right on Huasna Road, which turns into Lopez Drive, and continue until you reach the entrance to Lopez Lake.

For more, see slocountyparks.com/camp/lopez-lake

Ocean Feeding Frenzies

In late summer, massive schools of anchovies, sardines, and mackerel migrate along the coast. Sometimes called “bait balls” because they are often used as bait for sportfishing, these small fish are rich in nutrients and healthy fats. The ocean food chain comes to life as pelicans plunge-dive into their midst, and humpback whales rise above water to swallow hundreds of fish in a single mouthful. Dolphins, seals, sea lions, and other seabirds are attracted by the acrobatics, which soon becomes a feeding frenzy. Keep an eye out for coastal feeding frenzies in August and September.


Monarch Butterflies

Beautiful and distinctive, it’s hard to miss these large, orange and black lepidopterans. Western Monarchs are found from the California coast to the Rocky Mountains and northern Washington. These colorful insects participate in a massive migration, spending fall and winter in California and Mexico. The number of Monarch butterflies is declining rapidly due to human destruction of their critical habitat and climate change; the species is in danger of going extinct. Don’t miss an opportunity to witness this spectacular natural phenomenon!

Don’t miss the fall migration of Monarch butterflies. They arrive at wintering grounds in late October and remain until February. (Photo by Mike Baird)

Great places for autumn Monarch viewing:

Camino Real Park in Ventura: This large grassy park is easy to find. A large grove of Eucalyptus trees hosts Monarch butterflies that cluster together at night. As the morning sun reaches them, warming the air around them, they take flight, seeking nectar and moisture.

Getting There: Camino Real Park is located at the corner of Dean Drive & Varsity Street in Ventura.

For more, see visitventuraca.com/business/camino-real-park

• Coronado Butterfly Preserve: Located in Goleta, Coronado is protected open space and links the Goleta Monarch Grove, Ellwood Shores coastal bluffs, Santa Barbara County Park, the Devereaux Slough, and the beach. Plan to go for the day, but save your butterfly viewing for mid-day when the temperature reaches its peak.

A Monarch butterfly on native coyote bush. (Photo by Mike Baird)

The recent drought weakened and killed several trees in the Goleta grove, so some of the trails through the groves have been closed. The City of Goleta cautions that due to this, visitors enter at their own risk. But even if you don’t go on the trails, there are exhibits where you can learn more about the lifecycle and migration of the Western Monarch Butterfly.

Getting There: Free parking for the Coronado Butterfly Preserve and the Goleta Butterfly Grove is available at the Sperling Preserve at Ellwood Mesa Open Space on Hollister Avenue.

For more, see cityofgoleta.org/projects-programs/parks-open-space/goleta-butterfly-grove

Pismo State Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove: Located in San Luis Obispo County, this is one of only five sites in the state that has counts of over 10,000 butterflies annually. It generally has one of the largest overwintering Western Monarch populations, although numbers have dropped significantly in the last two years. Docents provide interpretive walks and maintain a small gift shop.

Getting There: Take the Highway 101 exit at Grand Avenue to reach Highway 1 and Pismo State Beach. The grove is at the south end of Pismo Beach intersection with Highway 1.

For more, see parks.ca.gov/?page_id=30273


Elephant Seals in San Simeon

Elephant seals are the largest seals in the northern hemisphere, and their pupping and breeding grounds are located 10 miles north of Cambria on Highway 1. These animals will surprise you with their heft; adult males can reach 15 feet long and weigh up to two tons, and females reach nine feet and 1,200 pounds. They haul out on remote beaches near San Simeon to give birth to pups and mate. During their peak, more than 17,000 elephant seals crowd onto less than 10 miles of coastline. Peak pupping is around the second week in January. Female elephant seals nurse their pups for about a month, then mate with males. Peak mating is in mid-February. Cliffs above the beach provide a remarkable place to watch these fascinating mammals as they jostle — and often battle — for the best spot.

Loud, boisterous, and massive, elephant seals are fun to watch as they jostle for position on the beaches near San Simeon. (Photo by Phil Adams)


Getting There: The elephant seal viewing area is located on the west side of Highway 1, just 5 miles north of Hearst Castle State Historical Monument.

For more information, visit the Friends of the Elephant Seal website at elephantseal.org

Wintering Shorebirds

Shorebirds flock to California’s Central Coast in December, and many spend their winters along the shore. Winter offers the best opportunities to see and photograph wintering shorebirds, including curlews, whimbrels, sandpipers, gulls, and plovers.

A snowy plover digs for sand crabs on a Central California beach. (Photo by Noah Boyer)

Many coastal parks offer delightful opportunities for bird and wildlife viewing:

The Ventura City Promenade, Ventura River, Estuary Trail, and Ocean Shore Trail offer 5.5 miles of trail along coastal inlet, estuary, dune, and riparian habitats. It’s a wonderful place to see a diversity of birds, including shorebirds, raptors, and songbirds.

Getting There: The trail endpoints are at Foster Park on Casitas Vista Road, and at Rex Street and Dubbers Street in Ventura.

For more information, visit the Friends of Ventura River at friendsofventurariver.org

In Santa Barbara, the Andrée Clark Bird Refuge is a 42-acre open-space park surrounding a lake. Walking paths along the northern shore and three viewing platforms provide opportunities for watching birds and other wildlife.

Getting There: The Andrée Clark Bird Refuge is located at the corner of East Cabrillo Boulevard and Los Patos Way, with parking on Los Patos Way.

For more, see healthypeoplehealthytrails.org/easy-hikes/andree-clark-bird-refuge

The Morro Bay estuary provides overwintering areas for several species of loons, cormorants, and grebes. It’s also a nesting area for egrets and herons. A trip to Morro Bay isn’t complete without a visit to Morro Rock, where you’ll find sea otters hanging out year-round — often close enough to get great photos!

Getting There: Morro Bay is located 13 miles north of San Luis Obispo on Highway 1.

For more, see morrobay.org


Spring Bloom

California wildflowers are well-adapted to fire and flood. When fires ravage natural areas, they stimulate seeds that may have been dormant in the soil for decades. Good winter rains can lead to super-blooms — explosions of color that can sometimes even be seen from space. But even average bloom years are impressive if you visit these sites at the peak of spring.

Endemic to California, hillside daisies spread over acres of rolling hills on the Carrizo Plain in springtime. The national monument is home to dozens of species of rare and endangered plants and animals. (photo by Misty Hall)

Many people know about the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve in Los Angeles County, but the Central Coast offers many other amazing, lesser-known wildflower viewing spots:

Figueroa Mountain Recreation Area: Trails in this area of the Santa Ynez Valley provide access to poppy and lupine fields in the spring, as well as the native pale blue California lilac. Depending on the amount of rainfall, other wildflowers bloom there too, including yellow goldfields, chocolate lilies, and Indian paintbrush.

Getting There: Figueroa Mountain is a 30-minute drive north of Los Olivos and can be reached by Figueroa Mountain Road or Happy Canyon Road.

For more, see www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers and search for Figueroa Mountain Recreation Area.

Carrizo Plain National Monument: Plan a day trip to see the bloom at the Carrizo Plain in eastern San Luis Obispo County. Splotches of intense color on the hillsides have been described as “Mother Nature’s paintbrush.” Goldfields, phacelia, fiddlenecks, purple owl’s clover, and many more can be spotted in this rural National Monument.

Getting There: The Carrizo Plain has two major sources of access. From the north, the access is via Soda Lake Road off State Route 58. The other major access is from the south via Soda Lake Road off State Route 33/166.

For more, see blm.gov/visit/carrizo-plain-national-monument