9 Wildlife-Watching Hikes in the Bay Area

The Bay Area’s richly diverse habitats, from tidal mudflats to ocean edges, chaparral-covered hills to redwood streamsides, are home to an incredible variety of wildlife. And it is so fun to spot them on a hike! Peeking over mixed landscapes and waterways, we have the chance to see whales and sea lions along the coast, condors in Pinnacles National Park, gorgeous and colorful ducks along the San Francisco Bay, and seasonal clusters of ladybugs in cool riparian forests. 

A tarantula wanders along a trail near sunset in Mount Diablo State Park

Most creatures have a peak viewing season, so we’ve given you ideas for timing your visit to increase your chances of seeing them. Please give them lots of space and follow each park’s guidelines for viewing them. Happy wildlife viewing!

North Bay

Point Reyes Lighthouse, Chimney Rock at Point Reyes National Seashore, Drakes Beach

Gray Whales & Elephant Seals // Winter & Early Spring

Point Reyes National Seashore, Point Reyes Station

Point Reyes National Seashore is a wildlife hotspot, with elephant seals, whale-watching, and even tule elk sightings on the drive through the park. The Point Reyes Peninsula in particular, home to Point Reyes Lighthouse and Chimney Rock, provides exceptional wildlife-watching opportunities. Try your luck at Point Reyes Lighthouse, a mostly accessible 2-mile round-trip hike, between December and early April to catch gray whales migrating between their northern feeding grounds and southern breeding grounds. 

Elephant seals and young pups at Drakes Beach in spring

Next door, a 2.4-mile round-trip hike on the Chimney Rock Trail offers whale-watching opportunities at the end of the trail and elephant seal viewing at the Elephant Seal Overlook. Better yet, take a side trip to nearby Drakes Beach to see elephant seals up close. The beach closes annually to protect the seals, but you can watch safely from the parking lot. A good time to go is in winter and early spring during their breeding and pupping season. 

Tips: There is no entrance fee and parking is free. No dogs are allowed on these particular hiking trails in Point Reyes with the exception of trained service dogs (head to Kehoe Beach for a doggie-friendly option).

East Bay

Stream Trail

Ladybugs // Late Fall & Winter

Reinhardt Redwood Regional Park, Oakland

It’s a special discovery to spot tiny, orange-red ladybugs—technically, lady beetles—clustering together on leaves and fenceposts. Between November and February, they are carried by the wind to Bay Area hillsides, following pheromones left behind by previous ladybugs. Scientists believe that clustering may help them mate, survive the colder season, and protect themselves against predators as they huddle together and create a big, red warning signal. 

Ladybugs cluster on a bridge in Uvas Canyon County Park

A favorite local hotspot to see them is the Stream Trail in Reinhardt Redwood Regional Park, halfway between the Canyon Meadow Staging Area and Skyline Gate Staging Area. From either Staging Area, hike 1.5 miles toward the Prince Trail and Stream Trail junction. Just south of the junction, look carefully under leaves and on fences for ladybugs clustering together. Another hike to try your luck is the Uvas Canyon Waterfall Loop in Morgan Hill. You can find them clinging to trailside shrubs and wooden bridges on the Waterfall Loop Trail toward Upper Falls.

Tips: $5 per vehicle on weekends, April through October, at the Canyon Meadow Staging Area. Free parking at the Skyline Gate Staging Area. Leashed dogs are allowed, at $2 per dog. $6 advance parking reservation at Uvas Canyon County Park. Leashed dogs are allowed. 

Eagle Peak via Mitchell Canyon

Tarantulas // Late Summer — Early Fall

Mount Diablo State Park, Clayton

When late summer and early fall roll around, male tarantulas emerge from their burrows to mate, offering a rare, seasonal opportunity to see these gentle spiders out in the wild. An excellent place to try to spot them is Mitchell Canyon in Mount Diablo State Park. Hiking south on Mitchell Canyon Fire Road, take the Black Point Trail in 0.6 miles, all the while watching the ground closely and sweeping your eyes for little, slow-crawling black dots. 

A male tarantula approaches a burrow on the Black Point Trail in Mount Diablo State Park

Early morning and evening near sunset are the best times to try to spot them. Beginning in late summer, the Mount Diablo Interpretive Association, East Bay Regional Parks, and Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority hold tarantula activities. Henry Coe State Park hosts an annual Tarantula Fest in early October.

Tips: $6 vehicle entrance fee at Mitchell Canyon Staging Area in Mount Diablo State Park. No dogs are allowed on trails.

South Bay

Baylands and Shoreline Birding Loop

Bird-Watching // Year-round

Shoreline at Mountain View and Palo Alto Baylands, Mountain View & Palo Alto 

Birds of all shapes and sizes, from Snowy Egrets to colorful Surf Scoters, are a special feature of this 4.5-mile ADA-accessible hike on the edge of the San Francisco Bay. This balloon loop hike visits two parks: The Palo Alto Baylands and Shoreline at Mountain View, with bonus views of the Santa Cruz Mountains and Diablo Range peaks. On this loop, you’ll swing by multiple hotspots to see resident birds like Great Blue Herons and birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway, such as Hooded Mergansers and Northern Shovelers. 

An American White Pelican and Great Egret in Adobe Creek

Tips: No entrance fee and parking is free. Leashed dogs are allowed on Palo Alto Baylands trails, except where posted. No dogs are allowed at Shoreline at Mountain View. 

Central Coast

Natural Bridges Loop

Monarch Butterflies, Gray Whales & Tide Pools // Fall & Winter

Natural Bridges State Beach, Santa Cruz

There are so many awesome places to go tide pooling in the Bay Area, but rarely can you combine the experience with seeing monarch butterflies and gray whales. Go for the hat trick at Natural Bridges State Beach in western Santa Cruz, on a 2.0-mile wildlife loop. The monarch butterflies arrive in October, and fall and early winter are usually the best time to spot them. The butterflies cluster together if temperatures dip below 60 degrees, so you may want to wait for temperatures to warm up to above 60 degrees to see them fluttering around. 

A crab scuttles above anemones near Natural Bridges State Beach

Fall and early winter are also great times of year to go tide pooling when good low tides occur in the afternoons and early evenings. Between December and April, you may even be able to spot gray whales heading southbound to their breeding grounds and then returning northbound with their calves to their feeding grounds.

Tips: $10 vehicle entrance fee at Natural Bridges State Beach. Free parking on Swanton Boulevard. No dogs are allowed on the beach and trails.

Point Lobos State Reserve

Sea Otters, Sea Lions & Harbor Seals // Year-round

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, Carmel-by-the-Sea

Jutting out into the ocean, Point Lobos is a raw and dynamic state park a few miles south of Carmel-by-the-Sea. Here you can see harbor seals, sea otters, sea lions, over 300 species of birds, rare Monterey Cypress trees, and coastal rocks lifting dramatically upwards. At the start of this 4-mile hike, look for quiet harbor seals on the rocks and beaches in Whalers Cove. 

Harbor seals rest on the beach at Whalers Cove in Point Lobos State Natural Reserve // photo courtesy Casey Schreiner

Hiking west along scenic inlets, you may spot sea otters grooming their thick fur in kelp beds below. Rounding the North Shore Trail toward Sea Lion Point, you’ll likely hear sea lions barking. Their wolf-like barking sounds led Spanish settlers to dub the land Punta de Los Lobos Marinos—Point of the Sea Wolves—and it is the source of Point Lobos’ name.

Tips: $10 vehicle entrance fee. Free parking on the shoulder along Highway 1. No dogs are allowed in the preserve, with the exception of trained service dogs.

Central California

Condor Gulch

California Condors // Year-round

Pinnacles National Park, Paicines

While marveling at the millions-year-old pinnacles in Pinnacles National Park, 125 miles southeast of San Francisco, keep an eye out for California Condors, the largest land bird in North America. The California Condor is an endangered species whose numbers dwindled to just 22 in the 1980s, now up to over 500 as of 2023. Pinnacles has the special designation of being one of a handful of release sites for captive-bred California Condors. 

A juvenile California Condor peers down at hikers on the High Peaks Trail in Pinnacles National Park

Although California Condors and Turkey Vultures appear similar, the condor has a much larger wingspan—9.5 feet compared to the vultures’ 5.5 feet. Condors are also smooth and stable soarers, while Turkey Vultures tend to “wobble” when they fly. Good sites for spotting condors are the upper part of the Condor Gulch Trail and the High Peaks Trail. Mornings and evenings are the best viewing times. 

Tips: $30 vehicle entrance fee, good for one week. No dogs are allowed on trails.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,