4.1 mile loop to an elephant seal overlook, along the coast.
Distance, category, and difficulty:
This 4.1 mile partial loop hike is easy, although the trails pass
through some sections of loose sand. Elevation change is minimal throughout.
Dirt trails and loose sand.
Nice year round, but from December to March the protection area is accessible
only via guided docent walks, and you must pre-register.
From CA 1 in San Mateo County, turn west into the park. The entrance is
12 miles south of Pescadero Road, 3 miles south of Rossi Road, and just
north of the San Mateo/Santa Cruz County border.
Get driving or public transit directions from Transit and Trails:
GPS coordinates* for trailhead:
(* based on Google Earth
data, shown as degrees, minutes, seconds)
Gas, food, and lodging:
Gas, stores, and restaurants north a few miles along CA 1. At Costanoa,
on Rossi Road, you can buy great foods to go at the deli, or use a pay phone.
No camping in any of the Año Nuevo units, but you can camp at Costanoa.
Lots of parking in a paved lot. $10 day use fee. Maps, drinking water, and
restrooms at trailhead. Pay phone at entrance station. There are designated
handicapped parking spots, but trails are not well suited to wheelchairs.
There is no direct public transportation to the reserve.
Park is open from 8 a.m. to sunset. Trails are open to hikers only. No dogs.
No food is permitted in the wildlife protection area (a good excuse for
an after-hike lunch of green chili soup at Duarte's in Pescadero). Although
you can take a short loop through the reserve's main unit year round, if
you want to hike through the wildlife protection area you can do so by permit
(available the same day at the reserve) from April to November. From December
to March the protection area is accessible only via guided docent walks,
and you must pre-register.
The Official Story:
Año Nuevo page
Park office 650-879-2025
This hike is
described and mapped in 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: San Francisco,
by Jane Huber (yup, that's me, the creator of this website). Order
this book from Amazon.com.
park map (pdf)
Trail Map of the Santa Cruz Mountains (map 2), by the Sempervirens
Fund (includes Big Basin, Butano, and Skyline-to-the Sea), is a good map
to the unit.
Tom Taber's Santa Cruz Mountains Trail Book (order
this book from Amazon.com) has a simple map.
Peninsula Trails, by Jean Rusmore, Frances Spangle, and Betsy
this book from Amazon.com) has a simple map and some reserve information.
Año Nuevo in a nutshell
-- a printable, text-only guide to the featured hike.
photos from this hike (trails are routed slightly differently than shown in the photos)
Go to Bay Area Hiker Home page
Nuevo State Park encompasses miles of San Mateo county coastline and a separate backcountry unit, but most people know
the reserve as the northern California destination to see elephant
seals. During the elephant seals' mating and birthing season, from December
to March, the only way to see the seals is on a docent-lead walk. Reservations
are hard to come by; easier if you can finagle a weekday visit. From April
to November, simply show up at the reserve headquarters and ask for a
visitor permit. Staff members can guide you to the most likely spots in
the protection area to see seals.
You can explore Año Nuevo's undeveloped
coastline north of the protected area from a string of small trailheads
along CA 1, where primitive trails wander through sand dunes to quiet
beaches. The reserve also manages a "backcountry," which stretches
east uphill into the Santa Cruz Mountains. While this unit, called Cascade
Ranch, is attached to the bulk of the park's coastline property,
it feels completely separate,
and possesses none of the amenities offered at the park headquarters.
Note that once in the protection area, the
trail network is somewhat fluid. To protect the seals, some trails described
below may be closed -- follow the instructions park staff dispense. The
following account may differ slightly from conditions on the day you visit.
Año Nuevo is one of the most pristine reserves I've ever seen in
the bay area, so please take extra pains to keep it so.
Begin at the southwest edge of the parking
lot, at the signed trailhead. Walk about 90 feet, then at a T junction, turn right. If you're starting from the Visitor Center, pass through the picnic table area and head to the right.
The trail takes a
nearly level course through coyote brush, coffeeberry, and blackberry
brambles. There are partial views south to the ocean. At .05 mile, you'll
reach a signed junction in front of a piece from the wrecked schooner
Point Arena, which went down off this coast in 1913. Stay to the right
on Upper Pond Trail.
Most of the trailside vegetation is a dense thicket
of coyote brush, toyon, poison oak, grasses, and willow, but there are
a few young Douglas fir as well. Blue-eyed grass is the dominant spring
flower, and in summer you might see beeplant, sweet pea, goldenrod, and
salt marsh baccharis in bloom. The white soil of the aptly named Chalks
is conspicuous on the forested hills to the east. Beware of poison oak along the trail, growing as wispy ground cover and tall hedges. An interpretive panel about rodents
and raptors stands off the side of the trail, one of several displays
throughout the reserve. At 0.69 mile the other end of Año
Nuevo Point Trail feeds in from the left at a signed junction. Continue straight.
The trail straightens out and heads for
the sea. This stretch is a good spot for bird watching -- raptors including
redtail and coopers hawks are frequently sighted, and on my April hike
I saw goldfinches flitting from bush to bush. At 0.93 mile, you'll reach
the wildlife protection area, with a staging area exhibit building and
wildlife area trailhead.(If you're visiting when the wildlife area is closed to the public, this is the turn-around
point for your hike.) Be sure to check out the interpretive panels
which showcase the sea mammals found at Año Nuevo. In addition
to the famously protected elephant seals, California sea lions,
harbor seals, and steller sea lions visit or live in the area. Continue
straight on Año Nuevo Point Trail.
Ropes line the trail, separating visitors
from a tangle of buckwheat, willow, blackberry, coyote brush, ragwort,
and yellow bush lupine. The grade continues at a flat pace. A spotted
towhee perched on a trailside coyote bush when I headed out to the viewpoint
on an April hike, and on the way back I spied a Bewick's wren. Look for
a short spur path on the left, leading a few feet to a lookout, where
there are great views out to Año Nuevo Island. A lighthouse and
fog whistle once stood on the island, warning ships away from the treacherous
rocky coastline, but now the buildings are in ruins and the island is
home to marine mammals and seabirds. You may also notice a tiny see-through
cave under the bluff at South Point, and a collection of rocks just off
the coast, commonly populated with birds. On my autumn hike I could see a handful of harbor
seals bobbing in the water near the rocks. Continue on Año Nuevo
Point Trail. You'll pass a bench on the left, then walk over a
brief boardwalk section. With loose sand underfoot, the trail traverses
up and down a sand dune. As the trail levels out again, a path
heads back toward the South Point Seal Viewpoint, on the left at 1.54
miles. Continue to the right. At a flat grade, the trail continues north. Pass the other path leading to the South Point seal viewing area, and continue to a signed junction with the boardwalk to the Bight Beach viewpoint. Turn left.
A short and beautiful boardwalk leads to the viewing area where you can often spot seals just off the shore. When my son and I visited this viewpoint on an August hike, the nice docent on duty showed us bits of elephant seal pelt (which oddly, feels like astroturf) and numerous skulls and bones. Return to the main trail and turn left.
The trail crosses a closed boardwalk. Animal prints and scat may be visible on the firmer stretches of
sand. Look for northern harriers hunting overhead. Ragwort, silvery beachweed,
coyote brush, willow, sea rocket, yellow bush lupine, beach primrose, paintbrush,
and yellow sand verbena are common along the trail. You may hear the elephant
seals' distinctive vocalizations(kind of like the competitive deep
drawn-out belly burps of teenage boys), a sure sign that seals are not
far away. At 1.87 miles turn left at a signed viewpoint junction.
The path ends after a few feet, offering sweeping views to Año
Nuevo Island and North Point. Return to Año Nuevo Point Trail
and turn left.
On a clear day you might see Pigeon Point
lighthouse winking to the north. The trail curves left and ends finally,
at 2.07 miles, at the edge of a short bluff. Off to the right on a sandy
beach below North Point, I could plainly see about 60 juvenile male elephant
seals dozing. On my visit docent John was on duty -- answering visitors'
questions about elephant seals, and positioning a viewing scope. A few
seals were romping together in the water, building calluses on their
chest for the fierce competition of mating season, which generally begins
in December. Pups are born in January, and adult females leave by mid-March, on their way to
feed in the sea between the California coast and Hawaii. Adult males,
weighing nearly 2 1/2 tons, depart for coastal waters off the northern
United State and British Columbia. Seals return in spring and summer to
molt. When you're ready, retrace your steps back to the junction with
Año Nuevo Point Trail and Upper Pond Loop Trail, at 3.46 miles. Turn
right onto Año Nuevo Point Trail.
Grass and coyote brush along the trail frame
nice views east to the Chalks and the park's Visitor Center, a historic
barn. Año Nuevo Point Trail approaches a few pine trees, and then descends slightly
to a signed junction at 3.66 miles. If you'd like to return to the visitor
center area via the beach, turn right here, otherwise continue straight.
Skirting the shore of a small pond, you might notice California aster
and swamp knotweed in bloom during late summer. Pelicans are commonly
spotted, either splashing about in the pond or flying overhead. On an
April hike, I saw dolphins gracefully moving through the ocean just off
the shore, and a bit further out, a group of sea otters. At 3.79 miles there's a signed junction
with a trail heading south to New Years Creek Continue on Año Nuevo Point Trail, to the left.
The trail ascends easily, then meets Upper Pond Trail at a previously encountered junction at 3.91 miles.
Bear right. At 3.96 miles you'll return to a junction, with a path
heading left to the parking lot, but continue straight, toward the
After just a few steps you'll reach a small
interpretive sign about gray whale migration. Look for whale bones on
the left. Pass through the Visitor Center, where you can view some
exhibits and browse the gift shop, then exit the building, bear left,
and walk on the path back to the parking lot.
Total distance: 4.10 miles
Last hiked: August 8, 2013
Previous visits: April
5, 2005 and September 5, 2002