Año Nuevo State Park is known for one thing: big, blubbing, giant, angry elephant seals, and a LOT of them!
While these incredible creatures are the main reason to head to this Californian coast state park, located 25 miles south of Half Moon Bay and an hour from San Francisco, it has plenty more to offer its flipper-following visitors.
The park itself spans over 4,000 diverse acres of all sorts of landscape, from huge sand dunes, freshwater marshes, towering redwoods, and high cliffs overlooking the ocean.
Año Nuevo State Park
How to get there and parking
Getting to Año Nuevo State Park is easy if you have a car, as it is located just off the Pacific Coast Highway near the town of Half Moon Bay. It is very well signposted, so you shouldn’t have a problem finding it.
Once you reach the park, there is a large parking lot with plenty of space, with a parking fee of $10. Although this may seem like a lot, the money goes to supporting the park, and the entrance is free.
Take a Hike!
These are the best trails in Año Nuevo State Park:
Año Nuevo Point Trail
Distance: 4.1 miles
Type of Trail: Out & Back
Elevation Gain: 203 feet
This beautiful trail takes you right along the bluffs. You may be buffered by the winds, but the views make it so worth it. For most of the trail, you will be walking along almost paved gravel, and soon you will reach a sign that has information about the elephant seals.
As you near the end of the trail, the gravel makes way for a boardwalk as you head towards the sand dunes, beach, and seal overlook.
During the elephant seal season, due to the sheer number of these huge creatures, the second half of the trail has to close and is only accessible via a guided tour.
This is for the benefit of both seals and humans, as you don’t want to get anywhere near one of the blubbering beasts, especially during mating season!
Atkinson Bluff and North Whitehouse Creek Trail
Distance: 2.3 miles
Type of Trail: Loop
Elevation Gain: 114 feet
This is a great trail if you want to explore the more rugged part of the state park, taking you through dunes and prairies. Along the way, you can also visit Smugglers Cove.
The Atkinson Bluff part of the trail takes you along the high cliffs of the park and to Franklin Point, with the sandy path offering gorgeous views of the coastline and beach far below you.
South Whitehouse Creek Trail
Distance: 2 miles
Type of Trail: Out & Back
Elevation Gain: 82 feet
Take a hike on the South Whitehouse Creek Trail for a hike that is well away from the crowds. The hike takes you down to the beach and across a small creek via stepping stones.
Franklin Point Trail
Distance: 0.7 miles
Type of Trail: Out & Back
Elevation Gain: 52 feet
Where good shoes if you decide on the Franklin Point Trail, as for the most part, you will be walking on sand, with only the odd bit of boardwalk thrown in here or there. You will also have to traverse some sand dunes to make it to Franklin Point. It’s an easy stroll, but you’ll also be burning those calories for sure.
Other Things to Do Año Nuevo State Park
Visit the Marine Education Center
The Seele Brothers Dairy Barn, a historic and interesting building in itself, has been transformed and is now the park’s Marine Education Center.
Discover more about Año Nuevo State Park’s rich history and the wildlife that can be found there through multimedia displays and interesting exhibits. There are also webcams to see what is going on down on the shore.
Bring the Binoculars for Wildlife Viewing
It’s not just elephant seals that can be found in the park. Año Nuevo State Park is rich in wildlife, and you may be able to spot some if both luck and patience are on your side.
Mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, foxes, bats, and deer call the park their home, snakes and frogs in the marshy areas, and SO much bird life. Look to the skies and look out for American kestrels, brown pelicans, hummingbirds, plovers, sandpipers, and so much more.
Go Tide Pooling
The waters around Año Nuevo State Park are rich in marine life, which means great tide pooling opportunities! There are more than 300 invertebrates living in the tidepools off the shore, including scuttling crabs and colorful sea anemones, so when the tide is out, have a peak and see what you can find.
Visit the Beaches
Although these are not the kind of beaches you would lay down a towel on and spend the whole day beach bumming, Año Nuevo State Park does have some nice beaches that are worth exploring.
Cove Beach is one of the best beaches in the area, with a beautiful expanse of white sand backed by cliffs. If you have a board and are brave enough to get in the waters, you’ll find some great surf!
Grab Some Snacks at Pie Ranch
Make a quick stop at Pie Ranch, a cute little farm shop, to pick up some fresh produce to fuel your trip. Find all sorts of foodies, like hot sauces and jams, fresh strawberries, and baked goods. We have heard that the fruit pies are so good, but they sell out fast, so we didn’t get to nab one!
The whole farm is not-for-profit, dedicated to food education for urban youth, and runs some cool events like farm tours and potluck dinners throughout the year.
Tips for Visiting
- Spots on the ranger-led elephant seal trips book up very quickly, so if you want to visit, ensure you book at least a few weeks in advance to secure your spot.
- Although December to March are the best times to visit the park, if you are interested in elephant seal viewing, this is also the time of year when the weather is at its worst, so you have to decide your priorities. January and February are the very best months, as you should be able to see both the adults and the seal pups.
- Even in the summer, the weather will not necessarily be great, so pack layers and prepare for all sorts of weather, be it bright sunshine or torrential rain. Umbrellas are not allowed, even if it is torrential, so make sure you have good waterproofs.
Nearby Año Nuevo State Park
Visit Gazos Creek State Beach
Just north of the state park, you will find Gazos Creek State Beach. The beach offers a great opportunity to escape the crowds and enjoy a huge, white, expansive stretch of beach.
Although the beach is beautiful, it may not always be ideal for sunbathing, as it can get very, very windy! For this reason, it is a popular beach for many wind and water-based sports, such as kiteboarding and windsurfing.
It is a rough beach with unpredictable waves, so always approach the water with caution and be aware of riptides.
It is also very popular with bird watchers. Gazo Creek flows into the ocean here, creating a large pool behind the beach, which seems to be a big hit with bird life.
The views on this beach are beautiful. If you look to the right, you can see Pigeon Point Light Station, and to the left is Franklin Point. It is a great spot to watch the sun sink beneath the ocean, surrounded by lush nature, looking out to sea, gray whales and elephant seals are common sightings.
Bring some water, a packed lunch, and a blanket, and enjoy a day sitting on the beach, taking a sandy stroll, and drinking up the beauty of this coastal gem.
Discover History at Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park
If you are a lighthouse lover, add this one to your list! Pigeon Point Light Station is seriously tall at 115 feet. It is one of the tallest lighthouses in America. It is also still fully operational.
Although it does not use its original Fresnel lens, you can see this at the small museum at the lighthouse’s base. You can take a half-hour guided history walk around the lighthouse grounds if the staff can take you.
Although the lighthouse is the main draw here, the views are out of this world from the clifftops, especially if you can find the small viewpoint to the right of the lighthouse, with a bench so you can sit and enjoy it for longer.
One of the best ways to learn more about the lighthouse is to take one of the walking trails that meander around the cliffs and the base of the lighthouse and read some of the interpretive signs along the route.
From the clifftops, you can descend a steep path to Whaler Cove Beach or drive down Pigeon Point Road for more views and access to Pistachio Beach.
We hope this helped you plan your visit to Año Nuevo State Park!
I embark on expeditions around the world but can’t get enough of California or the PNW. I’m a VW nerd with a Bug and a Bus. You can probably find me surfing or snowboarding somewhere.