San Francisco Bay's largest natural island once sheltered the Coast Miwok, then Spanish explorers. From 1910 to 1940, it served as the "Ellis Island of the West," processing POWs, troops and immigrants. Accessible by ferry or private boat, it's now a bike-friendly park with great trails and superb city vistas.
From mid-December to April, around 10,000 elephant seals breed and give birth among the dunes and beaches at one of the world's largest mainland breeding colonies. A 19th-century dairy ranch houses exhibitions.
The Big Sur coast teems with beauty from fog-loving redwoods to the rugged sea cliffs. Watch for otters playing in the offshore kelp beds and female gray whales migrating north with their calves in early spring.
A 2,571-foot peak soars just north of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Hike its meadows, redwood groves, and chaparral-covered ridges. Spring is especially dramatic here, thanks to the lupines, irises, goldfields, shooting stars, and California poppies.
Shore birds swirl around this iconic sea stack in Santa Cruz — not to mention seals, otters, and migrating whales. The shore beckons with its bright tide pools, but don't miss the subtler beauty of the wetlands along Moore Creek.
Kick up some sand at California's only park to permit regular cars to drive on the beach! From November to February, this preserve shelters the country's largest colony of over-wintering monarch butterflies, a truly remarkable sight.
Often called "the crown jewel of the state park system," this reserve stands between Carmel Bay and the Pacific. It once sheltered whalers and abalone divers, but now attracts picnickers, hikers, and scuba divers. Watch for seals, otters, and sea lions—plus migrating gray whales (December to May).
Set on the wild, rocky "Lost Coast," this serene area protects rolling surf, craggy cliffs, and coast redwoods. Fog often plays peekaboo with the park in the morning. Keep an eye out for bears, mountain lions and Roosevelt elk.
San Diego wisely set aside these stunning 2,000 acres, one of southern California's wildest stretches. Wander along its lagoon, miles of unspoiled beaches, and corrugated headlands covered with maritime chaparral.