Southern California Whale Watching


Beasts of the Deep

They’re big, beautiful, and masters at making epic journeys. The gray whales are currently in migratory action, and the winter months are prime times to spot them off the California coast. Here are three great ways to seize the opportunity without boarding a boat.

Carpinteria Bluffs

Thar They Blow

Some places just have all the right bluff for whale watching. Grab a blanket, a thermos, and some binoculars—you’ll want to stay awhile at the Carpinteria Bluffs Nature Preserve. This 52-acre parcel just east of Santa Barbara brings unobstructed views of the ocean and coast: east, west, and south. An easy .5-mile stroll takes you to the edge of the bluffs—and big vistas. From the parking area, head west on a maintained path as the Santa Barbara Channel and Channel Islands National Park loom on the horizon. Turn right, walking along a eucalyptus grove. Cross over the railroad tracks and continue on the trail to the bluffs. Scan the waters for plumes of ocean mist, track the liquid footprints that follow, and watch for a tall fluke as a gray deep dives. Bluffing good show!

BONUS: Don’t miss the harbor seal rookery just east of the Venoco Pier, which extends off the bluffs. Barking California sea lions lounge on the white mooring, and the coastal bottlenose dolphins can be spotted daily cruising up and down the coast.

This is an easy 1-mile round-trip walk to the edge of the bluffs. The parking area is at the south end of Bailard Ave. right off exit 85 on Hwy. 101. (map). Head west on a maintained path. Turn right on Carpinteria Bluffs Trail and walk along a eucalyptus grove. Cross over the railroad tracks and continue on the trail to the bluffs. Dog-friendly. 

Point Dume


Gray whales undertake a very long journey from the coast of Alaska to their winter homes off the Baja Peninsula, but you’ll only have to walk two-thirds of a mile (round-trip) through Point Dume Natural Preserve to zero in on these beauties.  As the southernmost point in Malibu, Point Dume juts into the Pacific at the top of Santa Monica Bay. At its tip sits a platform offering expansive views of the migratory waters 100 feet below. Said to be one of the few dry-land viewing sites close enough for you to count the gray’s barnacles, this is a classic perch for a close encounter. Just above the observation deck a short trail leads to expanded views up the coast and inland toward the Santa Monica Mountains. Keep an eye out for blowhole theatrics: this is eye-max viewing.

BONUS: A path east of Point Dume descends to Dume Cove, where whimbrels scurry along the shoreline and tide pools teem with additional sea creatures. Picnic here or take a 1.75-mile stroll along the sand to Paradise Cove Beach Café for on-the-beach mai tais and fish tacos.

There is limited free two-hour parking (between sunrise and sunset) for Point Dume Natural Preserve and State Beach on Cliffside Dr. near the intersection of Birdview Ave. in Malibu (map). Additional street parking is a couple of blocks away. Those wanting to tide-pool should check tide charts for low tide at Dume Cove. Paradise Cove Beach Café (28128 Pacific Coast Hwy.) is located alongside a pier that is impossible to miss as you walk down the beach. Bring this park brochure and trail map. No dogs.

Nelsons Terranea

Spout It Out

The Palos Verdes Peninsula is one of the very best places for spying gray whales, and there’s an easy way to double your viewing pleasure: combine a bluffside ramble with a lunch overlooking the dramatic coastline. It all happens via a 2-mile (round-trip) stroll on the Palos Verdes Peninsula: the Bluff Top Trail runs right up to Nelson's, a Pacific-hugging bistro (and part of the Spanish-style Terranea Resort). The trail starts from a parking lot on Palos Verdes Drive South, just north of the resort. Hike through coastal sage and prickly pear cactus along the bluff, taking in unobstructed views that include a spectacular vantage of Point Vicente Lighthouse. Scan the sea for signs of grays: flukes, sudden ocean sprays, a really excited tourist jumping up and down and pointing….After half a mile, the path reaches Nelson's, where the outdoor patio is perfectly perched above the water and features a firepit and an official whale bell to announce sightings. The protocol: ring once if you spot a whale and three times if you spy a spout! (Two rings signals a dolphin sighting.) Pair a seasonal microbrew with signature fish and chips, then kick back and—wait! that a blowhole? Fluke, fluke!

The parking area for Bluff Top Trail is located at 6610 Palos Verdes Dr. South. Take I-405 to Manhattan Beach and exit at Rosecrans Ave. Drive 1.5 miles west on Rosecrans to Sepulveda Blvd./Pacific Coast Hwy. Turn left and continue 5.9 miles south to Palos Verdes Blvd. Turn right and drive 7 miles to the trailhead (veering right when Palos Verdes Blvd.intersects with Palos Verdes Dr. West). Begin down Bluff Top Trail from the south end of the lot. Hug the cliff's edge for .5 mile before reaching Nelson’s. The Bluff Top Trail and Nelson's are dog-friendly!

Not Your Ordinary Ride

It’s a California bucket-lister: embarking on one of the most beautiful bike rides in the Golden State with a bunch of really cool people. AIDS/LifeCycle 2013 is no ordinary ride. It’s a seven-day journey that’ll go by faster than you can imagine, and give you memories that’ll last a lifetime. Not only will you be outdoors seeing California’s unparalleled beauty from forest to sea (and taking some bragging-rights photos!), you’ll be eating delicious food, getting free massages, swapping cycling stories with your newfound friends at the end of each day, and—the cherry on top—helping to support vital services like HIV treatment and prevention. AIDS/LifeCycle is June 2–8, so there’s still plenty of time to get ready with training rides and expert advice. Weekend Sherpa readers who sign up get $20 off using promo code SHERPA. Saddle up before space fills up!

TIP: This ride's for everyone. Check out this video to see what it's all about and join a (complimentary) training ride. Weekend Sherpa readers who sign up for AIDS/LifeCycle 2013 get $20 off with promo code SHERPA.

AIDS/LifeCycle helps the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation provide vital HIV prevention, treatment, and support services. 

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