Año Nuevo State Park
Año Nuevo Trail
3 miles round trip
One of the best new year’s resolutions a walker could make is to plan a winter trip to Año Nuevo State Reserve. Here you’ll be treated to a wildlife drama that attracts visitors from all over the world—a close-up look at the largest mainland population of elephant seals.
From December through April, a colony of the huge creatures visits Año Nuevo island and point in order to breed and bear young. To protect the elephant seals (and the humans who hike out to see them), the reserve is open only through naturalist-guided tours during these months.
Slaughtered for their oil-rich blubber, the elephant seal population numbered fewer than 100 by the early 1900s. Placed under government protection, the huge mammals rebounded rapidly from the brink of extinction. Año Nuevo State Reserve was created in 1958 to protect the seals.
Male elephant seals, some reaching lengths of 16 feet and weighing three tons, arrive in December and begin battling for dominance. Only a very small percentage of males actually get to inseminate a female; most remain lifelong bachelors. The females, relatively svelte at 1,200 to 2,000 pounds, come ashore in January and join the harems of the dominant males.
La Punta de Año Nuevo (The Point of the New Year) was named by the Spanish explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno on January 3, 1603. It’s one of the oldest place-names in California.
At the time of its discovery, the Point was occupied by the Ohlone, who lived off the bounty of sea. Judging from kitchen midden sites—shell mounds—found in the nearby dunes, it was a rich bounty indeed.
The Año Nuevo area later hosted a variety of enterprises. From the 1850s to 1920, redwood cut from the slopes of the nearby Santa Cruz Mountains was shipped from Año Nuevo Bay. A dairy industry ﬂourished on the coastal bluffs. The reserve’s visitor center is a restored century-old dairy barn.
While the elephant seals are clearly the main attraction when they come ashore during the winter to breed and during the spring and summer to molt, the reserve is even fascinating when the big creatures are not in residence; in fact, Año Nuevo is a year-round destination.
Bird-watchers may glimpse a cliff swallow, Western gull, red-tailed hawk and many other inland and shore birds. The beautiful sand dunes of the Reserve are covered with beach grass, morning glory and extensive patches of beach strawberry.
Joining the elephant seals on Año Nuevo Island are Steller sea lions, California sea lions and harbor seals. Seals inhabit Año Nuevo year-round.
Viewing is great in the spring and summer months—on the beaches. Autumn brings one- to three-year-old “yearling” seals ashore to rest on the beaches.
Reservations/information: Año Nuevo Point, where the elephant seals reside, is open only to visitors on guided walks, conducted by state park volunteer naturalists, from December through March.
Guided walks are conducted daily and consist of a 2.5-hour, three mile long walk. Advance reservations for the guided walks are strongly recommended. Reservations can be made through the state park system’s reservation contractor.
From April through November, acccess to the Año Nuevo Point Wildlife Protection Area is by permit only. Permits are issued free of charge daily at the reserve, on a ﬁrst-come–ﬁrst-served basis.
Directions to trailhead: Año Nuevo State Reserve is located just west of Highway 1, 22 miles north of Santa Cruz and 30 miles south of Half Moon Bay.
© 2012 The Trailmaster, Inc.
From John McKinney’s
Day Hiker’s Guide to California’s State Parks
Trail descriptions and maps have been reproduced with the permission of the author. To learn more about The Trailmaster and other related publications please visit their website at www.thetrailmaster.com.