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Up The Road: North Coast Tour: Watching The Pacific Gray Whale

John Andrew Rice
Flickr Creative Commons



When visiting the ocean in winter, one particular fellow traveler pops to mind—the Western or Pacific gray whale, also known as the California gray whale. A close-up view of California’s official mammal is life-changing.


Dark, barnacled heads shoot up from the deeps to breathe, blasting saltwater from blowholes with the force of a firehose. That spouting is how you’ll first spot them, all along the California coast. Not so close, but close enough.


Once endangered by whaling, as so many whale species still are, the Pacific grays have fully recovered. Not only are they one of the largest mammals on earth, they are among the oldest, having been around for at least 30 million years.



Credit NOAA / Flickr Creative Commons
Flickr Creative Commons
Pacific gray whale cow and calf.

Pacific gray whales feed almost nonstop from April to October in the Arctic seas between Alaska and Siberia. Fat and sassy with an extra 6 to 12 inches of blubber onboard, early in October they start south on their 6,000-mile journey to the warmer waters of Baja—pregnant females first, traveling alone or in small groups. Larger groups of older males and nonpregnant females follow, courting and mating all the way.

Males, newly pregnant females, and young whales go first on the trip north. Cows and calves leave last, late February through April, typically traveling quite close to shore, for the protection of youngsters, which makes them easy to see from land.


Generally speaking, the farther north along the coast you go, the fewer crowds you’ll find—meaning, Mendocino, Humboldt, and Del Norte Counties are close to perfect for whale-watching introverts.


Make sure it’s a clear, crisp day, grab the binoculars, and get going very early. Head for higher ground, and a point of land reaching into the ocean, where whales will pass closest. Just outside Mendocino proper, wander several open miles of trails along the sandstone cliffs of Mendocino Headlands State Park. Or take the Whale Trail at Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens. Other coastal parks, such as Jug Handle State Natural Reserve and Gualala Point Regional Park to the south on the Sonoma County border, are also good bets.



The South Fort Bragg Coastal Trail on the town’s headlands offers panoramic clifftop views, and there’s a viewing deck at the Crow’s Nest Interpretive Center—a current outpost of the future Noyo Center for Marine Science, part of redevelopment plans for the former mill site. At MacKerricher State Park north of town, there’s a wheelchair-accessible viewing platform at Laguna Point.


Good viewing sites at Patrick’s Point State Park in Humboldt County include Wedding Rock and Palmer’s Point, and much of the Rim Trail. For unimpeded western views in nearby Trinidad, take the trail up to Trinidad Head from the beach. Or hike to high points along the Lost Coast, including Sinkyone Wilderness State Park. Ideal and fairly accessible just south of Humboldt Bay is Table Bluff County Beach Park in Loleta, overlooking the Eel River delta and Humboldt Bay’s south spit. 



Up the Road Encourages Responsible, Safe Travel





Here are previous Up the Road episodes that explore why we should travel, how to do it responsibly, and how to travel responsibly now, in the shadow of COVID-19. Not everyone should be traveling now, of course. But everyone who does travel needs to do so responsibly, to prevent viral spread. Take a listen:


Kim Weir, a former NSPR news reporter, is editor and founder of Up the Road, a nonprofit public-interest journalism project dedicated to sustaining the Northern California story. She is also an active member of the Society of American Travel Writers. North State Public Radio’s Up the Road program is jointly produced by Up the Road.
Matt Fidler is a producer and sound designer with over 15 years’ experience producing nationally distributed public radio programs. He has worked for shows such as Freakonomics Radio, Selected Shorts, Studio 360, The New Yorker Radio Hour and The Takeaway. In 2017, Matt launched the language podcast Very Bad Words, hitting the #28 spot in the iTunes podcast charts.