by L. Clark Tate
Charming and picturesque (almost) beyond belief, Año Nuevo State Park enjoys an embarrassment of cultural and natural riches. A quick 21 miles up Highway 1 north of Santa Cruz, the area feels remote but is steeped in human history. Native American, Spanish, Mexican, and early Anglo-American settlers all claimed Año Nuevo as their home. Midden piles, or mounds of consumed shells, left by the Ohlone people are found among the dunes, and 19th-century coastal dairy buildings serve as park facilities. Castle-like ruins that housed the old lighthouse keepers and their families jut squarely from dewy Año Nuevo Island, best viewed backlit at sunset.
While its human history is fascinating, the park’s exalted status among serious natural history buffs is founded on the marine life that congregates here. Even the lighthouse keepers had to fence out all the seals. One of only three mainland locations where northern elephant seals molt and mate, Año Nuevo is a word-class wildlife-watching destination. Reduced to 50-100 individuals by the late 1800s—in 1892 they were presumed extinct except for a tiny colony of 9 seals, 7 of which were killed for the Smithsonian's museum collection—the elephant seal population has rebounded to approximately 160,000. Around 2,000 of them congregate at Año Nuevo every year. READ MORE ABOUT ANO NUEVO
A DANDY PLACE FOR pretty much everyone, especially families and natural history lovers. Beachcombers, hikers, picnickers, birdwatchers and very, very brave surfers also welcome.
DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT camping, having fires, riding horses or bringing other pets into the state park, not even the parking lot. No collecting shells, rocks, wood, plants, or animals. Seriously, folks, leave the baby seal where it lies.
CHANNEL YOUR MOM AND hit the bright and clean parking lot bathroom before heading to the visitor center. The lovely turquoise tile is a treat and the next bathroom is, literally, a hike away. Also remember to bring cozy layers to cope with gusty winds and variable temperatures.
(From Santa Cruz) Follow Highway 1 north for 21 miles, passing Davenport, Scott Creek and Waddell Creek Beach. The park entrance is on the left.
(From Half Moon Bay) Follow Highway 1 south for 30 miles. The park entrance is on the right.
Año Nuevo Point Trail
3 miles in-and-out; 1 hour plus viewing time; easy; access limited Dec. 1–Mar. 31
This wide, flat, pleasant trail leads from the parking area to Point Año Nuevo through marine chaparral, a wetlands and sand dunes.
Whitehouse Ridge Trail
2.4 miles in-and-out; 2 hours; strenuous; 800 ft elevation gain
A short but tough hike uphill through redwoods that rewards the intrepid with tall views of Point Año Nuevo and the sweep of the Pacific Ocean.
New Years Creek Rd, Pescadero. 650.879.2025. Learn more at the official Año Nuevo State Park website.