elephantsealLiving in the Central Sierras of California has plenty of benefits. One is being able to experience all of the seasons. Unlike many of my friends who live in the bay area or near the beach, winter here is a time when the mountains are covered with snow and most weekends are spent either building snowmen, sledding, skiing or snowboarding. There are days that I feel like I am transported to Switzerland or Canada playing in a winter wonderland that couldn’t possibly be California. There are lots of people who I have talked with that had no idea that it actually gets very cold in California. And in the Sierras it gets genuinely frigid, winter temperatures can drop down well below freezing! After a couple of months it’s no wonder that every once in awhile my family likes to get away from the cold and head to the coast, where in the evening the temperatures can be as warm as 65º. Now this isn’t “Let’s jump in the ocean” weather for most of us, but it can be “Let’s stroll the boardwalk” or “Play in the sand” weather. With that said many of us, me being one, can easily forget that even though the temperatures have dropped the sun is still shining and with the sun shining comes those harmful UV rays. But not this time! We were prepared.  My family and I went to the coast, we decided to take the scenic Pacific Coast Highway down to Pacifica, California. This is a beautiful drive with plenty of sightseeing stops on the way such as Pacifica’s Beachfront Taco Bell (the best taco bell location on earth, in my opinion),

pacific coast taco bellPacifica’s Beach Front Taco Bell

Mavericks,  a famous California surfing spot known for it’s winter waves that can routinely crest at over 25 feet and top out at over 80 feet, take a detour drive on the beautiful and scenic Skyline Blvd. (Hwy 35, between 92 and 84), stop at the artist community of Half Moon Bay, hike into Año Nuevo State Park or descend into Tunitas Creek Beach a beautiful but difficult beach to get to but probably the most secluded in the area. All of these places can be in and of themselves a full days worth of exploring (minus Taco Bell)!

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Capturing the beauty of the Pacific Coast Highway

We decided that on this particular adventure we would stop at the breathtaking elephant seal sanctuary of Año Nuevo State Park. The park’s Natural Preserve offers an extraordinary wilderness experience, where every year up to 10,000 elephant seals return to breed or give birth among the picturesque dunes and beaches. The physical terrain of Año Nuevo is distinguishing, with coastal terrace prairie, wetland marshes and dune fields, hosting a high diversity of plants and animals. There are tours available, but we prepared ourselves with plenty of reading in our guide book to self guide. Throwing on our UV Skinz Pullover Hoodies for a first line of defense against UV rays, sunglasses, mineral quick dry SPF 40 body spray by MD Solar Science as well as our walking shoes, we started the nearly 4 mile hike out along ocean bluffs to Año Nuevo Point, a major bird migratory route and fantastic birding location. Located just offshore sits Año Nuevo Island and the remains of a 19th century lighthouse and fog signal station. Built in 1872, the historic keeper’s house now provides a new home to birds such as Brandt’s and Pelagic Cormorants as well as California Sea Lions.

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Male elephant seal with Año Nuevo Island in the background (photo by Sarah Peterson)

We could see sea otters and harbor seals in the waters and brilliant Steller Sea Lions taking up residence on the outlaying rocks. All of it was a spectacular learning experience. Then there were the elephant seals! The sheer mass of these creatures (6,600 lbs.) up close and personal, are much larger than we could imagine. Being there really gave all of us a very real perspective of their immense size (16 ft. long on average!). After the shock and awe, we also explored the tide pools being careful not to disturb the delicate life that grows in the shallows of the Pacific Ocean. Crabs, sea anemones, starfish, mussels, and algae are all regular residents to the pools here and if you’re really lucky you might catch a glimpse at an octopus.

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Exploring the tide pools of the Central Coast of California

At the end of the day we made the three hour trip back to our home in the mountains. We had a wonderful escape from the chill of the winter mountain air as well as a look into the wildlife and beautiful scenery that stretches part of the Northern California coast. Thanks to our UV Skinz hoodies, sunscreen, sunglasses and good walking shoes we all enjoyed a great day without a sunburn or a blister to speak of  :).