West of Hwy-1, one of nature’s more bizarre spectacles takes place annually at Año Nuevo State Park (650/879-2025, daily 8am-dusk), where each winter hundreds of humongous northern elephant seals come ashore to give birth and mate. The males reach up to 13 feet head-to-tail, weigh as much as 4,500 pounds, and have dangling proboscises that inspired their name. These blubbery creatures were hunted almost to extinction for their oil-rich flesh. In 1910, fewer than 100 were left in the world; their resurgence to a current population of more than 100,000 has proved that protection does work.
Every December, after spending the summer at sea, hordes of male elephant seals arrive here at Año Nuevo, the seals’ primary onshore rookery, ready to do battle with each other for the right to procreate. It’s an incredible show, with the bulls bellowing, barking, and biting at each other to establish dominance; the alpha male mates with most of the females, and the rest must wait till next year. Pups conceived the previous year are born in January, and mating goes on through March. During the mating season (Dec. 15-Mar. 31), ranger-led tours (800/444-4445, $10) are the only way to see the seals; these tours are popular, so plan ahead and try to come midweek. Tours start at 8:45am, and end at 2pm. The three-mile walk from the parking area to the shore is worth doing at any time of year, since it’s a very pretty scene and some of the seals are residents year-round.
The only lodging option along this stretch of coast is three miles south of the lighthouse, or two miles north of the entrance to Año Nuevo, at Costanoa Lodge (650/879-1100, $80 and up). A stylish retro-modern eco-minded resort, open since 1999 on the inland side of Hwy-1, Costanoa has everything from a luxurious lodge to tent cabins (complete with saunas). There’s also a bar and grill and an adjacent KOA campground (650/879-7302).
South of Año Nuevo State Park, you’ll see signs tempting you to stop at Pie Ranch (650/879-0995), a rustic roadside attraction selling, you guessed it, fresh pies. They also serve as an ad-hoc education center: On the third Saturday of each month they host a farm education program that wraps up with a potluck dinner and barn dance to spread the word to Silicon Valley denizens about good food and old-fashioned ways of life. On most days, visitors can take a self-guided tour of the property. As their T-shirts say, “Pie Ranch. Eat Pie. Repeat.”