5 spots for winter whale watching

Mid-December through January marks the height of gray whale season

Kimberly Gomes

With shorter days and colder temperatures, winter has a way of trimming down hiking crowds. While land activity may be scarce, the ocean is anything but. More than 25,000 baleen whales migrate south from the Bering Sea to Baja California. To increase your chances of spotting these 40-ton creatures, explore the following trails and viewpoints.


Gray Whale Cove, Montara

This 2.26-mile out-and-back trail treats trekkers to an 180-degree ocean view. Located within McKnee Ranch State Park, visitors can tack on up to 7.6-miles of hiking via the North Peak Access Road. Those looking for a gentle stroll can stay on Gray Whale Cove Trail and enjoy its sweeping ocean views often filled with whales surfacing on the horizon. Relax on the cliffside benches and be sure to check out Montara Beach before departing.


Monterey Canyon, Monterey

Deemed the Grand Canyon of the ocean, this underwater ridge becomes a feeding haven for gray whales during migration months. Catch a glimpse of the action from the Monterey Aquarium lookout, or more reliably on a boat tour–most of which depart from Moss Landing. Monterey Aquarium, 886 Cannery Row; $39.49 montereybayaquarium.orgSanctuary Cruises, 7881 Sandholdt Rd, Moss Landing; $55; sanctuarycruises.com.


Torrey Pines Reserve, San Diego

Home to 1,750-acres of wildlife, Torrey Pines Reserve harbors an easy loop ideal for gray whale watching. Guy Fleming Trail is just 0.7 miles and comes with two overlooks stretching as far as the Catalina Islands. 12600 N Torrey Pines Rd, La Jolla; $10 vehicle fee; torreypine.org.


Cape Lookout, Tillamook

Strap on your hiking shoes and explore Oregon’s stunning coastline. This 5-mile out-and-back trail comes with a minor grade and gorgeous views of the Pacific. Known as one of the best gray whale-watching spots in the state, Cape Lookout makes a fun day trip for the whole family. 13000 Whiskey Creek Rd, Tillamook; $5 vehicle fee; oregonstateparks.org.


Boiler Bay and Depoe Bay, Oregon 

Less of a hike and more of a lookout, Boiler Bay’s rugged seashore is known as prime territory for year-round gray whale-watching. Looking for more? Head two miles south to Depoe Bay. Home to the Whale Watching Center, tourists can receive expert insight on when and where to spot the latest stretch of sea-roaming creatures. 126 N Coast Hwy, Depoe Bay; oregonstateparks.org


Tips for whale watching: For ideal viewing, find an ocean view in morning light with the sun at your back. Locate whale spouts on the horizon line and use binoculars to narrow in for a closer view.