If you want to see whales, head to the tip of Point Reyes National Seashore from December through February. According to whale experts, an astounding 94 percent of migrating Pacific gray whales pass within one mile of this protected peninsula some 27 miles north of San Francisco.
January is the most whale-happy month, when more than 1,000 of the massive mammals can pass this point each day. Access to the tip of Point Reyes is controlled during peak season (December through March), with bus shuttles running between parking lots and prime viewing areas. Other watch-from-shore hot spots include the headlands in Montara and Half Moon Bay (both less than 45 minutes’ drive south of San Francisco). Or just head out to any high spot along the coast that juts into the Pacific. Calm days without whitecaps are best—that’s when it’s easiest to spot the whales’ telltale spouts.
Gray whale cruises (typically offered December through May) head out from San Francisco’s Pier 39, as well as Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz. The Oceanic Society offers full- and half-day trips led by expert naturalists for a chance to see not only whales but dolphins, porpoises, seals and other marine life. To see even more species, consider taking an unforgettable guided tour of the remote, wildlife-rich Farallon Islands, a tiny chain of jagged rock outcrops 27 miles off San Francisco. Waters here teem with life; 26 endangered or threatened species—including whales, birds, and marine life—live or visit the islands and surrounding waters. Blue and humpback whales regularly feed in the region summer through fall; whale watching cruises typically leave San Francisco at 8 a.m. and return by mid-afternoon.