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Piedras Blancas Rookery

The most easily accessible place to see northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris) up close is here at the southern end of Big Sur, on the beaches just south of the Piedras Blancas light station. These mammoth animals—the adult males, the fighters, can weigh over two tons—spend most of their lives at sea, coming ashore only to molt, give birth, and mate. Northern elephant seals were hunted almost to extinction in the late 19th century, but after receiving protection from first the Mexican and then the U.S. government, they began to recover and expand their range. They now breed and give birth at 15 colonies, called rookeries, on islands and beaches from Baja California to British Columbia. The first elephant seals began arriving at Piedras Blancas in 1990; now some 15,000 animals come ashore here.

The rookery vista point, which has viewing platforms and a boardwalk, is west of Highway One four miles north of the entrance to Hearst Castle. Volunteer docents from the nonprofit group Friends of the Elephant Seal are present almost every day, six hours a day, to provide explanations; when they are not, look for the interpretive panels. Sometimes the seals loll about right next to the highway. They look peaceful, but do not come too close: they are powerful animals, can move suddenly, and have bitten some people who failed to keep a respectful distance.

Friends of the Elephant Seal operates a small visitor center and gift shop in San Simeon at Plaza Del Cavalier, 250 San Simeon Avenue, Suite 3B. 

Trail/Pathway Details


Trailhead: South end of viewing area

Length: Less than .5 mile

Typical Width: 4 ft. & above

Typical Grade: Level

Terrain: Firm

The viewing area before the southern boardwalk can be sandy and uneven in places.


At the south end of the large viewing area is a boardwalk that hugs the bluff for several hundred feet. It is below Highway One, not far above sea level, and provides close-up views of the mammoth animals on the beach below. The 42-inch-high railings may obstruct views from a wheelchair.

A new boardwalk at the north end opened in early December 2010.

Accessibility Details

The facilities listed below meet all of our access criteria unless otherwise noted.

Visitor Center: Accessible

Accessible Parking: Yes

The pullout for the rookery is off Highway One four miles north of Hearst Castle; accessible spots are at the south end of the lot. On holiday weekends and when the weather is nice, the lot can be very crowded.
Adult males battling
Adult males battling (Dan Hill)

Features icon key

  • particularly good for families
  • wildlife viewing

Additional Information

View Map  
Managing Agency: Friends of the Elephant Seal
Phone: (805) 924-1628
Hours: Always open
Visitor center: Tues.-Thurs. and Sat., 9 am-4:30 pm
Dogs: On leash
Dogs should be kept on leash and well away from the elephant seals.

Did You Know?

Although there are some elephant seals onshore year-round, the biggest number are present during the birthing and breeding season, November to March.

Reviewed by Ann Sieck, July 14, 2009
Access Norhtern California This web guide is a project of Access Northern California.  
California Coastal Conservancy Thanks to our partner the California Coastal Conservancy

DISCLAIMER: Although the information contained in this web-guide was believed to be correct at the time of publication, neither Access Northern California nor California Coastal Conservancy shall be held responsible or liable for any inaccuracies, errors, or omissions, nor for information that changes or becomes outdated. Neither Access Northern California nor California Coastal Conservancy assume any liability for any injury or damage arising out of, or in connection with, any use of this guide or the sites described in it.

Accessible Restrooms Icon looks like a women and men restroom signBeach Accessible
Wheelchairs Available
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