Bust Out the Binoculars for This Wildlife-Fueled California Adventure

I spy a jaw-dropping view.

Mountain lions and seals get all the attention in California. But a smaller, more colorful animal exists all over the Golden State that more and more tourists are trying to catch glimpses of. Like Pokemon Go, trying to spot the varieties of this wildlife amid California’s 16 distinct climate zones and more than 800 miles of coastline has pretty much become a sport. Yes, we’re talking about bird watching—or “birding” for the initiated.

Birding may have become a trend early on in the pandemic, and those who busted out the binoculars understand why. It’s like a treasure hunt of beautiful, fascinating creatures, all while getting to see the glorious wonders of Mother Nature in the backdrop—in other words, all the perks of being outside with an added purpose and simply satisfying reward. Lucky for us, the roughly 600 avian species of California have been showing off their shimmering feathers and swooping dives for centuries without a care about their popularity ranking.

Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and Monterey in particular have a trifecta of birdlife, gorgeous landscapes, and road-trip-ability (yep, new word). Visitors can explore arid scrubland, rolling dunes, and towering redwood forests, all while scavenging for these flying Easter eggs.

As the summer heat begins to ebb and outdoor adventure becomes much more palatable, be sure to prepare your eBird account and check out this road trip route for some of the finest birding to be found across the Lower 48.

harbor at sunset
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Santa Barbara

Whether you make the two-hour drive from Los Angeles or catch a flight into SBA, Santa Barbara serves as the perfect base for beginning your California birding journey. This seaside city is home to a spectacular food, drink, and hospitality scene, with El Encanto serving as one of its finest accommodations. Though it’s definitely a splurge situation, guests will be rewarded with ample bird sightings all across the property, with no shortage of hummingbirds and other pollinators darting through the hotel’s perfectly-manicured flower gardens.

For a more budget-friendly alternative, the Inn At East Beach is located steps away from the coast, offering plenty of opportunity for early morning birding when the animals are most active.

fisherman on the pier with pelican

To kick off the festivities, be sure to head into the nearby city of Goleta to find one of Santa Barbara County’s newest success stories: North Campus Open Space. This sprawling slice of UC Santa Barbara was once home to a golf course, but lengthy environmental restoration efforts have turned this once-sterile expanse into more than 100 acres of native wetland habitat, serving as a haven for indigenous wildlife. Upon arrival, visitors are welcome to trek along the lengthy Marsh Trail, with the crimson-crowned Anna's hummingbird, pint-sized downy woodpecker, and North America’s smallest raptor—the American kestrel—serving as just a few of the potential species to be found.

For those who prefer to stick closer to the city center, it’s tough to find a better birding destination than Andrée Clark Bird Refuge. Though small in stature, this tranquil lake is loaded with a surprisingly diverse array of avian species, counting colorful water birds like the tufted eared grebe, the black and white-streaked bufflehead, and even the black skimmer—a pterodactyl-like seabird that’s known for its serious underbite—as some of the potential encounters during a morning visit. And as an added bonus, the Santa Barbara Zoo is just a few minutes away in case your birding excursion wasn’t particularly successful, providing guaranteed sightings of Rhinoceros hornbills, toco toucans, and tawny frogmouths.

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Santa Maria Valley

Once you’ve had your fill of Santa Barbara proper, it’s time to cruise up to one of the county’s most underrated regions for wildlife spotting. After a brief pitstop in the Danish-themed town of Solvang, head up the 101 to find Orcutt, a tranquil town located in the heart of Santa Maria Valley. Using the charming Wine Stone Inn as a base, visitors can hop onto the Santa Maria Wine Trolley to get a feel for the valley’s booming wine scene—but don’t go overboard, as there’s a lot of birding to be done once morning comes.

Once the sun peeks over the horizon, travelers can get their birdwatching on just a few miles east at Los Flores Ranch Park. Measuring in at more than 1,700 acres, this sprawling property is a top spot for encountering the valley’s native wildlife across more than 15 miles of hiking trails. Once you’ve parked, the East La Cuesta Trail, Manzanita Trail, and Acorn Trail are just a few of the paths available. Each one offers the potential to see classic Golden State species like the California quail—a rotund ground dweller with a white streaks and a dramatic plume—and the scrub-jay, a dazzling blue bird that’s found only on the western coast of North America.

wooden beach boardwalk through sand dunes

While the ranch is a top destination for spotting inland passerines (or perching birds) and raptors ranging from black vultures to golden eagles, nearby Oso Flaco Lake is a treasure trove for spotting shorebirds and waterfowl. Located just past the Santa Barbara County border, this water feature makes up a small portion of the pristine Guadalupe Nipomo Dunes Complex and comes equipped with lengthy boardwalks and interpretive signs to help identify native birds.

During a visit, swooping barn swallows, male ruddy ducks with blue bills on full display, and large swathes of flocking sanderlings are near-guarantees. And lucky visitors may be able to catch a glimpse of two federally-protected species that call the region home—the western snowy plover and California least tern, to be precise."

Rocky shoreline
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California Discovery Route

For those hoping to pair their avifauna with a side of spectacular seaside vistas, the Discovery Route is the perfect path. This scenic stretch of Highway 1 near San Luis Obispo runs about one hundred miles along the California coast, offering visitors some of the finest seal, butterfly, and bird watching opportunities found in the entire state.

Before heading to your hotel, be sure to save some space in the itinerary to visit the Discovery Route’s biodiversity hotspot: Morro Bay. This protected estuary has served as a winter haven for migrating birds for millennia, though there’s no shortage of resident species to find no matter the season.

Morro bay rock and beach in the sunset evening
Min C. Chiu/Shutterstock

For winter visitors, black brant geese and long-billed curlews are two particularly interesting migratory species to observe thanks to their lengthy journeys—the first arriving from the northernmost reaches of the Arctic and the second visiting from the interior of the North America. On the other hand, black-crowned night herons and belted kingfishers are just a few of the many birds that call Morro Bay home throughout the entire year.

Just a few minutes north of the bay, the small village of Cambria is equipped with a wealth of picturesque accommodations, with Oceanpoint Ranch perfectly positioned for early morning birding. Located steps away from Leffingwell Landing Park, guests can kick off the morning with a sunrise search for seabirds, then head south to the 437-acre Fiscalini Ranch Preserve to spot birds, rabbits, and even the occasional sea otter paired with dramatic cliffside views.

California condor flying in Big Sur
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Monterey County

Once you’ve departed Cambria (and made a quick pit stop at San Simeon’s Elephant Seal Vista Point for National Geographic-worthy pinniped seal sightings) it’s time to enter one of the most picturesque regions in the Golden State—if not the entire country. The bulk of Big Sur is located in Monterey County, and this world-famous stretch of coastline is packed with potential for spotting native avian species.

This portion of the Monterey County coast is dominated by two preserves in particular: Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and Andrew Molera State Park, both of which measure in at several thousand acres of protected wilderness. Both parks are home to several hundred bird species, but be sure to keep your eyes towards the skies in hopes of spotting one of the Golden State’s most iconic avian species. Known as the California condor, this colossal vulture hovered at the brink of extinction just decades ago, and now serves as an amazing—though incredibly rare—mega-tick to add to your life list.

bluejay by waterfall
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Beyond the spectacular natural beauty, the northern reaches of the county are home to a wealth of charming towns and cities, with Carmel-By-The-Sea and Monterey serving as two particularly enticing spots to visit. Though nearby Moss Landing is a paradise for shorebirds, visitors don’t need to stray far from downtown Monterey to find ample amounts of wildlife. Once you’ve checked in at the abundantly cozy Vagabond’s House Inn, head into Pebble Beach to take a leisurely cruise along 17-Mile Drive, where visitors can spot massive amounts of shorebirds on the aptly-named Bird Rock, with no shortage of adorable sea otters bobbing through the water nearby.

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Jared Ranahan is a freelance writer focusing on travel, wildlife, and food & beverage.