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5 Free Wildlife Stops to Include on Your California Road Trip

SN and I have made a California road trip an annual tradition. Well, maybe not so much a road trip as a business trip. Isn't he sweet to let me tag along? Our journey usually takes us from Buellton, CA to Livermore, CA and back again. Over the years, we've stumbled upon a few can't-miss stops. If you're an animal lover like me, you'll want to be sure to add these to your To Do list for your next California vacation. Even better, each of these ideas is budget-friendly. How budget-friendly? You can enjoy the fun ideas on this list for free. Ah, no wonder visiting California always puts me in a great mood.

best california beaches

California Must-See Free Attractions for Animal Lovers

CA Road Trip Stop #1: The Beach

best california beach for seeing snowy plovers

I know what you're thinking. The beach? You're starting your list with the beach?! How lame. I have to include this though because prior to last year, I never considered myself a beach person. The miserable heat and itchy sand and crowds, crowds, crowds, yes, but California beaches can also be cool, pebbly, and secluded. I was missing out! Don't make the same mistake.

best rental cars for a road trip
For this road trip list, SN says to be sure to include a kick-@ss rental car. I think a fuel-efficient car is the most kick-@ss of all. We don't seem to be on the same page. SN had a lot of fun driving this Dodge Challenger on our most recent trip, but the constant gas station stops got old fast, especially when we found ourselves in need of a gas station with none to be found.

Wife - 1. Husband - 0.

(Not that I would keep score...)

hidden waterfall in california
McWay Falls and Waterfall House Ruins at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park - technically there is a $10 entrance fee per vehicle, but all the visitors (us included) just parked outside the gate and walked in for free.

beautiful view in california
View from the Pacific Coastal Highway between Monterey and Big Sur 

There are two beaches we love for seeing wildlife: Montana de Oro State Park in Los Osos, CA and Surf Beach near Vandenberg Air Force Base. Both have ample free parking and are large enough to never feel crowded. The former is littered with beautiful shells and the latter is a nesting habitat for the Western Snowy Plover, which is an utterly adorable bird listed as Threatened on the Endangered Species list.

favorite beach in california
Spooner's Cove at Montana de Oro State Park

Snowy Plovers frolicking near Vandenberg AFB

Aren't these birds so funny to watch?

Of course, any beach in California is a great idea for wildlife lovers. You may spot whales, dolphins, and other sea life, depending on the season. On our most recent visit, SN and I did not see any whales or dolphins, but were surprised to see two police SUVs come flying down the crowded sand. They surrounded a surfer, drew their guns, and hauled him away, all within about 30 seconds. You never know what exciting things you'll see on a California road trip!

splash cafe pismo beach
 Nature watching is extra fun while enjoying a sourdough bread bowl of clam chowder on the pier. This one is from Splash Cafe in Pismo Beach - not exactly free, but plenty big enough to share. Moments after this photo was taken, the police burst onto the scene! Just as quickly, they were gone.

CA Road Trip Stop #2: Hearst Castle

hearst castle photos

Now, if you know anything about Hearst Castle, you know it is certainly not a "free" attraction. SN and I spent a whopping $50 there just to take one tour! Hearst Castle still snagged a spot on my list though because of two things: wild zebras and elephant seals. You can see both without paying a dime.

Also, it is the same Hearst as all the magazines I subscribe to. How had I not realized that before?

hearst castle exterior photos
In its heyday, Hearst Castle was home to the largest private zoo in the world.

hearst castle interior photos
Many animals, including tahr goats, llamas, deer, zebras, and sheep, were permitted to roam freely along the grounds.

weird statues in hearst castle
More than 80 years after Hearst Castle ran into financial difficulty, requiring an end to the zoo, many of the animals are still spotted from time to time, including American bison, Rocky Mountain elk, and zebras.

artwork in hearst castle
The herds of zebra surely surprise many out-of-state drivers. We hadn't heard about them ahead of time and when I saw one, I wanted to call out "Look, a zebra!" but my brain stopped me mid-sentence, like A what?! Imagine if you were driving along and saw a unicorn. It's like that. The zebras are easy to see, grazing as casually along the roadside as the many cows and horses.

beautiful flowers in california
Enjoying these photos? Ta da, I just saved you $25 per person on Hearst Castle admission. You're welcome.

indoor swimming pool hearst castle
BTW, these photos are all from the "Grand Rooms" tour, which is recommended for first-time visitors. We're happy to have seen it once, but don't think it would be worth the cost to do additional tours in the future. Contrary to popular belief, you can also skip the extra expense of reserving a tour online ahead of time, at least if you visit during shoulder-season. When we were there on a weekday in February, none of the tours were even close to selling out. You can also save your valuable vacation time by skipping the movie that is included with your admission, as it didn't cover anything that wasn't already mentioned on the tour.

The biggest highlight of our visit to Hearst Castle was at the nearby shore. Actually, of everything I've ever done in California, this is probably one of my all-time favorites. And that's really saying something, as I lived there for 13 years. I would plan a trip to California specifically for this.

ELEPHANT SEALS! If you're able to visit San Simeon during mating season (November-February), go out of your way to do it. This hadn't been high on my To Do list, as I wasn't sure I'd actually be able to spot any elephant seals, but you can't miss them. SN and I even walked along the shore (well, along a trail close to the shore - actual shore access is restricted because of the aggressive, 5,000-pound elephant seals) for several miles and the line of elephant seals seemed to continue forever.

I also hadn't thought elephant seals were worth going to extra trouble to see. I thought, I've seen sea lions - aren't elephant seals just their ugly cousins? Yes, they're hideous, but in a cute way. Elephant seals are the most hilarious animals on the planet. Watch the videos below with the sound on and you'll understand exactly what I mean.

best place to see elephant seals in ca
Elephant seals as far as the eye can see.

newborn elephant seal
Awww, a little baby seal! He's alive. I promise.

elephant seals near hearst castle
The males are jerks. This fellow would like to come ashore, but there were some larger seals already there and they attacked him whenever he got too close. Luckily, elephant seals are easily distracted, so he just had to be patient, then rush onto the crowded beach when the opportunity arose. 

CA Road Trip Stop #3: Morro Bay

good place to see otters in ca

We were delighted to see so many otters in Morro Bay. Some were even snuggling babies! We also saw sea lions here. The town and surrounding areas had charming shops and affordable food options as well.

morro bay otters
This mama otter waved to us. I kid you not.

While in Morro Bay, I thought it would be fun for us to take a Chablis Cruises Chowder Cruise, which seemed like a screamin' deal on Groupon. Our Chablis Cruise review? Don't do it! Two hours stuck on that boat, slowly puttering along toward nowhere, was a waste of our vacation time.

It also didn't help that we were told by Chablis Cruises that we specifically could not have a table for just the two of us. We were forced to sit with another couple, who seemed about as thrilled about this as we were, and got to enjoy our lunch with a lecture on the side. No, we do not have kids. No, we do not plan to. Yes, I know it's hard to believe, but we have actually put some thought into this. The other couple also seemed a bit miffed to learn what SN does for a living.

The best part? After we were forced to share a table with strangers, there ended up being several empty tables for two! What the heck, Chablis Cruises?

Oh wait. I forgot the *best* best part. Lunch was served buffet-style and the crew controlled the crowd by only allowing a few people to go up at a first. Our table was one of the first permitted to get our food. After that, the line grew longer and longer as more people were instructed to help themselves. It wouldn't have been a problem, except that we were in tight quarters and the line wrapped around our table, placing the huge butts of strangers (they really were huge) right up against me while I tried to enjoy my clam chowder and sandwich.

And there was no dessert. Sigh.

chablis cruise morro bay review
We opted to bid our tablemates good day and carried our food outside. Don't let my smile fool you - we were not enjoying our cruise. It's really more of an exasperated "making the best of a bad situation" smile.

CA Road Trip Stop #4: Monarch Butterfly Grove in Pismo Beach

This is another free attraction that I underestimated when planning our California road trip. We have a "butterfly garden" at our local zoo in Albuquerque, where you enter a large room filled with butterflies, and I expected this to be similar. The Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove is nothing like that though! It's magical to watch so many monarch butterflies congregating in the same place, entirely by choice.

Monarch Butterfly Grove Pismo Beach
Look at them all! Funny enough, we were told during our visit in February that the number of butterflies was much lower than usual.

CA Road Trip Stop #5: San Francisco

You already know San Francisco should be a stop on your trip to California - it's one of the best cities in the world! While there, you can save some money by learning from our experience.

mee mee bakery san francisco
Awesome reason to visit San Francisco: Enormous bags of cheap fortune cookies (in assorted flavors!) from China Town

Also, can you believe I was able to wear shorts in San Francisco in February?! And I was still a little hot.

pier 39 san francisco
Another awesome reason to visit San Francisco: Sea lions at Pier 39

So, what is a surprisingly lame thing to do in San Francisco, even for animal lovers?

Believe it or not, it's the San Francisco Zoo.

san francisco zoo review
Our San Francisco Zoo review? Posing for a photo with a bear's rump was one of the few highlights on our visit to this zoo.

best place in ca to see an anteater
This anteater was the other highlight. To be fair, we'd never seen an anteater at any other zoo, so this actually was pretty impressive. Plus he was in the same exhibit as a capybara, which is one of my favorite animals. They're giant guinea pigs!

Where did the San Francisco Zoo go wrong? SN and I love going to the zoo and we expected this world-famous one to be one of the best, especially after reading their endless 5-star reviews online. (We later realized the reviews were all from residents, not tourists.) However, the layout of the park and meager number of animals couldn't compete with other zoos we've visited, including our Albuquerque BioPark back home. If the admission price had matched the experience, we would have happily recommended it for anyone with time to kill in San Francisco. 

So, how much was that admission price?

FIFTY DOLLARS!!! (Total for both of us, including a ridiculous $10 for parking on a day with very few customers.)

In Albuquerque, an annual zoo membership is less than $50 per couple. It includes unlimited access to a top-notch zoo, botanic gardens, and aquarium. The San Francisco Zoo does allocate part of their proceeds toward animal conservation, I believe, so that softened the blow. There were some blind sea lions there that had been rehabilitated after someone shot them in the face (WTF, mankind?) and we were happy to see them being cared for. If you're strapped for time in San Francisco though or budget-conscious, I would skip this. If you do decide to visit the San Francisco Zoo, you can save $10 by parking right outside the lot, along the beach. We saw many zoo visitors doing this, though SN always plays by the rules and refused.

Yes, he was fine doing the exact same thing earlier in this post. Traveling with SN kills me sometimes. If I've learned anything from watching my parents travel together, that's what marriage is all about.

5 Free Wildlife Stops to Include on your California Road Trip
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