When friends from other countries visit San Francisco, they often ask me about my favorite photography spots. As a nature and wildlife photographer based in Mill Valley, I prefer the area north of the Golden Gate Bridge: Marin County and Sonoma County. Both are breathtakingly beautiful and offer an abundance of photo opportunities.
But not every photo spot is attractive throughout the year. Wildlife behavior will be different depending on the time of your visit. Flowers only bloom at certain times of the year. That’s why I decided to split my recommendations up by month. Here’s January.
Photographing northern elephant seals on Drakes Beach
From December through March, elephant seals breed on Drakes Beach. Beginning in January, the females give birth to their pups. The seal colony can be observed from Elephant Seal Overlook in Point Reyes National Seashore. Mid January is also the time where gray whales migrate south and can be watched from Chimney Rock.
- White sandstone cliffs
- Northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris)
- California gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) migration (the peak of the southern migration usually occurs in mid-January; with a bit of luck you’re going to spot whales from Chimney Rock)
Planning your visit
Due to narrow roadways and small parking lots, a bus shuttle service operates between the last Saturday of December and late March or mid-April. The bus ride costs $7 (as of January 2017) and the pickup location is Kenneth C. Patrick Visitor Center at Drakes Beach. For more information about the shuttle service please see the bus shuttle information page of the National Parks Service. I generally recommend getting to the visitor center early, as it gets increasingly crowded during the day.
Equipment to bring
Elephant Seal Overlook sits high above Drakes Beach. If you’d like to get a closer shot of the seals, I’d recommend bringing a long lens (everything above 300 mm will work) and a tripod (or monopod). Don’t forget to also bring warm layered cloths. During January, it can be very windy and chilly at the overlook. In case you’re also planning the Chimney Rock hike, I recommend also bringing a wide-angle lens (35 mm on a full frame camera will do; I like to use a 21 mm lens for landscape shots on my Canon 7D Mark II, which gets me about the same results).
Geolocation and map
- Kenneth C. Patrick Visitor Center: 38.0279628 | -122.9616768
- Elephant Seal Overlook: 37.9971223 | -122.9899022