Amazing animals in California

by Jan

When we set out on our family road trip to California we were expecting spectacular coastlines, amazing nature and breathtaking views.  We didn’t expect the wildlife in California to be so awesome too. Everywhere we went were opportunities to see amazing animals in California, that we don’t get to see in the UK.

The kids were superb at spotting wildlife and we kept lists of our top amazing animals in California throughout the trip.  We reviewed our top ten wildlife every time a new, superior animal came along to impress us.

Read this post to find out which animals we saw, where we saw them and some key facts about them.

For more information on the itinerary for our road trip, read this post:

A road trip in California:  a 3-week itinerary

Sea Otters

Top of our list of amazing animals was the delightful sea otter. We first saw sea otters on our visit to Monterey Bay Aquarium and fell in love with them straight away.

Here they have a selection of rescued otters, who can no longer survive in the wild. Unfortunately,  possibly only 3000 of  the Californian sea otters remain, as these adorable animals became  a threatened species in 1977 .

We first saw wild sea otters on our visit to Point Lobos State Natural Reserve where otters can be spotted swimming on their backs in the kelp.

wild sea otter feeding
Sea Otter, using rock to smash open clams on stomach

Read more about our visit to Point Lobos in our post:

A visit to Point Lobos

Pocket Gophers

We saw a California gopher for the first time ever on our visit to the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.  We don’t have gophers in the UK, so didn’t know what to expect when the ground started moving before us.

It was even more surprising to see this cute, burrowing animal appear by our feet. The gopher moved constantly up and down, as he dug the earth to make his burrow. He didn’t seem bothered by us at all, as we stood filming.

In total, there are about 35 species of gopher.  They are all are endemic to North and Central America. We were awe-struck, but locals just carried on (probably sniggering about the over-excited tourists!)

pocket gopher Golden Gate Park, California, USA

Sea Lions

Sea Lions sunning themselves at Pier 39 in San Francisco, California
Sleeping Sea Lions Pier 39, San Francisco, California

There are hundreds of sea lions at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, where they are the star attraction at Pier 39.  Until you have been there you cannot imagine the noise (or the smell!). It is constant.

However, you will soon won’t notice the stench.  The antics of these lovely animals will transfix you,  as they fight for the prime spot on the jetty. There is lots of shoving and pushing by the bigger males as they assert their authority. Who needs a circus with an act like that?

For more information on things to do in San Francisco, read our post:-

26 best things to do in San Francisco

Leopard Sharks

When the boys heard that there are leopard sharks at Point Reyes National Park, they were determined they would not leave until they’d seen one. Their patience paid off and in fact they saw at least three leopard sharks swimming under the bridge. What an unforgettable sight. Well worth the wait.

The leopard shark is easily identifiable by its distinctive dark spots and is a species of the hound shark. They can grow up to 7 feet, but are not dangerous to humans.

leopard shark, point Reyes, California, USA

Harbour Seals

Harbour Seal resting, California, USA
Harbour Seals, California, USA

We spotted lots of harbour seals on our coastal walk in Monterey. They were happily lounging on rocks in the sea. You can identify them by their spotted coat, usually white with dark spots. The seals have shorter flippers than sea lions and spend half their time in water and half on a rock.

We also spotted some at the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, where you can also occasionally see Elephant Seals, with their large elongated noses.

Fallow Deer

Fallow Deer, Point Reyes National Seashore, California, USA
Fallow Deer, Bear Valley, Point Reyes, California, USA

These gentle animals were regular visitors to our rental house at Point Reyes. We also spotted them out on our walks, as they would unknowingly step out onto our path.  However, they are not actually native to these parts, coming originally from Europe

American Bison

Bison, Golden Gate Park, California, USA
Bison at golden Gate Park, , San Francisco, California

Visitors to the Golden Gate Park might be very surprised to come across the Buffalo Paddock and its gang of 6 grazing buffalo.  However, these powerful animals have been living in the area since 1890.  At this time they brought 1 bison cow and 1 bison bull in from the Great Plains.

A successful breeding programme led to over 100 bison calves being born there since then. The 6 animals who live there today are descendants of younger herds who came to the park. Their names are Betsy, Bailey, Bellatrix, Buttercup, Bambi and Brunhilda.

California Ground Squirrels

We are more used to seeing our squirrels in trees, but this California ground squirrel is a common sight around the Baja California Peninsula. We saw the ground squirrels on the rocks at Lovers’ Point Park at Monterey, but they can be spotted at other parks in the area such as the Garapata State Park.

The ground squirrels are overly friendly, but locals consider them a pest.  They should not be fed by humans.  This small bushy-tailed squirrel likes to eat acorns, pine seeds and juniper berries and can be seen skipping around the cliffs.

Rock Squirrel, Grand Canyon

Cliff Chipmunks

We didn’t actually see these animals in California, but as part of our US road-trip when we were at the Grand Canyon.

There are over 90 species of mammals living at the Grand Canyon National Park. One of the most easily sighted is the cliff chipmunk. This delightful little animal likes to live at high altitudes, so the Grand Canyon is ideal.


We got our first glimpse of these spectacular animals in the harbour at Monterey Bay.  We saw even more on a visit to Monterey Bay Aquarium , where we saw an exquisite collection of marine life.

Monterey Bay Aquarium is definitely a must-see attraction for animal lovers.

Jelly fish, Monterey Harbour, California
Jelly Fish at Monterey Aquarium, California

Which are your favourite of the amazing animals in California?  If you have any comments or questions, please comment below.

Read all our articles about the USA in our California Road Trip Guide.

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