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7 Beautiful Marine Reserves of California

7 Beautiful Marine Reserves of California

If you're even slightly curious about marine reserves in California, take the dive because it's going to be unforgettable.

Roubina Al Abashian


5 min read

November 06, 2022

In 2012, California became the first state to establish a network of marine protected areas (MPAs) along its coastline. The main reason for the establishment of these marine reserves was the protection of the ocean ecosystem. Today, 124 MPAs protect the ocean resources of the state we love, covering 16% of state waters. 

There are different types of MPAs, ranging in levels of protection. The strictest type of MPA are often called no-entry MPAs and restrict all types of human entry, including not only fishing and collecting, but also entering the water at all for recreational purposes. A no-take MPA restricts fishing and collecting,but people are allowed to enjoy the waters, such as for snorkeling or swimming. And the least strict type of MPA is a multiple-use MPA, which means that while the area is protected, some fishing is allowed. 

At these coastal paradises, marine life blossoms and thrives, and thanks to them we can all witness the beauty of life in the ocean. From north to south, the Golden State is dotted with marine reserves, and deciding which ones to prioritize can be confusing. Even though the decision highly relies on how far you’re ready to go and what you’re expecting to see there, some MPAs are worth driving the extra mile. Without further ado, here are the most beautiful marine reserves in California.  

The Most Beautiful Marine Reserves in Northern California

Salt Point State Park is a Sonoma County gem, and its home to one of the best marine reserves in the state.

1. Salt Point State Marine Conservation Area

Sonoma County’s quaint town of Jenner is home to one of the best California marine protected areas - Salt Point State Marine Conservation Area. Located within Salt Point State Park, the MPA comprises the shoreline of the park and its surrounding ocean. At this beautiful spot, the waters are brimmed with life. Whether you’re hiking the park’s coastal trails, or spending the night at one of the campsites, make sure to spend time exploring the tidepools, which are filled with bizarre chitons, sea stars, and crabs. For the most scenic views, stop by the wooden deck at Sentinel Rock, and snap a few photos of the gorgeous sea stacks. 

2. Van Damme State Marine Conservation Area

Van Damme State Marine Conservation Area, also known as River Beach, is a rocky piece of land surrounded by sea caves. The best way to enjoy the beautiful sea caves is through a tour via kayak. As you explore the caves you’ll get the chance to get better acquainted with the seals, seabirds, and sea stars that call the area home. The combination of rocks and sandy beaches gives way to a rich marine life, and you can see it all during your tour. Once you’re done exploring life under the sea, you must hike the trails of the adjacent Van Damme State Park, one of California’s can’t-miss state parks, where you’ll be walking among show-stopping cypress trees.

Visit Farallon Island and watch sea lions resting on the rocks, enjoying each other's company.

3. Farallon Islands

Are you looking for a fun day trip from San Francisco? It’s time to ditch the car and take a full-day cruise to Farallon Islands, home to one of Northern California’s best marine protected areas. The uninhabited islands are part of the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, and house some interesting marine life, including sea lions, porpoises, and dolphins. Depending on the season, you can even see different types of migrating whales just passing by. The islands are also home to one of the largest seabird rookeries in the United States. Tufted puffins and pigeon guillemots, among many other unique species, call the islands home — it’s no wonder that this awesome bird-watching spot is extremely popular among birdwatchers.  

Can’t-Miss Marine Reserves on the Central Coast 

Hiking, bird watching, and kayaking are three essential things to do at Elkhorn Slough, in addition to enjoying the area’s diverse marine life.

4. Elkhorn Slough

Elkhorn Slough is a Monterey County gem that is a must-add to any Central Coast itinerary. More than 300-species of animals live in the area, including herons, egrets, and pelicans. There are two ways to enjoy this gorgeous California MPA; by foot or by water. If you choose to go by dry land, you’ll be trekking 5-miles of the best hikes in Monterey, passing by tidal creeks and oak woodlands. While, if you choose to go by water, you can simply rent a kayak and paddle your way towards the marine reserve’s rich wildlife. 

Not only is Point Lobos one of the most beautiful spots in California, it’s also one of the best places to enjoy the state’s marine life.

5. Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

Point Lobos is one of the most beautiful marine reserves in California and it is located within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary which is offshore of Big Sur and the central coast. One of the most exciting things to do in Point Lobos is getting acquainted with the park’s rich marine life. Sea lions, otters, and harbor seals all wander around the area freely, and watching them is quite a sight. In fact, Point Lobos was first named Punta de Los Lobos, or Point of Sea Wolves by Spanish occupants, who named it after the loud barking of the sea lions in the area. While watching the friendly sea mammals is an awesome experience, seeing what’s beneath the surface of the water is even more fun. When you’re in the area, make sure you reserve one of the limited spots for scuba diving and deep-dive to see the lively underwater habitats. Don’t forget to bring your binoculars as well, because spotting migrating whales in the distance isn’t a rare occurrence at Point Lobos. 

The Best Marine Reserves in SoCal

Even sea birds know that Crystal Cove State Park is a place you cannot easily leave.

6. Crystal Cove State Marine Conservation Area

Colorful and vibrant marine life awaits you at one of the top marine protected areas in Southern California - Crystal Cove State Marine Conservation Area. Located within Crystal Cove State Park, this beauty is lined up with miles of tide pools. At low tide, anemones, hermit crabs, and sea stars become more visible, and you'll have the chance to explore them for hours if you like. If you want to see how life underwater is in this SoCal paradise, all you have to do is dive deep and get better acquainted with the bright orange garinbaldis and other native fish which populate the area. Considering no amount of daylight is enough to fully experience the beauty of this marine reserve, you should pitch a tent at one of the park’s campsites, spend the night, and continue your explorations with a fresh perspective the next morning. 

7. San Diego-Scripps Coastal Reserve

Of all the marine protected areas in California, Scripps Coastal Reserve stands out as one of the most beautiful and most diverse. The MPA is a 126-acre University of California Natural Reserve System reserve just west of UC San Diego in the famous La Jolla Farms. Visiting the Scripps Coastal Reserve and enjoying its diverse ecosystem is one of the top things to do in San Diego. Here you can see anything from sea lions, dolphins, migrating whales, as well as leopard sharks, which happen to be safe to swim with. You can view the sea mammals going about their lives from the safety of the shore, or you can rent a kayak and share the waters with your favorite animals. 

It gets better still — Scripps Coastal reserve is one of the top spots for snorkeling in California, so if you like an unmatched adventure, diving deep is the way to go. Once you leave the shore, make sure to stop by the Birch Aquarium, one of the best aquariums in the Golden State, to have a better look at the marine life in the region. Like the marine reserve, the Aquarium too is a part of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, which serves as a research area.

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