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Place Category: Trip Reports
California has very varied habitat (from desert to tundra) with a corresponding diversity of species, coupled with incredible scenery and some of the most productive cetacean viewing in the world, which make it a top mammal watching destination. I first visited in 1998 for ten days and barely scratched the surface. I have returned many times since then.
This page splits California into five broad (and rather fuzzily defined) regions: North Coast (north of San Francisco); Central Coast (from Santa Barbara to San Francisco); South Coast (south of Santa Barbara); the Mountains (including Yosemite); and Desert (including the Mojave and Joshua Tree parks).
Humboldt Redwoods State Park
The State Park, and the nearby Albion Field Station, are good places to see the endemic Yellow-Cheeked Chipmunk. I saw Western Deer Mice and a Gray Fox too at the Field Station in July 2013.
I saw a Mountain Pocket Gopher here in June 2020.
Muir Woods, just over the Golden Gate Bridge north of San Francisco, is a reliable spot to see Sonoma Chipmunks, even if I had to visit three times before I saw one. It was foggy and very crowded on my first visit in July 2013. In October 2013 it was closed because of a government shutdown. But in November 2014 I saw two right at the entrance at 8 a.m. They should also be common around the cafeteria area. Western Gray Squirrels were all over the car park too.
In June 2020 I saw a Pacific Jumping Mouse on the road past Lady Bird Johnson Grove.
Point Reyes National Seashore
I was here in September 1998 & April 2013. The Black-tailed subspecies of Mule Deer (race Columbianus), and the Tule subspecies of Elk (race Nannodes). Though there is a lot more to see here including Elephant Seals on the beach (which I saw in 2013). Its also a good spot for River Otters and Long-tailed Weasels.
In September 1998 there were California Sea Lions at Pier 39 in the middle of the harbour. Check out the local natural history society boat trips to the Farallone Islands to see Blue Whales in September (saw plenty of other cetaceans too on a day trip there).
In June 2020 Long-tailed Weasels – a nemesis species for me! – were easy to see at a town park in Sonoma County where they have bred for several years. The weasels are usually around until the end of May I was told.
Andrew Molera State Park
In September 1998 I saw Gray Fox, Raccoon and dozens of Yuma Myotis skimming the river near the car park.
In September 1998 California Field Voles were common along the trail to the beach. There were Northern Sea Lions here too though you need a scope to find them among their more numerous Californian cousins.
In August 2015 Brian and Eileen Keelan put me up for the night at their lovely house deep in the Redwoods. Their backyard was full of Merriam’s Chipmunks, and we caught some fabulous California Mice nearby.
I saw a Bobcat here at dawn in September 1998.
Los Padres National Forest
This forest, inland from the Big Sur, has some interesting stuff (see Fiona Reid’s trip report about her visit to Cone Peak). In late November 2014 it was less productive – possibly because it was colder – although driving along the Naciemento-Ferguson road through Fort Hunter-Liggett was good with lots of California Ground Squirrels in the daytime and Mule Deer, Coyotes, Elk, Desert Cottontail and Feral Pigs after dark. I set a few traps along the roadside when I was out of the national forest and caught a bunch of Gambel’s Deer and Brush Mice plus my first Big-eared Woodrat.
Monterey & Carmel
This area offers some of the best cetacean watching in the world. During three 4-hour trips in September 1998 with Monterey Bay Whale Watch we had Blues, Humpbacks, and a Fin and Minke whale, Common and Pacific White-sided Dolphins (the former in pods of many hundreds), Harbour and Dall’s Porpoise and Risso’s Dolphins. I dipped on Northern Right Whale Dolphins (not uncommon), Orcas (regular) and Baird’s Beaked Whales (seen several times most Septembers). Sea Otters and Harbour Seals are around the wharf and I saw a California Ground Squirrel in town.
I took a half day trip again in late July 2013, and saw a Blue Whale, along with 100+ Rissos, and a few Pacific White-sided and Common Dolphins, plus Humpbacks just off the harbour, and the usual Harbour Seals, California Sealions and Sea Otters in town.
In May 2016 I was back for a day’s whale watching and successfuly found a huge mixed pod of 4,000 Pacific White-sided and Northern Right Whale Dolphins (species that had just returned to the bay after a long absence), along with 20 or so Transient (Bigg’s) Killer Whales and many Humpbacks. See my 2016 trip report. And I was back in October 2017 and saw all of these species I had seen in the past during two days at sea.
In Carmel I caught a couple of Western Harvest Mice and a Gambel’s Deer Mouse and saw a Brush Rabbit in 2013. In 2016 – in the Carmel Valley – I caught several California Mice and California Pocket Mice, Brush Mice, a Pinyon Mouse and a Big-eared Woodrat.
I visited here in May 2016 and saw a few Heerman’s Kangaroo Rats, a Bryant’s Woodrat, Black-tailed Jackrabbits, Desert Cottontails, California Ground Squirrels and San Joaquin Antelope Squirrels. See my 2016 trip report. I spent an evening spotlighting here in 2017 and saw some Giant Kangaroo Rats and a couple of Kit Foxes among other species.
Pinnacles National Park
This is a fabulous park. In August 2015 Brian and Eileen Keeland invited me batting for a night here to look for Western Mastiff Bats. Using his bat detector, Brian was able to identify 10 species, some of which we also saw in flight including many of the huge Western Mastiff Bat, North America’s largest species, and our main target for the evening (see Brian’s notes here). I could hear them quite easily with the naked ear, and we picked up several in the spotlight: their large size and colour, along with their audible calls, making them simple to identify. We also saw many Western Pipistrelles over the reservoir and at least one Californian Myotis flying up and down the trail near the carpark at 11 p.m. (and identified by Brian with the detector). Other species we recorded, but I wasn’t sure I saw, were Big Brown and Little Brown Bats, Silver-haired, Fringed and Western Dark-nosed Myotis, Pallid Bats and Townsend’s Big-eared Bats. Other mammals in the park that night included a Gray Fox and some Mule Deer.
I returned in October 2015 with my kids for a night to the eastern side of the park (near the village of Paicines). There were no rodents running around during the first hour after dark (I don’t suppose the full moon and the horrendous drought helped) and all we saw were some Mule Deer and a Feral Pig. We did catch one Heermann’s Kangaroo Rat the next morning which I couldn’t manage to turn into the Narrow-faced Kangaroo Rat I was looking for.
In May 2016 I was back for another night’s spotlighting. I still couldn’t find a Narrow-faced Kangaroo Rat, but did get a brief look at a Dusky-footed Woodrat towards the top of Bear Cave, about five minutes before the reservoir. See my 2016 trip report.
Point Piedras Blancas
The beach here is a great place to see Northern Elephant Seals.
Probably the most beautiful coastal drive in the world, Route 1 heads south of Monterey, hugging the coast to near L.A. Mammals I ahve seen along here during a few visits include Brush Rabbit, Northern Elephant Seals, White-sided Dolphins and California Ground Squirrels. Just check out any of the view points for the squirrels.
Carizo Plain National Monument
I first visited here in April 2010 with my kids. We saw some California Ground Squirrel en route from L.A. and Nelson’s Antelope Squirrels were quite easy to see in the evening inside and outside the park. I drove along the long park road just after dark and saw at least one Kit Fox on the road and more than 20 kangaroo rats, most of which were the quite rare Giant Kangaroo Rats. I also saw a couple of Black-tailed Jackrabbits.
I went back for a night in June 2011 and saw more Giant Kangaroo Rats (again near the visitors centre), a Kit Fox, a few more jackrabbits and further south lots of Heermann’s Kangaroo Rats and a few of the much smaller San Joaquin Kangaroo Rats on the road.
Channel Islands National Park
I spent a night here in August 2010 with my kids and Matt Miller. We camped on Santa Cruz Island, primarily to see the endemic Island Foxes. The sea was alive with Common Dolphins during the ferry trip over, and there were some California Sealions in Ventura Harbour. Fox numbers have recovered very well on Santa Cruz and if you cannot find one you should hang up your binoculars! We must have seen 20 of them around the campsite in the evening, night and morning as well as on the trails. The animals in camp were fearless.
I could not find any of the Western Spotted Skunks which were reportedly pretty common, though I discovered that their numbers appear to have declined considerably in parallel with the recovery of the fox. The skunks are often around the campsite but despite wandering around for four hours with a light I couldn’t see one. It was a full moon which perhaps didn’t help but I was told they are much more skittish than the foxes and tend to keep more to the shadows. Frustratingly I met a fox researcher who had just finished trapping on the island and had caught a Skunk that morning (as she had done every morning she had set her traps).
Townsend’s Big-eared Bats roost in the old bakery next to the visitor centre and you can watch them leave the roost through the bakery door at dusk, though access to the building is blocked off. There was a Harbour Seal hanging around the Scorpion Anchorage too.
In June 2011 on the way back to L.A. from Yosemite I stopped in at the Chuchupate Campsite, off Lockwood Valley Road just west of the town of Frazier Park. As I’d hoped it was full of Merriam’s Chipmunks. I saw a few running around, and once I started squeaking at least a hundred replied. I thought at first they must be birds or insects. They were not however very cooperative for photos and were hard to coax out of the shrubbery.
Lassen National Forest
In August 2015 I stopped Battle Creek Campground (a mile west of the small town of Mineral) on my way to and from Lava Beds National Monument. The campground was, at least in 2006, home to only one chipmunk species: Allen’s (Shadow) Chipmunk.
I saw only one chipmunk in the mid-afternoon, but found many the next morning. Most chipmunks seemed to be Allen’s but, as so often is the case, it can be quite hard to decide.
Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels were very common, and I also saw several Douglas Squirrels and some Mule Deer.
Lava Beds National Monument
Brian Keelan recommend Lava Beds N.M. as a good spot for California Kangaroo Rats and I stopped for a night in August 2015. California Kangaroo Rats were indeed abundant and unusually confiding for kangaroo rats. I saw them in the campground, many on the roads (especially in the north of the park), and along the Cave Loop road that leads from the visitor centre, which is closed to traffic after dark, so makes for great spotlighting. I also saw at least one Great Basin Pocket Mouse in the visitor centre car park.
Other mammals included Mule Deer, Pronghorn, Mountain Cottontails and Black-tailed Jack Rabbits.
Vladimir Dinets gave me some detailed advice on where to look for several species of rodents he had seen in May 2015 on the north and south side of Mono Lake. We weren’t as successful as him, though a full moon and near freezing minima over night probably didn’t help. But I did catch a beautiful Panamint Kangaroo Rat (my first).
We also caught several Great Basin Pocket Mice, with their distinctive ear lobes, and many Western Deer Mice. There were also Desert and Mountain Cottontails running around.
I returned in September 2017 and caught a couple of Dark Kangaroo Mice and commoner species. I also spent an evening at nearby Owen’s Gorge and saw (and heard) Spotted Bats in flight.
Saddlebag Lake, just up the road towards Yosemite is a beautiful place for a walk. In September 2017 there were Alpine Chipmunks here, as well as Belding’s and Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels.
Yosemite and surrounding areas
Yosemite is a spectacularly beautiful park but gets very busy, especially in summer. I have been several times. In October 1998 I saw Western Gray Squirrels, Alpine Chipmunks, Douglas Squirrels, Gray Foxs and Pallid Bats (roosting in the lodge though I couldn’t find any there in June 2011). I was told Black Bears are common wherever food is.
In June 2011 I went back and was again amazed by the scenery. I spent a night at Mammoth Lakes, south east of the park, where I hoped to get up to the Devil’s Postpile National Monument to look for Belding’s Ground Squirrels and Lodgepole Chipmunks (which seem to be the only chipmunk there which makes identification easier than usual.
The road to the monument was still snowbound but I saw a Belding’s Ground Squirrel and a Golden Mantled Ground Squirrel behind the cafe at the bottom of the ski lift (on the way out of town along 203 towards the national monument). I saw plenty more of both species, plus lots of Lodgepole Chipmunks and a very fat Black Bear on the Mammoth Lakes Scenic Loop (I’m pretty sure that Lodgepole Chipmunks are the only species here too).
On the way from Mammoth Lakes to Yosemite along 108 (highway 120 was still closed to snow) I saw all three species again along with Western Gray Squirrels and Mule Deer.
I spent the next morning looking for Chipmunks and saw plenty of Long-eared Chipmunks and at least one Allen’s (Shadow) Chipmunk at the start of the Merced Grove Trailhead (thank you Morgan Churchill). The Long-eared were common but the Allen’s were hard to find and it seems this species has declined drastically in the past 100 years. It was here I discovered that chipmunks – at least Long-eared – respond very well to squeaking.
Anzo Borrego State Park
I spent a night here in April 2015 and saw eight kangaroo rats around the Palm Canyon Campsite, at least some of which were most probably Dulzura Kangaroo Rats (though there are also Merriam’s Kangaroo Rats here so you really need a photograph or to catch one to be sure in my opinion). I saw a Kit Fox at sunset on the rocky slopes just south of town, and Black-tailed Jackrabbits and Desert Cottontails were common after dark. See my 2015 trip report.
There are some nice bats in bridges across the Colorado River and in May 2017 I saw California Leafnosed Bats at the Old Stonehoue Mine and the Lugo Road Bridge. There were also Yuma Myotis and Mexican Freetails in a nearby bridge, plus a Kit Fox and a Long-tailed Pocket Mouse at the Storehouse Mine.
This seems to be the best area to look for rare Stephen’s Kangaroo Rats. I also found Dulzura Kangaroo Rats, Northern Baja Mice, San Diego Pocket Mice and a Southern Grasshopper Mouse around here. Details in my May 2017 report.
Joshua Tree National Park
I love this park which I first visited in September 1998 and saw Black-tailed Jackrabbits, Desert Cottontails, California Chipmunks, White-tailed Antelope Squirrels, Grey Foxes, a Sonoran Desert Pocket Mouse and a Western Pipistrelle. I went back in December 2014 but saw very little other than a Desert Pocket Mouse just outside the park in the Mecca Hills Wilderness Area. In April 2015 I caught a Desert Kangaroo Rat and Desert Woodrat just outside the park. Spotlighting was poor though I did see Bobcat. See my 2015 trip report.
In May 2017 rodent numbers were booming in the desert. I saw or caught Cactus and Canyon Mice, Spiny and San Diego Pocket Mice, Desert and White-throated Woodrats and a Merriam’s Kangaroo Rat near Joshua Tree. We also saw a Kit Fox. In June 2020 just south of Joshua Tree there were a similar set of species though the pocket mice were represented by Long-tailed and Baja Pocket Mice.
Munz Road near Lancaster is a good place to see Agile Kangaroo Rats. Details in my May 2017 report.
In June 2011 I spent a day looking for Mohave Ground Squirrels. I couldn’t find any in the area between Red Rock Canyon and Inyokern, though did see plenty of White-tailed Antelope Squirrels and Black-tailed Jack Rabbits.
I finally found a Mohave Ground Squirrel in the Desert Tortoise Natural Area just north of California City. It was hard to find the park entrance, but I eventually stumbled on the visitor’s area (just a car park, a trail and a visitor centre inside an RV). By a strange coincidence the ranger had just returned to the US after 12 years in the Luangwa Valley in Zambia and so we had some friends in common. She quickly found me a Mohave Ground Squirrel right behind her RV.
There were more antelope squirrels on the reserve and I saw a California Ground Squirrel when I was leaving California City.