Whale Watching: Here's Your National Parks Traveler 2013 Vacation Planner

Whale watching in the national parks is all about wildflife. Orcas and gray whales are a favorite—and porpoises and other species are just a bonus. Photos by Pacific Nature Tours.

If National Parks Traveler’s Thanksgiving Day blue whale Creature Feature got you in the mood to do some whale watching, we’ve put together a guide to some of the best places in the National Park System for doing just that. From coast to coast and throughout the year you'll likely be able to find a location and opportunity to enjoy these majestic creatures.

Here’s hoping your 2013 includes some inspiring whale watching.

Acadia National Park
Maine

Renowned for its rugged beauty, Acadia has long been a national park favorite. Nestled on islands off the coast of Maine, visitors flock to Acadia to hike, bike, and climb, or picnic and relax. Visitors can also enjoy the sea by swimming, fishing, exploring tide pools, and whale watching. Humpback, finback, minke, and right whales can all be seen right from Acadia’s shores. In addition, boat tours like Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co. can take prospective whale watchers miles off shore for a better look at these creatures. Other features include 45 miles of carriage roads to explore on foot, bike, horseback, or even horse-drawn carriage, and the 20-mile Park Loop Road, which takes motorists past stunning views of oceans, mountains, and forests. Acadia also has an earthcache program—a self-led tour of the park using your GPS system.

When to whale:
May – October

Cabrillo National Monument
California

Mid-January is the best time to look for gray whales heading south from the Arctic to warmer waters in Baja California. From this monument in southern California, you can spot the whales from the aptly named Whale Overlook and Old Point Loma Lighthouse on the monument's grounds. A good pair of binoculars will help you get a close-up for the whales. Unlike in spring, when the whales reverse course and head back north, the southern migration brings them relatively close to the monument's shores. Park Service officials recommend you look for them to be passing by at least three-quarters of a mile out to sea.

When to Whale:
Mid-December to mid-February

Cape Cod National Seashore
Massachusetts

Cape Cod has a long, long history of whaling, and in fact the Pilgrims in 1620 reportedly watched as the locals harvested a pilot whale. Today during the summer months you at times can spot porpoises and dolphins from the national seashore's beaches. According to seashore officials, the winter months can offer glimpses of these leviathans as well. While most adult whales head to southern breeding grounds in winter, young or non-reproductive whales have no reason to head to the breeding grounds and so sometimes can be spotted hanging out in local waters. To search for whales, head to some of the ocean and bayside beaches on the Outer Cape and scan the surrounding waters. You just might spy North Atlantic Right Whales, Fin Whales (which can be seen year-round in Cape Cod waters, and can sometimes be seen close to shore from the northernmost beaches, such as Herring Cove and Race Point, seashore officials note), young humpback whales, and pilot whales.

When to whale:
December into April

Channel Islands National Park
California

Just north of Los Angeles, a chain of eight isles makes up the Channel Islands. Five of these belong to Channel Islands National Park, one of the best national parks in the country for whale watching. Accessible only by boat, the waters surrounding Channel Islands are home to an abundance of sea creatures. No fewer than seven species of whales have been sighted here. Grey, blue, humpback, minke, sperm, pilot, and orca whales are all found in these Pacific waters. Visitors can actually whale watch from the shore while hiking and exploring these uninhabited islands. Whale watching tours can be arranged through Island Packers, one of the park concessionaires, or through any number of other whale watching tour companies.

When to whale:
Mid-December – Mid-April: Gray whales
Late May – September: Blue Whales

Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve
Alaska

Located in the far southeast of the Alaskan mainland, Glacier Bay, a popular Alaskan cruise destination, covers 3.3 million acres and landscapes that include majestic mountains, forests, glaciers, shimmering coastlines, and fjords. Many humpback whales summer in Glacier Bay and their aquatic acrobatics are not soon forgotten. Minke and orca whales can also be seen in the bay. While in Glacier Bay, whales are afforded the utmost protection, but interested visitors can get a closer look through Cross Sound Express. Hiking at Glacier Bay is somewhat of a challenge; with very few trails, most of the land is mountainous and covered with dense forest. One of the best ways to explore the park, and see the glaciers that inspire it’s name, is by boat. Guided trips, sea kayaking, rafting, and cruises are all available. For those with enough stamina, backpacking and mountaineering can prove to be a rewarding challenge. Some of earth’s most awe-inspiring creatures can be found in this Alaskan wilderness: bears and whales. Brown bears, black bears, and polar bears all flourish in Alaska; while you may not necessarily see one, Alaska is bear country nonetheless.

When to whale:
April – Oct: Humpback whales

Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park
Hawaii

The most well-known of the Hawaiian national parks, Hawai’i Volcanoes is located on Big Island, which, as the name implies, is the largest of the Hawaiian islands. Home to the Earth’s largest volcano, Mauna Loa, and one of the Earth’s most active, Kilauea, Hawai’i Volcanoes deserves its name. Getting to see lava flow and sparks fly from the volcanoes is a whale of a good time, but it is not the only excitement Hawai’i has to offer. The waters around Hawaii are filled with life and considered one of the best places to see humpback whales. Sperm, melon headed, orca, and pilot whales are also known to visit. There are many whale-watching tour companies to choose from, as well as which type of boat to use, from catamarans to kayaks. Hiking, biking, and camping are also all available, as well as Crater Rim Drive, an 11-mile road through desert and lush rainforest around the crater rim. While Hawaii’s oceanic attractions are not available within the park (the coastline does not include safe beaches), they are accessible nearby.

When to whale:
Oct – April: Humpback whales

Point Reyes National Seashore
California

As at Cabrillo National Monument, whale watching at Point Reyes is from the beaches and headlands. Here you'll be looking for the same whales -- grays -- and during the same time period as at Cabrillo. But the whale watching here might be even better than at Cabrillo, as the headlands of the national seashore range about 10 miles out into the Pacific, bringing you closer to them. According to park officials, the best places to base yourself for whale watching are around Chimney Rock and the Lighthouse. To help you out, the seashore runs a shuttle service from the Drakes Beach parking lot to these areas. Come late April and into May you might be able to glimpse sight of cows and their calves from the same locations.

When to Whale:
Mid-December to mid-February

Pu`ukoholā Heiau National Historic Park
Hawaii

Though not an obvious location for whale watching, Pu`ukoholā Heiau is actually quite good. Park staff work with the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale Marine Sanctuary to educate visitors on the humpbacks that come down to the Hawaiian Islands to breed and give birth. Humpbacks reach these waters as early as November, and stay into May, though the peak whale-watching season is January into March.

When to whale:
January into March

San Juan Island National Historical Park
Washington

Located just below the Canadian boarder in the Puget Sound of Washington, San Juan Island National Historical Park is rife with sweeping vistas, historical significance, and yes, whales. With 6 miles of public shoreline and a network of trails through woodlands, uplands, and prairies, San Juan has something for everyone. Anyone with an interest in history, young or old, will love the story of the “Pig War,” a boundary dispute triggered by the shooting of a pig, which Canadian and American re-enactors demonstrate once a year. In addition to the whales, wildlife lovers can find over 200 species of migratory birds, seals, otters, porpoises, deer and foxes, as well as all the small and surprising creatures found in tidal pools. Whale watching is best done between April and September, when the magnificent orca whales are most likely to be spotted leaping from the water. The whales can be viewed right from shore or through San Juan Safaris or another whale watching tour company.

When to whale:
April – September: Orca whales