Dec. 26 is not just the day after Christmas or Boxing Day. It’s the first official day of Southern California’s whale-watching season — one of the numerous signs that our winter has arrived.
And it’s at this time of year that our off-shore neighborhood is filled with gray whales migrating south from their feeding grounds in the Bering Sea to the warm lagoons of Baja California.
Here they give birth to their calves and prepare for the return trip to Alaskan waters. A gray whale’s round trip totals 10,000 miles to 12,000 miles.
Seeing gray whales off the Southern California coast has become almost commonplace and this is a good thing; it means that this once-endangered species is thriving.
Gray whales can be as long as 45 feet and weigh up to nearly 100,000 pounds, so it’s no ho-hum experience when one or several of these leviathans surfaces next to a whale-watching boat.
Regardless of the number of times I’ve seen gray whales, the encounter never fails to take my breath away. Their routes can run close to shore, just beyond the surf line, and their spouts can sometimes be seen from the beach.
Lucky for us, North County residents don’t have to go far to get an up-close-and-personal look at several different types of whales that frequent our portion of the oceans.
Whale-watching boats leave daily from Oceanside (Oceanside Adventures; 760-277-3737; https://www.oceansidewhalewatching.com), and Dana Point in southern Orange County (Dana Wharf Sportfishing and Whale Watching; 888-224-0603; https://danawharf.com).
Despite what those who don’t live here think, winter in Southern California is a real thing, and the nicest thing about it is that it is optional. North County residents can travel to the snow and cold — about a two-hour drive northeast — have fun, then return to the warmer climes whenever.
Nearby mountain destinations include Big Bear Lake (https://www.bigbear.com), with snow play attractions and ski resorts Bear Mountain and Snow Summit.
Together they have 50 runs, are only two miles apart and are connected by a free shuttle; Wrightwood with Mountain High Ski Resort http://www.mthigh.com): and Idyllwild (http://www.idyllwild.com). No skiing here; just a quiet, scenic alpine town with quaint shops and restaurants.
The historic gold-mining town of Julian usually gets doused in the white stuff a couple of times a season, and this draws lots to the village for shopping, rustic B&Bs and hot apple pie. (https://visitjulian.com).
The winter and spring months are the desert’s best seasons.
Within two hours are Palm Springs (Modernism Week, Feb. 14-24 https://www.modernismweek.com) and all the desert communities in Coachella Valley that sit at the base of the now snow-covered San Jacinto and Santa Rosa Mountains; the hiking trails of Indian Canyons (https://www.indian-canyons.com ); Borrego Springs (http://borregospringschamber.com) and Anza Borrego Desert State Park (https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=638) with hiking trails galore, dozens of fascinating, giant metal sculptures by Ricardo Breceda, and with luck and some rain, lots of desert blooms.
Bottom line: Drive two hours or less in any direction from North County and you’ll find beauty, history and adventure, and that includes our coastal cities, too: San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano and all those cities with “beach” in their name: Laguna, Newport, Huntington, Redondo, Hermosa, and Manhattan.
With all the tourists mostly absent now, the coast is clear! After a walk on the wide-open beaches, check out some of these cities’ lesser-known gems like their museums, historic neighborhoods and locals’ favorite bistros.