A hike out along ocean bluffs brings visitors to Año Nuevo Point, a major bird migratory route and fantastic birding location. Just offshore sits Año Nuevo Island and the remains of a 19th century lighthouse and fog signal station. The elephant seals at Año Nuevo State Reserve are not pretty, but they live pretty well. In fact, they're living out one of the world's greatest escapes from extinction. Things have been getting better for the elephant seals of the Pacific Coast in the century since humans stopped slaughtering them: Their population has recovered from hundreds to over a hundred thousand. Now thousands of northern elephant seals come to Año Nuevo and a few other beaches in California and Mexico to breed. Watching their reproductive antics is one of the best wildlife experiences available in California -- the closest you're likely to come to any large mammals as they go about their business of making babies. You'll be amazed at how many of elephant seals fill Año Nuevo at the height of the season. It'll look like a seal civilization, and you can learn all their laws on the guided tours. Breeding Season The cycle starts around Dec. 1 with open warfare between bulls to determine who wins the right to reproduce (Año Nuevo's beaches are closed to the public for the first two weeks of December to keep people out of the crossfire). After the bulls settle who's going to rule the beach for the next few months, the females show up in late December and gravitate to the alpha males, forming harems the dominant bulls will spend the next few months defending. Smaller bulls will hang around the edges of the harems, obliging the big guys to run them off -- watching two-ton beasts with no legs chase try to chase each other on land is one of nature's great comedy sketches. The females arrive ashore pregnant from last season's amorous adventures and mate after giving birth to their pups, which, fortunately, are about a thousand times cuter than their nose-dangling fathers. By the end of March most of the elephant seals have returned to sea, fattening themselves up to do it all again next winter. (Weather note: veteran elephant seal watchers advise that cool, cloudy days promise the best seal action -- they try to preserve energy on hot days but they're much more mobile on chilly ones). Molting Season In the summertime, elephant seals show up (in much smaller numbers) to shed their tough hide. You can find little bits of it along the sandy paths to the main viewing areas along the beach. Summer can be a much more pleasant time to visit Año Nuevo: no reservations required, no schedules to keep, warmer weather (providing the coast is not fogged in). The seals are much fewer in number but if you have binoculars or a camera with a good zoom lens, you can see them in isolation rather than in a massive colony. Most of the action is young males rehearsing for adult battles (think high school for behemoths).