Central California: Yosemite to Monterey

Land Tour


  • Birding among towering cliffs of Yosemite
  • Spectacular desert and mountain scenery
  • Exciting and productive pelagic, with potential for exceptional sightings
  • Lots of mammals, from Sea Otters and great whales to Mule Deer and sea-lions!

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Tour Overview

Endemics, world-class pelagic, towering redwoods and Yosemite!

Our California birding tour will take you from the scenic Great Basin deserts to the magnificent high mountains of the Sierra Nevada, and from rocky Pacific Ocean shorelines and productive wetlands to the towering coast redwoods to world-class pelagic birding..

Pelagic boat rides out into Monterey Bay are among the most exciting in the world, for the cool California Current brings nutrient rich waters close to land and provide feeding grounds for many North Pacific species and large numbers of migrants from further south. Add to this a rich landbird fauna, including endemics and several near endemics, and great numbers of shorebirds migrating south from northern breeding grounds to Monterey Bay and Mono Lake. Throw in a visit to world-famous Yosemite National Park, plus the chance to see once again a California Condor soaring majestically in the wild, and we have a superb and spectacular tour.

Central California also hosts a remarkable array of mammals, from sea otters to marine mammals. Dramatic landscapes, superb pelagic birds and mammals and exciting birds on land make for a very enjoyable California birding tour.


Day 1: Arrival in Reno

Our California birding tour begins with our arrival in Reno, Nevada, and a meet-and-greet dinner. This will be a chance to meet the other participants and discuss the upcoming adventure. Night in Reno.

Days 2 & 3: Lee Vining

Today we head south across the Great Basin Desert on our way to Lee Vining, stopping to look at birds along the way. We’ll look for some iconic western birds such as California Quail, California Gull, California Scrub-Jay, Black-billed Magpie, Great-tailed Grackle, Lesser Goldfinch, and Bewick’s Wren. Lee Vining lies in a beautiful area where sagebrush desert meets mountains on the shore of Mono Lake, the oldest body of freshwater in North America. In the past, due to withdrawal of water for southern California, water levels dropped revealing unique calcified rock formations called tufas.

Birding around Mono Lake, we’ll focus on lakefront and wooded habitats. At the lakefront County Park, a well-known migrant trap, we’ll first bird the trees around the park for migrant landbirds such as Yellow, MacGillivray’s, and Wilson’s warblers. From the park boardwalk, we’ll look for Marsh Wrens and Virginia Rails. At the lake, we’ll hope to see the hundreds of Red-necked Phalaropes, Eared Grebes, and California Gulls that should have arrived by this date. We may also see Ruddy Ducks, American Avocets, and other waterfowl and shorebirds. Ospreys nests on the tufa formations.

One of the highlights of a trip to the Mono Lake area is a visit to the sagebrush desert surrounding the ghost town of Bodie. On the way, we’ll hope to find three species of jays; Pinyon, Steller’s, and Woodhouse's Scrub-Jay. Closer to town we’ll look for such sought-after sagebrush specialists as Sage Thrasher; Sagebrush, Brewer’s, and Vesper sparrows; and, with some luck, Greater Sage-Grouse.

During our time in the area, we’ll also visit higher elevation forest to look for such species as William’s Sapsucker, Cassin’s Finch, and Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch in the mixed aspen conifer forests above town. Two nights in Lee Vining.

Days 4 & 5: Yosemite National Park

After a morning birding around Mono Lake, we travel up the eastern foothills of the Sierra Nevada, crossing the nearly 10,0000-foot-high Tioga Pass in Yosemite National Park for a two-night stay. Birding stops along the way include Tuolumne Meadows where we will look for Mountain Bluebirds and Red Crossbills, and we should see Belding's Ground Squirrels in their burrows along the trail. Other high elevation birding stops could turn up Mountain Chickadee, Dark-eyed Junco, Audubon’s (Yellow-rumped) Warbler, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Cassin’s Vireo, and Clark's Nutcracker.

Yosemite National Park is a vast wilderness with some of the most spectacular scenery anywhere; in its forests covering elevational changes from 2,000 up to 13,000 feet, we’ll find huge waterfalls, deep valleys, grand meadows, and ancient giant Sequoias. This superb park contains five major vegetation zones: chaparral/oak woodlands, lower montane, upper montane, subalpine and alpine. Breathtaking vistas combine with natural wonders such as Bridalveil Falls, Half and Sentinel Domes and Cathedral Rocks. Woodpeckers are particularly well represented, including Red-breasted and Williamson’s sapsuckers, and Hairy, White-headed, Pileated, and Black-backed Woodpeckers. White-throated and Vaux's Swifts are sometimes sighted soaring overhead, and songbirds include Orange-crowned, Black-throated Gray, Townsend’s, Nashville and MacGillivray’s Warblers are in the area. American Dippers may be seen along fast-flowing rivers. With luck, we may encounter Mountain Quail and Sooty Grouse. Two nights in Yosemite.

Days 6 – 8: Monterey area

After some early morning birding, we drive to Monterey where we have the luxury of a four-night stay due to the abundance of excellent birding in the area. On the drive to Monterey from Yosemite, we pass through foothill woodland and oak savannah that supports Greater Roadrunner, Lewis’s and Acorn woodpeckers, Oak Titmouse, and Say’s Phoebe. Lower down we’ll cross flat open basins where Prairie Falcons and Golden Eagles hunt.

The Monterey Peninsula supports groves of Coastal Redwoods and cypresses, rocky and sandy shores, and mudflats. Rocky shores are frequented by Brandt’s and Pelagic Cormorants, and our scan of the rocks may turn up Black Oystercatcher, Black Turnstone, Wandering Tattler, or Surfbird. On offshore rocky outcrops, California Sealions loaf, and nearby among the kelp beds are Sea Otters. Oak and conifer woods and chaparral have Acorn and Nuttall’s Woodpeckers, Wild Turkey, Bushtit, Western Tanager, and Purple Finch. Range-restricted Tricolored Blackbirds are often found in small marshy areas or a local dairy. Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve is a fine reserve of estuary, coastal marsh, and oak and pine woodlands, supporting egrets, herons, waterfowl, shorebirds, Red-shouldered Hawk, and Hutton’s Vireo.

One day we travel to Pinnacles National Monument, an area of riparian woodland, canyons and chaparral, with towering sandstone rock formations that resemble pinnacles. Here, we look for the endemic Yellow-billed Magpie, as well as Prairie Falcon, Say’s Phoebe, Oak Titmouse, California Thrasher, Rufous-crowned and Bell’s sparrows, Lawrence’s Goldfinch, and Phainopepla. Pinnacles is also where California Condors have been reintroduced, and we will look for these magnificent birds soaring over the canyons – an exhilarating spectacle.

The peninsula sticks out into the Pacific Ocean, sometimes allowing ready viewing of shearwater concentrations off the Central California coast, and close inshore Pigeon Guillemot and Pelagic Cormorant. Oak and conifer woodlands and riparian thickets provide shelter for resident and migrating landbirds – Anna’s Hummingbirds, Band-tailed Pigeon, Steller’s Jay, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Bushtit - and we look especially for warblers, including Hermit, Townsend’s, and Wilson’s. California Quails scurry across clearings, White-tailed Kites hover overhead, and Black Phoebes and Western Bluebirds are also here.

In drier chaparral, another distinctive group of birds occurs - the elusive Wrentit, plus Spotted Towhee and Western Scrub-Jay. Brackish lagoons and small estuaries attract many shorebirds - Western and Least Sandpipers, Marbled Godwit, Long-billed Curlew, both species of dowitchers, Willet, and Whimbrel. Elegant and Caspian Terns can be found alongside Western, Heermann’s, and California Gulls on beaches, and Snowy and Semipalmated plovers and Sanderlings forage along sandbars. Two nights in Monterey then one night in Half Moon Bay.

Day 9: Half Moon Bay Pelagic

Today we take a pelagic boat trip for seabirds and cetaceans into Half Moon Bay, where we have access to a deep-water region called the Pioneer Canyon. Upwelling of nutrient-rich water attract a wide variety of pelagic seabirds. Black-footed Albatross, Northern Fulmar, shearwaters – Sooty, Pink-footed and Buller’s, Ashy Storm-Petrel, jaegers, Sabine’s Gull, Arctic Tern, auklets, auks, murrelets, Red and Red-necked Phalaropes – the list of possibilities is endless. Whale watching can also be great and we will see various dolphins and other cetaceans. The pelagic is approximately 10 hours, leaving at 7am. Night in Half Moon Bay.

Day 10: Transfer to San Francisco

Today we head up the coast to explore a beautiful grove of coastal redwoods, including some spectacular old growth trees. While appreciating the beauty of the tallest trees in the world, we may also spot some Pacific Wrens, Townsend’s Warblers, or Chestnut-backed Chickadees. We then continue to San Francisco.

Arriving in San Francisco early enough to beat the traffic, we should have time to stop by a wetland near our hotel and look for shorebirds we might have missed up to this point, as well as Ridgeway’s Rail. This rail is a relatively “new” species – it was just split from the Clapper Rail in 2014. Shorebirds we may see include Willets, Marbled Godwits, American Avocets, Black-bellied Plovers, and Short-billed Dowitchers. Night in San Francisco.

Day 11: Departure

Our Central California birding tour ends today, we can depart anytime for our flights home.

What's Included

Tour Price Includes

  • All accommodation
  • Breakfasts and lunches
  • Ground transportation
  • One guide with 4 - 8 participants, 2 guides and vans with 9 - 12 participants
  • All park, conservation and entrance fees
  • Gratuities
  • One pelagic trip into Monterey Bay and beyond

Tour Price Does Not Include

  • Flights to/from San Francisco
  • Evening meals
  • Travel Insurance
  • Items of a personal nature

What to Expect

Temperatures vary on our California birding tour. At San Francisco and along the coast, we can expect lows in the mid-50s and highs in the mid-70s, with frequent coastal fog. At higher elevations in the mountains, morning temperatures may be as low as mid-40s, and at lower elevations away from the coast, it will be warm, with highs in the upper 80s. Rain is a possibility along the coast and at higher elevations, hence raingear is advised. Walking will be easy to moderate. At Año Nuevo, if we walk out to the point and back, the total distance round trip is perhaps 3 km, some of which is over sand. At Andrew Molera State Park, an easy walk of about 3 km is involved. Most birding locations will involve much shorter forays away from the van. Our tour includes a daylong boat trip. It is best to prepare seasickness remedies. Plan to wear sneakers or boat shoes and minimally a rain jacket on these boat trips; a rain suit may be desirable to protect from wind and spray. It may be quite cool on the water, so dress in layers. Boat trips are occasionally cancelled due to weather; if so, we bird alternative locations.

You can expect some early morning, before-breakfast walks as we search out migrating passerines, as well as late evening viewing. The tour cost includes continental breakfasts and lunches. Picnic lunches will be supplied on most days, and box lunches will be provided for the pelagic trip. Other meals will be at restaurants. In the evening, we usually arrange to go to a local restaurant. During this time we discuss the day’s activities and review the list of birds seen and heard, and make plans for the next day.

• Easy to moderate walking

• Highly variable weather, cool along coast and high elevations

• One pelagic trip into Monterey Bay and beyond

• Good quality roads; short to moderate driving distances

• 4-8 participants with one leader, 9-12 participants with two leaders

Featured Wildlife

Even though we cannot guarantee a sighting of the animals below, we feel quite confident that an encounter with the ones listed below is quite likely.

  • Yellow-billed Magpie
  • White-headed Woodpecker
  • California Condor
  • Wrentit
  • California Thrasher
  • California Towhee
  • Nuttall’s Woodpecker
  • Pink-footed Shearwater
  • Western Scrub-Jay
  • Tricolored Blackbird
  • Oak Titmouse
  • Bell's Sparrow
  • Sea Otter
  • Tule Elk

Past Tour Checklists

View the list of birds and other wildlife we encountered on our past tours.

Tour Reviews