The connection between land and sea is on full display at the Coastal Discovery Center (CDC) of San Simeon Bay. Explore exhibits bringing to life San Simeon history, diverse marine life and the astounding beauty of coastal Highway 1 all in one dynamic family-friendly destination. Located at the base of the San Simeon Pier at WR Hearst Memorial State Beach, the whole family is welcome to enjoy this incredible resource. Led by volunteers and free to the public all year-round, the center offers visitors an exciting opportunity to learn about the natural and cultural treasures of San Simeon Bay and the region.
Explore San Simeon Tide Pools & Sea Life
Discovery Center Location
Nestled along scenic Highway 1 across from world famous Hearst Castle, The Coastal Discovery Center sits at the former site of one of William Randolph Hearst’s many warehouses. The castle’s glittering pools, fascinating architecture and opulent art collection await visitors of the Discovery Center, making for an exciting day of exploring. Nearby to the north of the Center, you’ll find the popular San Simeon Elephant Seal Rookery, where elephant seals sunbathe, feed and birth, depending on the season. Free and open to the public, this unique rookery allows visitors to pull off the highway and easily view elephant seals in their natural habitat. The grand Piedras Blancas Lighthouse stands a stone’s throw from the rookery, a remarkable testament to the area’s rich maritime heritage.
Discovery Center Exhibits
History of San Simeon Bay
The San Simeon Bay has been home to an array of interesting residents over the centuries, including Native American tribes, whalers and late publishing mogul William Randolph Hearst. The Discovery Center’s interactive touch screen exhibit details the area’s unique history, bringing to life facts and context to enrich your experience. You’ll learn about San Simeon’s founding in 1836, its transformation into a vibrant whaling town, and the region’s subsequent economic booms and busts. Throughout the years, one thing has remained certain: San Simeon is a coastal treasure with plenty of wildlife and cultural sights to keep the whole family enthralled.
Wildlife of San Simeon
Wildlife viewing is legendary in San Simeon, where whales, sea birds, elephant seals, otters and tidepools abound. Simply look to the sky or the horizon and you’ll quickly discover the vast web of life that thrives along San Simeon’s pristine coastal habitat.
At the Discovery Center, you’ll learn how The Sanctuary and the Seabird Protection Network work together to enhance the awareness and protection of nesting seabirds in and around San Simeon. Coastal bluff trails provide lookout points for seabirds of all feathers. Grebes, Scoters and Marbled Murrelets are often visible from the San Simeon Bay Pier, while ducks and shorebirds frolic at Arroyo Laguna Creek. Along the surf, you might spy Western Snowy and Black-bellied Plovers, Killdeer, and Long-billed Curlew seeking out their next meal.
A trip to the Discovery Center is incomplete without waving hello to San Simeon’s famous Elephant Seal population. The San Simeon Elephant Seal Rookery affords rear-round views of majestic Elephant Seals, with populations soaring upwards of 17,000 during the peak months of January, April and October. The largest northern elephant seal rookery in the mainland United States, this totally one-of-a-kind wildlife viewing stop is located just 4.5 miles north of the Coastal Discovery Center and is free and open to the public all year long. With a little education from the Coastal Discovery Center, you might just be able to separate the calls of males, females and pups during mating and pupping season.
Protected by lush kelp forests, California Sea Otters bob along the water throughout San Simeon Bay, some with young pups cuddled up on their bellies. These mammals thrive in the estuary habitats part of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, and despite being the second smallest marine mammal, can dive up to 330 feet below the surface to forage for food.
Tidepools clamor with life along San Simeon’s craggy coastline, the perfect habitat for small crabs to scuttle and sea stars to stretch out. It’s no wonder why visitors of the Discovery Center are drawn to the kid-friendly rocky tide pool located on site. Backdropped by a vibrant mural depicting seabirds and local wildlife, young visitors are challenged to find the 14 button-activated messages on the tidepool recorded by local elementary school students. Remember to keep your eyes peeled for urchins and anemones as you explore this hands-on discovery area!
If whale spotting is your idea of outdoor fun, stroll the San Simeon Pier at William Randolph Hearst Memorial State Beach, located walking distance from the Discovery Center. Tip: Look for the handy Whale Trail signage, which gives you insider knowledge on how to spy whales along the surf. Looking for more advice for spotting local animals in San Simeon? Check out our handy wildlife viewing tips, sure to secure a spectacular show.
The Delta Sub & Shipwrecks
The waters of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary contain fascinating deep sea habitats, including the extinct Davidson volcano. Plus, with a total of 1,276 reported shipwrecks at the Sanctuary, you can dive into drama on the high seas. In fact, one unlucky ship was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine off the coast of nearby Cambria! In this eye-opening exhibit, you’ll learn about the Davidson Seamount, nearby shipwrecks, and the technology utilized to bring these undersea discoveries to light.
Plankton Under a Microscope
What causes the “red tide” phenomenon? Visitors are invited to take a closer look under the microscope to identify this organism–not to mention discover the breadth of life that lives within a single drop of seawater. In this interactive exhibit, you and your kiddos can become better acquainted with the organisms that power the ocean food chain and help produce 50% of the world’s oxygen. Hint: they can all be found floating in the waters of San Simeon Bay!
Watersheds – From the Mountains to the Sea
As you’ll soon learn in this Discovery Center exhibit, everyone lives in a watershed, and all watersheds flow to the ocean. Learn how we can all do our part in keeping watersheds healthy, a good thing for local Steelhead and Rainbow trout. Discover the lifecycle of these incredible creatures traversing San Simeon’s rivers and streams.
Visiting the Discovery Center
Conveniently located on scenic Highway 1, the Coastal Discovery Center at San Simeon Bay is a fabulous stop for your next road trip through the region. Park at the elevated parking lot next door to the Discovery Center and be sure to note the small beach-access driveway accessible from the upper parking lot. With plenty of public restrooms and picnic tables nearby, you and your family can enjoy a stress free excursion on the coast. The Discovery Center is open Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Discovery Center Tours
Self-guided tours at the Coastal Discovery Center make exploring San Simeon’s marine wonders as easy as checking out a pair of binoculars and a handy Discovery Center Wildlife Guide. After checking out your gear, move at your own pace as you enjoy a self-guided tour of the Junior Ranger Adventure Program or the San Simeon Pier. Want more context along your journey? Embark on a friendly guided tour with an advance reservation. Together with the Discovery Center’s knowledgeable guides, you’ll dive into plankton science, San Simeon history, and marine mammal identification.
Who runs the Discovery Center?
The Coastal Discovery Center is operated by Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and California State Parks. In 2016, the center was awarded the Sea to Shining Sea: Excellence in Interpretation and Education Award. The Highway 1 Discovery Route (H1DR) worked with the CDC to create the Whale Trail Program and to create a video dedicated to sea life and tidepool education, which earned H1DR the 2021 Sea Star Award from the MBNMS Foundation. Stop by the Coastal Discovery Center during your next Highway 1 road trip and experience just how the Discovery Center combines land, sea, animals and education. Plus, you can travel for good when you become a Stewardship Traveler for Good! Anyone can partake in these hands-on activities designed to leave our habitats happier than they were before.