Typical for a summer morning, the fog is thick – pea soup thick, London thick – as I drive down Sir Francis Drake Boulevard through Point Reyes National Seashore. The coastline isn’t visible, though small gaps in the fog give away where it should be. The only things I am truly able to see are fields of cattle, remnants of when the area was filled with private ranches with little thought for the unique characteristics of this famed peninsula on California’s northern coast.
I park at the Lighthouse Visitor Center lot, hardly able to see even to the other side of the small parking area. It seems hardly worthwhile to walk to the point, home of Point Reyes Lighthouse, one of the most iconic on the West Coast, but my legs need a stretch and I did make the 90 minute drive here from San Rafael. I walk through a small grove of cyprus trees dripping from the moisture of the fog, pass the small (closed for Covid) visitor center, and suddenly, the fog lifts just a bit, revealing the magnificence of both the lighthouse and the Pacific Coast. I feel sorry for the family in the other car at the lot, who declared there was no reason to walk up here, but that small negative is quickly lost to my sense of awe, and to the feeling of being just a tiny speck in the face of the endless blue-gray of the ocean.
Established in 1962, Point Reyes National Seashore sits on a triangle of land between the Pacific Ocean, Drake’s Bay, and Tomales Bay. (Tomales Bay is narrow, having been created by the San Andreas fault line which runs directly down it, and one day will cleave Point Reyes from the rest of California.) It provides refuge to migrating birds, a colony of elephant seals, and sheltered waters for whales on their migratory path, in addition to protecting beautiful dunes, bluffs, marshes, and estuaries.
While the natural beauty of Point Reyes is incredible, it is Point Reyes Lighthouse that is the symbol of the area, and most visitors’ first stop. Built in 1870, it illuminates one of the most dangerous points for shipping along the California coast. Currently closed due to Covid, it is normally available to tour, provided one can navigate the 300 steps down and back. Still in service today (though automated), its foghorn can be heard from all over the area.
Just on the other side of Point Reyes itself, along Drake’s Bay, lies a beautiful walk/hike to Chimney Rock. The roughly two mile round trip trail takes visitors from a meadow next to the parking lot (I saw deer and a coyote there), past the Point Reyes Lifeboat Station (a preserved rail launched lifeboat station, one of few left in the world), and out to the tip of the point where a cool rock formation emerges from the blue waters. Beaches to one side along Drake’s Bay, and rocky cliffs to the other on the Pacific side, it makes for a beautiful walk, and one with considerably less fog than at the lighthouse.
It is from this same parking lot that one can also take a short (less than a mile round trip) walk to see Point Reyes’ elephant seals. While they were sleeping on the far side of the beach when I was there, I could still hear them. (San Simeon, on California’s central coast, is a better place for elephant seal watching, but with few full colonies in existence, it’s worth seeing them here, too.)
Much of Point Reyes National Seashore is currently closed, both from Covid protocols and the 2020 Woodward Fire, which burned more than 5,000 acres inside the park area. But with the exception of the indoor areas (visitor center and lighthouse), this section of Point Reyes itself is completely open to visitors. One could easily spend a full day here, but even three hours is enough to do all three things mentioned above. And if desired, a quick stop at Point Reyes Beach on the way back is easy, with two turnouts along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard.
While the area can get busy, it is large, spread out, and far enough removed from the large cities of the Bay Area that it seems isolated and not at all crowded, especially on a weekday. Unlike Muir Woods, it is a bit far from San Francisco to make for a super easy day trip (although I did it as a fairly easy day from San Rafael, a bit over an hour each way), and the huge area of more than 70,000 acres allows even then two million annual visitors to distance easily.
Point Reyes National Seashore is a great place to spend a day, or a week if desired, exploring the beauty of California’s northern coast, and the unique habitat of indigenous flora and fauna. Just make sure the fog lifts!
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