Point Reyes National Seashore is a United States National Seashore that is one of the Bay Area's overlooked treasures. Located at the westernmost tip of Marin County, it is a reasonable day trip from San Francisco, but also worth visiting as a destination on its own.
Aside from its natural beauty, Point Reyes is of some historical significance, as it is believed to be here that England's Sir Francis Drake came ashore during the summer of 1579, in order to careen his ship and repair its hull, during his circumnavigation of the globe. The ship's chaplain complained in his log of "the stinking fogges", so nothing much has changed.
The Point Reyes National Seashore was established by President John F. Kennedy on September 13, 1962.
Point Reyes lies at the tip of a narrow peninsula which sticks out some 15 miles into the Pacific Ocean. The point itself is significantly higher than the peninsula connecting it to the mainland and gives spectacular views, especially from the lighthouse at its highest point. But be prepared for it to be either very windy or foggy.
Flora and fauna
Native land mammals number about 37 species and marine mammals augment this total by another dozen species. The biological diversity stems from a favorable location in the middle of California and the natural occurrence of many distinct habitats. Nearly 20% of the State's flowering plant species are represented on the peninsula and over 45% of the bird species in North America have been sighted.
Point Reyes Peninsula's climate is characterized by warm, dry summers and cool, rainy winters, similar to the type of climate that prevails on the Mediterranean. Usually, there are constant winds of moderate to strong velocity on the exposed headlands and outer beaches. Headlands and beaches on the Pacific Coast are subjected to frequent heavy fogs, most commonly during July, August and September. Sunshine and higher temperatures occur inland. The east side of Inverness Ridge and the beaches of Tomales Bay are sheltered from the summit of the ridge westward to the ocean, leaving sunny areas for picnicking and swimming. Inland temperatures in the summer are often 20 degrees warmer than temperatures on the Headlands and outer coast. The rainy season is December through March. Dressing in layered clothing is recommended.
From Highway 101, take Sir Francis Drake Boulevard west through Fairfax and western Marin county to Highway 1. Turn right, and take the first left (almost immediately). The next left is the entrance to the seashore.
- West Marin Stagecoach, +1 415 526-3239, . Provides limited public transportation on weekdays to and from their San Anselmo hub and a few other locations along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard.
There are no entrance fees charged to visit Point Reyes. Permits are required for backcountry camping and for all fires. Overnight parking without a backcountry permit is not allowed.
The park is open daily (with overnight camping available by permit only) from sunrise to sunset throughout the year. Although some of the park's best attractions are accessible by car, the best way to get around in Point Reyes is by hiking. The park is crisscrossed with excellent and well-maintained hiking paths.
There are limited bike paths from the Bear Valley entrance, and of course bikes can be used on the park's roads, but single-track mountain biking isn't allowed on most trails.
- Point Reyes Lighthouse. The historic lighthouse is on the rocky promontory of the Point Reyes Headlands. The 300 steps that lead down to the Lighthouse are a short 0.4 miles from the parking area. After descending the stairs, the lighthouse is an excellent place to observe marine life. The Lighthouse Visitor Center is open 10AM to 4:30PM, Th-M. The stairs and exhibits are open from 10AM to 4:30PM, weather permitting, with the lens room open as staffing and weather conditions permit. All facilities are closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
- Pierce Ranch. This renovated ranch dates back to 1858 and is representative of the agricultural heritage of this area. A short, self-guided trail guides visitors through the historic complex. The ranch, located at the end of Pierce Point Road on Tomales Bay, is open every day from sunrise to sunset.
- The Great Beach. South Beach and North Beach make up an incredible expanse of over 10 miles of undeveloped ocean beach to roam also known as "Point Reyes Beach." If you are looking for the drama of heavy surf this is the place to be. Drive-up access from North Beach or South Beach turnoffs. Dogs are allowed on a 6' leash on this beach. Dogs are not permitted north of the North Beach entrance as this area is protected habitat for the endangered snowy plover. Please be very cautious near the water as "sneaker waves" have been known to drag unwitting victims out to sea.
There are over 147 miles of hiking trails located within the park. The park provides an official list of trails.
- Earthquake Trail. (0.6 mile round-trip). A short paved loop explores the San Andreas Fault Zone. Interpretive signs describe the geology of the area. The trail begins in the Bear Valley Picnic Area.
- Kule Loklo Trail. (1.0 mile round-trip). A short path leads up to a replica of a Coast Miwok Indian village. Interpretive signs briefly describe Coast Miwok culture and history and the structures in the village. The trail begins just outside of the front doors of the Bear Valley Visitor Center.
- Woodpecker Trail. (0.7 mile round-trip). A beautiful loop explores local forest and meadows, with interpretive signs describing some plants and animals you may see. The trail starts at the Bear Valley Trailhead.
- Chimney Rock Trail. (1.2 mile round-trip). A spectacular hike with views of Drakes Bay and the Pacific Ocean, great for spring wildflowers! From January through May, look for migrating whales from the point. The trail begins at the Chimney Rock Trailhead, near the Lighthouse.
- Kehoe Beach Trail. (1.2 mile round-trip). A flat trail through Kehoe Marsh and out to Kehoe Beach. Dogs are permitted on leash, but are not allowed in the beach area south of the trail in order to protect the snowy plover. Look for elusive brush rabbits, bobcats and mountain lions which are occasionally sighted in this area. The trail begins on Pierce Point Road.
- McClures Beach Trail. (1.2 mile round-trip). A rugged trail descends 300 feet down a ravine to the ocean and through a beautiful cove backed by rocky cliffs. The trails starts at the end of Pierce Point Road.
- Divide Meadow via Bear Valley Trail. (3.2 mile round-trip). A casual stroll through mixed Douglas fir forest and along Bear Valley Creek to an open grassy meadow. Several benches along the way offer great resting spots in the shade, and Divide Meadow is a nice picnic area in the sun. The trail begins at the Bear Valley Trailhead.
- Mt. Wittenberg Loop. (5 mile round-trip). A steep 1300' climb to the highest point in the park (1407'), with panoramic views of the Seashore and Olema Valley. The trailhead is located O.2 miles up the Bear Valley Trail.
- Coast - Laguna Loop. (5 mile round-trip). An easy walk through coastal scrub and grassland with breath-taking ocean-views. Keep your eyes open for hawks and shorebirds. The trail begins 15 minute driving time from the Bear Valley Visitor Center, off Limantour Road at Laguna Parking Lot.
- Abbots Lagoon. (3 mile round-trip). An easy stroll through open and coastal scrub, with good spring wildflowers and excellent birdwatching, especially in fall and winter. The trailhead is located 25 minutes from the Bear Valley Visitor Center on Pierce Point Road; the trailhead is clearly marked.
- Bolinas Ridge Trail. (2 22 mile round-trip). The best trail in the area for walking a dog, with views of Olema Valley. If you choose to continue beyond the first few miles, you will enter the redwood forest and eventually the chaparral. Turn around and retrace your steps whenever you are ready. The trail begins 5 minutes driving time from Bear Valley Visitor Center, on Sir Francis Drake Highway.
- Arch Rock via Bear Valley. (8.2 mile round-trip). Probably the single most popular trail in the park, the Bear Valley Trail is the most direct walk to the ocean from Bear Valley Visitor Center. This is an excellent trail for a hot day, because it runs along a creek, and because most of it is shaded. The destination, Arch Rock, is an overlook point along the coast; there is no beach access at the end of the trail. The trailhead is at the end of the Bear Valley Parking Lot.
- Bass Lake and Wildcat Beach. (6 mile and 11 mile round-trips). The south end of Coast Trail begins with spectacular ocean views from far above the surf. Bass Lake is unofficially the best swimming at Point Reyes, but access can be challenging and there are no lifeguards-swim at your own risk! If you choose to continue to Wildcat you'll be rewarded with ocean and lake views and a beautiful beach! The trail starts at Palomarin Trailhead, located at the end of Mesa Road.
- Tomales Point Trail. (10 mile round-trip). This open trail through the Tule Elk Range offers spectacular views of Tomales Bay, Bodega Bay, and the Pacific Ocean. It is also a prime wildlife viewing trail, as it is remote and the tule elk are enclosed in this reserve. The first 3 miles to Lower Pierce Point Ranch are well marked and maintained, but the last stretch can be overgrown with bush lupine and other shrubs, so long pants and long sleeves are a good idea. The journey all the way to the Point is worth it, for the view is unparalleled. The trail starts at the end of Pierce Point Road.
The most popular area for kayaking at Point Reyes National Seashore is on Tomales Bay. Tomales Bay is a 15-mile long, 6780-acre tidal water body located in rural west Marin County, California. It is the largest unspoiled coastal embayment on the coast of California. The bay is bounded largely on the west by the Point Reyes National Seashore.
Kayaking is also permitted on Drakes Estero and Limantour Estero from July 1 through February 28. To protect harbor seals from disturbance during the most crucial part of the pupping season, from March 1 through June 30 the National Park Service closes Drakes Estero and Limantour Estero to boating.
Guided kayak trips and rentals are available from local outfitters:
- Blue Water Kayaks (Marshall), 19225 Shoreline Highway. Ph: 663-1743. Rentals (single & double kayaks) available for 2 hours ($30 / $50), 4 hours ($45 / $65), full day ($60 / $85), 24 hours ($90 / $120), 36 hours ($125, $160). Guided trips are also available.
- Blue Water Kayaks (Inverness), 12944 Sir Francis Drake Blvd (at the Golden Hinde Inn). Ph: 669-2600. Rentals (single & double kayaks) available for 2 hours ($30 / $50), 4 hours ($45 / $65), full day ($60 / $85), 24 hours ($90 / $120), 36 hours ($125, $160). Guided trips are also available.
- Point Reyes Outdoors (Point Reyes), ☎ . 11401 State Route 1. Naturalist led kayaking tours on Tomales Bay and Drakes Estero. Kayak camping, classes, private individual and group tours. Open year round.
Gray whales can be seen during their migrations between Mexico and Alaska. The whales often swim close to shore, and can frequently be viewed from the Lighthouse. The best time of year to see the whales is from January through May, with whales being most frequently seen from the Lighthouse area in mid-January and mid-March. Gray whales swim about 5 mph, 24 hours a day with a 4 to 7 week layover (late January through early March) in Baja California. The last to leave Baja are the cows and calves. Therefore, they are the last northbound whales to be seen, April through early May.
Extinct in the park for 150 years, northern elephant seals began re-colonizing Point Reyes in the 1970s, and the population has been growing at the astounding rate of 16% annually. From December through March a breeding colony of elephant seals can be observed from Elephant Seal Overlook near Chimney Rock. The males arrive in December, and pregnant females arrive soon after to give birth to a single pup. Subadult and juvenile animals arrive later, and the colony can number close to one hundred animals. Be aware that elephant seals can weigh up to 5,000 pounds and can be very dangerous; they should not be approached closer than 100 yards.
Tule elk are most often seen at the Tule Elk Preserve at Tomales Point. A large harbor seal rookery can be found at Drakes Estero as well as near the Lighthouse. Sea Lions are most commonly seen at Sea Lion Overlook or near the lighthouse.
The visitor centers offer books of local interest, postcards, and other souvenir items for sale.
At Drakes Beach (approximately 45 minutes drive from the Bear Valley Visitor Center) there is a wonderful albeit rustic cafe that focuses on local food. The restaurant changed management in November, and is being run by local couple Jane Kennedy and Ben Angulo. Kennedy and Angulo have committed to selling local and organic foods, and often list the actual percentage of ingredients that are local right on a menu item. Hamburgers made with beef from Lunny Farm being raised by the owner of Drake's Bay Oysters a mere mile or so from the Cafe, stinging nettles from Star Route Farms in nearby Bolinas, Straus organic milk products, and bread from local favorite Brickmaiden bakery.
The youth hostel is the only lodging in the park, but nearby towns offer a variety of additional options.
- Point Reyes Hostelling International, ☎ . Located off of Limantour Road. The only lodging available within the park. Prices for dorm beds (8 to 10 beds per room) start at $24 per night, and four private rooms that accommodate families or groups up to five people are available for $82 to $120 per night. The hostel is now open 24 hours a day for individual travelers.
There are no organized campgrounds within the park, although backcountry camping is allowed by permit. The organized campgrounds are located at Olema Ranch Campground (415) 663-8001 and Samuel P. Taylor State Park (800) 444-7275.
Point Reyes offers backpackers four hike-in campgrounds from which to choose. Boat-in camping is allowed on national seashore beaches on the west side of Tomales Bay, beginning north of Indian Beach in Tomales Bay State Park. There is no car camping at Point Reyes National Seashore. Dogs are not allowed on any trails or in the designated campgrounds.
Possibly the most dangerous hazard in the park, a sneaker wave is an unexpectedly large wave that is higher, stronger and reaching farther up the beach to levels far beyond where the normal waves reach. There have been several incidents of visitors to Point Reyes being caught by sneaker waves and drowned. Sneaker waves also have the ability to toss around large driftwood logs that may fall on a person, injuring or even killing them. Sneaker waves can occur at any time, day or night, during incoming and outgoing tides, during storms and during sunny calm weather; they are often preceded by a sudden lowering of the water level.
An additional danger comes from rip currents, which are channeled currents of water flowing away from shore that can easily drag strong swimmers out to sea. If you are caught in a rip current, remain calm and swim along the shoreline in order to escape the outgoing current. Once out of the current, swim towards shore.
Another park danger is from hypothermia. The coastal water temperatures at Point Reyes rarely exceed 50°F, and prolonged exposure to these temperatures can result in hypothermia (abnormally low body temperature) or death. Do not stay in the water for more than a few minutes unless you are wearing a wetsuit. Do not wait until you start to shiver or for your lips to turn blue before you get out of the water; if you start to shiver, you are already suffering from mild hypothermia.