San Francisco Stories and Tips

Exploring Point Reyes

Drake's Estero Photo, Point Reyes National Seashore, California

We reached the main Bear Valley Visitor Center just after noon, having leisurely made our way from San Francisco in about 90 minutes. The turnoff onto Bear Valley Road is easy to miss, as it comes up quickly on the west just a few hundred feet past the intersection where Sir Francis Drake Boulevard enters from the east. We finished our lunch in the large picnic area across from the Visitor Center, and then went inside to get our bearings and suggestions for the rest of the afternoon.

Back in the car, Drake Boulevard rejoins Bear Valley Road, which turns off CA 1 to head along Tomales Bay through the small community of Inverness. This long (10 miles), skinny bay (less than a mile across) is a great place for sailing and sea kayaking, and I’d considered coming here for the latter on a previous trip (with Point Reyes Outdoors). Lodging options on the Point itself are located here, with other choices in and outside Point Reyes Station. By this point, CA 1 is now on the other side of Tomales Bay, running by Marconi, now a state park and conference center on the site where the radio pioneer established one of the early radio stations.

Just past Inverness, Drake Boulevard bears off to the left, climbing up the grassy hills that make up Point Reyes. At first, I was surprised by the elevation. Given its smooth, gently curved Pacific shore, and the long arc of Drakes Bay on the east, I expected that this peninsula would be largely composed of dunes just above sea level. But that’s not typical of any part of the California coast, so in the end the road’s up-and-down, over-the-hills character shouldn’t have been a surprise. In fact, it gives a little insight into the character of the land underneath San Francisco, and the challenge involved in building one of the nation’s largest cities on some of the most unsuitable land imaginable.

As the road heads west and south out the Point, you move through the alphabetically labeled farms laid out in the 19th century for tenant diary farming. The alphabet starts with Ranch ‘A’ out near the tip of the Point, so that you drive up from Z to A (the Bear Valley Visitor Center actually occupies Ranch W). Under arrangements with the Park Service, several of the ranches continue to operate, either as dairy or beef cattle ranches.

The presence of cows on these hills seemed somewhat surreal, especially with the ocean visible in the background. The hillsides are pretty steep, and seeing them covered with cattle made it seem as if someone had taken Switzerland and grafted it on to the seashore. It was particularly strange to reach the end of the Point, where the ocean is visible in nearly every direction, and have a few dozen cows contentedly munching grass in every vista.

The end of Point Reyes is roughly hammer shaped, with the lighthouse on the western side. The structure dates from the 1870’s, and a small parking lot for 4-5 dozen cars is at the road’s end. Even on a Monday afternoon, the lot was full. The wind was blowing hard, at least 15-20 mph, and several signs indicated that the trail to the lighthouse was closed when wind speeds exceed 40 mph. From nearly everywhere on this point, you have a tremendous view north along the fantastic beach on Point Reyes’ western side.

Atop the rocky outcrop at the edge is a small visitor center, and a few displays on the history of the lighthouse. Across the sidewalk is a large concrete construction that I first mistook for a WW2 gun emplacement—it’s actually a cistern, a necessary part of living out here at the edge. As a map shows, rainfall decreases dramatically as you move out Point Reyes, making it a requirement to save as many drops as possible (although I’m guessing that the NPS residences out here now have a more reliable supply).

The lighthouse is a popular destination, but it takes some effort to get there. 302 steps (plus a few sections of ramp) take you down to the lighthouse itself. My wife stayed up top, but I took the long set of stairs down to near the water’s surface. Built in 1870, the lighthouse in good shape, and still functions. You can walk the narrow circular path around the housing, although people standing and looking out over the sea or back along the headlands make it difficult to move around. A small building behind the light houses the foghorn apparatus. We’d seen precious few people during the ride out, but the lighthouse was busy with a middle school field trip that was just leaving, plus several dozen other visitors. This is a great spot for whale-watching, with greys migrating past from January to April. Unfortunately, we were right at the tail (ha!) end of the season—a whiteboard indicated that four whales were sighted the day before, but none yet that day.

Returning to our car, we looked up Point Reyes Beach one more time, determined to stop somewhere along that amazing stretch of sand on the way back. We headed east along the headlands towards Chimney Rock, where the ranger said that elephant seals could still be seen with their pups. The road is a one-way, paved strip (with occasional turnouts for pulling off to let oncoming traffic pass). The parking lot is the trailhead for one path that leads further east to Chimney Rock itself, and one that curls back to the west along the northern edge of the headlands to the Elephant Seal Overlook.

A marker at the edge of the trail indicated that 130 seals were seen the day before. I wondered how you could accurately count any herd that large—until I saw them. Splayed across the beach were dozens of seals and their pups, with only one or two of them exhibiting any motion at any given time. Only one was in the water—evidently the aerobic overachiever of the bunch—with just a handful even bothering to roll over during the half-hour we were there. The overlook is about a hundred yards south of their beach, and up 100’ or so. About 10 of us watched the seals, eagerly looking for some action of any sort.

From here we headed back north on Drake Boulevard, stopping this time at South Beach, one of two mid-Point accesses to the Great Beach along the Pacific. From the Lighthouse, you could just make out this location, and the large parking lot here was nearly deserted. Two other cars were here, but neither of their occupants was to be seen on the beach. The surf was rather moderate, leaving several dozen yards of safe sand to stroll along. You could easily see, from the cleanly swept beach, however, that on rough days the surf makes it all the way to the small bluff at the edge of the parking lot.

A little more late-day haze had moved in, and the view back to the headlands was a little less clear than the view in reverse that I’d had over an hour ago. After walking south for a quarter-mile or so, I began to think better of leaving my wife napping alone in this deserted place, and headed back. Back on the Boulevard, we soon reached the turn off to Drakes Beach, which is north of the Elephant seals. There’s a small complex here, all closed on a Monday, with traditional beachside deck construction housing a visitor center and a well-reviewed café. Given the lack of people, it was hard to believe that either one could be sustained here.

The bayside beach was much narrower, although just as sandy. A short patch of dune growth lay between the complex and the edge of the beach, and we stood on the deck surveying the limestone cliffs to either side. It struck me that, over 500 years later, Point Reyes may not be anymore populated than in Drake’s time (whether he landed here or not). Sure, the building behind me had been constructed, but no one else was parked here, no one was on the beach, no one in the buildings, and—aside from the lighthouse and the few people visible at the dairy ranches—we’d seen almost no one during the day. That experience of shoreline and solitude makes Point Reyes worth a return visit.

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