Point Reyes National Seashore
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 in 1962.
Point Reyes lies at the tip of a narrow peninsula which sticks out some 15 mi (24 km) 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.
It's also possible to get to the park from Highway 1, north from Stinson Beach or south from Sonoma County.
- 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.
Fees and permits
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.
- 1 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 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 Th-M 10AM to 4:30PM. 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.
- 2 Bear Valley Visitor Center (1 mile off of Highway 1 along Bear Valley Road). The park's primary Visitor Center provides an orientation of the park's roads, trails, and human and natural history. The interior exhibit space provides a glimpse of the diverse ecosystems and cultural heritage of the park. Audio-visual programs, shown in the auditorium, are available upon request. Ranger-led programs are offered on weekends. Natural history books, cards, and posters are for sale in the bookstore. Permits for backcountry camping, as well as beach fire permits, may be obtained here.
- 3 Kenneth C. Patrick Visitor Center, 1 Drakes Beach Rd. Located at beautiful Drakes Beach, the Kenneth C. Patrick Visitor Center contains exhibits that focus on maritime exploration in the 1500s, marine fossils, and marine environments. A minke whale skeleton is suspended from the ceiling. Allow 20–30 minutes to view exhibits. Park- and ocean-themed books, guides, and postcards, and maps, along with coffee and packaged snacks are for sale in the PRNSA bookstore adjacent to the Kenneth C. Patrick Visitor Center.
- 4 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.
- 5 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-foot 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 mi (237 km) of hiking trails in the park. The park provides an official list of trails.
- Earthquake Trail. (0.6-mile/1-km 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/1.6-km 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/1.1-km 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/2-km 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/2-km 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/2-km round-trip). A rugged trail descends 300 feet (90 m) 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/5.1-km 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/8-km round-trip). A steep 1,300 ft (400 m) climb to the highest point in the park (1407 feet), with panoramic views of the Seashore and Olema Valley. The trailhead is O.2 miles (320 m) up the Bear Valley Trail.
- Coast - Laguna Loop. (5-mile/8-km 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 minutes driving time from the Bear Valley Visitor Center, off Limantour Road at Laguna Parking Lot.
- Abbots Lagoon. (3-mile/4.8-km 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 25 minutes from the Bear Valley Visitor Center on Pierce Point Road; the trailhead is clearly marked.
- Bolinas Ridge Trail. (22-mile/35-km 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/13.3-km 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/10-km and 11-mile/17.6-km 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 at the end of Mesa Road.
- Tomales Point Trail. (10-mile/16-km 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/4.8 km 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 25 mi (40 km) long, 6,780 acres (2,740 hectares) 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, ☏ +1 415-663-1743. 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), ☏ +1 415-669-2600. 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, ☏ +1 415-663-8192. 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 100 animals. Elephant seals can weigh up to 5,000 lb (2,300 kg) and can be very dangerous; do not approach closer than 100 yards (90 m).
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.
Options for dining are somewhat limited in the Point Reyes region. As a result, it is recommended to eat nearby or pack meals for later. Although on the expensive side, the cities of Inverness and Point Reyes Station both have a variety of meal options and are conveniently located on the main roads. Notable eateries nearby include Bovine Bakery in Point Reyes Station and Hog Island Oyster Company in Marshall (though be prepared for a wait).
- 1 Point Reyes Hostelling International, ☏ +1 415-663-8811. 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 open 24 hours a day for individual travellers.
- 2 Osprey Peak Bed & Breakfast, 10 Miwok Way, Inverness (1.3 miles (2.1 km) west of downtown Inverness, access to Miwok Way & Osprey Peak via common entrance with Inverness Valley Inn located at 13275 Sir Francis Drake Blvd, follow signs uphill to Osprey Peak), ☏ +1-415-669-1467. Check-in: 4PM, check-out: 11AM. Serene getaway. Only two quiet rooms with queen beds and private baths. Japanese farmhouse inspired design with modern conveniences. Innkeeper is Certified Practitioner of CranioSacral balancing sessions. See Website for details. Highest rated lodging in West Marin. $150-215, single or double, including deluxe West Marin buffet breakfast.
- Olema House Point Reyes (formerly The Lodge at Point Reyes), 10021 Coastal Highway 1, Olema, CA 94950, ☏ +1 415 663-9000, [email protected]. 24 rooms, including two cottages, on four acres. In October 2020 the hotel was named the best in the nation by Condé Nast Traveler readers for its views and top-notch dining services.
There are no organized campgrounds within the park, although backcountry camping is allowed by permit. The organized campgrounds are located at Olema Ranch Campground +1 415 663-8001 and Samuel P. Taylor State Park +1-800-444-7275.
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.
- 3 Coast Campground. 12 individual sites, 2 group sites. Coast Camp is nestled within a small coastal grassy valley with easy access to the beach and tidepools. The beach is within 200 meters (200 yards) of the campground. The shortest approach to Coast Camp is via the 2.9 km (1.8 miles) slightly uphill hike on the Laguna and Firelane Trails, starting at the Laguna Trailhead just past the hostel. Sites 1-7 are in a small semi-protected canyon. Campers must obtain a camping permit at the Bear Valley Visitor Center. $20 Regular site, $40 Small Group Site, $50 Large Group Site (2020 rates).
- 4 Glen Campground. 12 individual sites. Glen Camp is a quiet and secluded camp deep within a wooded valley protected from ocean breezes. The shortest hike to this camp is a moderate 7.4 km (4.6 miles) from the Bear Valley Trailhead. To access Glen Camp by bicycle, which requires a strenuous 10.1 km (6.3 mile) bike ride, start at the Five Brooks Trailhead. It is a 4 km (2.5 mile) strenuous hike to the beach at Wildcat Camp. No groups, horses, or pack animals are allowed at Glen Camp. Campers must obtain a camping permit at the Bear Valley Visitor Center. $20 Regular site, $40 Small Group Site, $50 Large Group Site (2020 rates).
- 5 Sky Campground. 11 individual sites, 1 group site. Sky Campground is located on the western side of Mt. Wittenberg at an elevation of 310 meters (1025 feet). In clear weather, it has a sweeping view of Point Reyes, Drakes Bay, and the Pacific Ocean. The easiest and shortest approach is a 2.2 km (1.4 miles) moderate uphill hike or bicycle ride from the Sky Trailhead (elevation 210 meters (680 feet)) on Limantour Road. It is a steep 6.4 km (4 miles) hike down to the beach. Eleven individual sites and one group site. Campers must obtain a camping permit at the Bear Valley Visitor Center. $20 Regular site, $40 Small Group Site, $50 Large Group Site (2020 rates).
- 6 Wildcat Campground. 5 individual sites, 3 group sites. Wildcat Campground is located in an open meadow on a bluff overlooking the ocean with a short walk to the beach. It is a 10 kilometer (6.3 miles) hike from Bear Valley or an 8.8 kilometer (5.5 miles) hike on the Coast Trail from Palomarin with access to Bass Lake. The only bicycling route is via a strenuous 10.7 kilometer (6.7 miles) ride along the Stewart Trail from the Five Brooks Trailhead. Three of the individual sites only hold up to four people. Campers must obtain a camping permit at the Bear Valley Visitor Center. $20 Regular site, $40 Small Group Site, $50 Large Group Site (2020 rates).
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 (10 °C), 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.
- Mill Valley – more nature awaits in the form of Muir Woods and hiking trails up Mount Tamalpais.
- Napa Valley – the many wineries in America's largest wine producing region make for a great day trip.