Perched on the windiest and foggiest point on the West Coast, the Point Reyes Lighthouse steered ships away from the peninsula’s treacherous northern point from 1870 to 1975, its glowing light visible for 24 nautical miles. At sunset each day for more than 100 years, the lightkeeper lit an oil lamp inside the first-order Fresnel lens, and 1,000 glass prisms directed the beam to the horizon.
Today the iconic Point Reyes Lighthouse beckons visitors to this isolated seaside promontory to get a glimpse of California’s nautical history and take in divine Pacific vistas. The lighthouse no longer operates and has been replaced by an automated light on the cliffs below, but it’s a fine place to snuggle up to your travel companion while you gaze wistfully out to sea. The breeze rarely ceases here, even on relatively balmy days. Forty-mile-per-hour winds are common, so dress appropriately.
From the car park, a short uphill walk leads to the Lighthouse Visitor Centre and an observation deck where you can look down at jagged rocky outcrops dotted with hundreds of seabirds including a massive colony of common murres, crashing Pacific waves, and a remarkable 308-step staircase descending to the lighthouse. More than 30,000 grey whales pass by this spot on their annual migration from Alaska to Mexico, so stop at the visitor centre to check the whiteboard for 'Today’s Whale Count'. From December to April, it’s usually in the hundreds. Then walk down the stairs to explore the venerable lighthouse buildings. They are perched atop a rocky pinnacle, the Pacific’s gleaming surface spreading to the horizon, the tumultuous sea directly below.
Insider tip: the stairs to the lighthouse are open only 10 am–4.30 pm Friday–Monday but the visitor centre and observation deck are open seven days a week. On weekends and holidays from January to mid-April, the Park Service operates a mandatory shuttle bus to the lighthouse.
Jutting dramatically out into the Pacific, the West Coast’s only national seashore extends across 70,000 acres of a large triangular peninsula that appears to have broken away from the Northern California coast. The coastal preserve of Point Reyes National Seashore, located an hour north of San Francisco, protects more than 1,500 animal and plant species in its watery utopia of beaches, lagoons, estuaries and ponds that surround a densely wooded interior. Here, waves pound remote beaches, wisps of fog wash over coastal hills, elephant seals brawl on the sand and tule elk roam in wild meadows.
In this lush green-and-blue wonderland, binoculars and hiking boots are necessary equipment; kayaks are optional but useful. The park’s main visitor centre at Bear Valley is a great place to start exploring, and children love its interactive displays. Here you can get updates on whale watching (typically January to mid-April), wildflower displays (best in early-to-late spring) and hiking trail conditions. Smaller visitor centres are located at Drakes Beach and the Point Reyes Lighthouse.
For wildlife watching, head to Tomales Point to see the tule elk, especially during the autumn rutting season. Then move on to the 200-acre Abbotts Lagoon to witness a wealth of bird life (more than 45 per cent of North America’s bird species have been spotted at Point Reyes). For beach walks, try the dog-friendly Kehoe Beach or the child-friendly Drakes Beach. When the tide rolls out, explore the rockpools at McClures Beach. When the fog rolls in, head to Bear Valley and walk along trails through dense forests of Douglas firs and Bishop pines. For iconic views of the Pacific, take the 308 steps down (and yes, up on the way back) to the 1870s' Point Reyes Lighthouse. And at the end of the day, enjoy a meal of locally grown oysters and artisan cheese in Point Reyes Station or Inverness, then retire to one of several intimate bed-and-breakfasts or country inns.
With more than 80 miles of Pacific shoreline, the Point Reyes peninsula features a diverse array of beaches for beachcombing, sunbathing, kayaking, kite flying and bird-watching. Want to drive right up and plop down in the sand? Then head to Drakes Beach. Backed by tall cliffs, this sheltered cove provides refuge from Point Reyes’ blustery winds and safe swimming in the relatively calm waters of Drakes Bay. Look for the small memorial to Sir Francis Drake, who may have harboured his ship the Golden Hind here in 1579 while exploring the New World. A small visitor centre and bookshop are open at weekends.
Nearby is Point Reyes Beach (also known as The Great Beach or Ten Mile Beach), which spans 11 captivating miles of sand and surf. You never know what you’ll find on a long walk here, but count on tan-coloured sand, wild waves and unforgettable sunsets. (Access is via the car parks for North Beach and South Beach.) Another great beach to drive to is Limantour, located about 20 minutes’ from Bear Valley Visitor Center. The mile-long beach is backed by low, grassy dunes, so it’s ideal for picnicking, even on windy days. There’s plenty of space for everybody, including Rover and Lassie - dogs are permitted on its south-east end.
If you’re willing to walk a bit, you’ll find seclusion at Point Reyes’ foot-access-only beaches, including dog-friendly Kehoe Beach on the peninsula’s northern tip. An easy, nearly level path skirts Kehoe Marsh, where songbirds flit, and pink and yellow mustard grows waist-high in the spring. As you near the ocean, the marshy terrain morphs into giant sand dunes and sandstone cliffs. Further north, near Pierce Point Ranch, is photogenic McClures Beach, set in a cove book-ended by rugged cliffs. During low tides, head south to explore rockpools teeming with sea life. At very low tides, a narrow passageway is revealed. Pass through this rock-lined gap to gain access to a secluded cove, connected to McClures by a narrow shelf of rock.
Outside Toby's Feed Barn in Point Reyes Station, it's all about straw hats, local gossip and live bluegrass in this back-of-beyond hamlet north of San Francisco. This low-key, all-organic market has only a handful of booths, but in this teeny, never-too-touristy town, it's a prime example of how quality trumps quantity. Look for a simple white banner in back that says GBD. That stands for Golden, Brown, Delicious—three words that perfectly describe what’s sold here, incredible grilled cheese sandwiches: fresh bread from Osteria Stellina (one of the town’s quietly amazing restaurants), oozing with local Cowgirl Creamery cheese. Settle down on a bale of hay and enjoy—perfect for fuelling up before a hike in nearby Point Reyes National Seashore.
At Point Reyes, deer and tule elk roam the grasslands, sea lions and seals bask on the beaches, songbirds flit through the coastal brushwood, herons and egrets feast in the marshes, and grey whales cruise near the shoreline. It’s almost impossible not to see wild creatures on a visit here, but to maximise your chances, sign up for a small-group tour with Point Reyes Safaris, led by a professional photographer and naturalist. Or set out on your own to one of these wildlife-rich spots:
Tule elk at Tomales Point
Majestic tule elk are a subspecies of elk found only in California and roam throughout the peninsula. The 230 kg elk were once common, but by the 1870s they had been nearly hunted out of existence. Today Point Reyes’ re-established herd numbers more than 500 animals. When the bull elks are in their 'rut' (typically from July to September), you may hear the males bugling or sparring with raucous clashes of their 18 kg antlers. Year-round, tule elk graze near the road leading to Pierce Point Ranch. If you don’t spot them from your car, try taking a walk along the Tomales Point Trail.
Elephant seals at Chimney Rock
From December to March, more than 1,000 elephant seals take over the beaches and give birth to pups at Chimney Rock. Easily identified by their massive, blubbery size, male elephant seals can grow longer than five metres and weigh more than two tons. The seals recline on the beaches, brawl with their neighbours and make awkward, jerking movements as they shuffle from sand to sea and back. To see them, park at the Chimney Rock Trailhead and walk down the paved road to the Elephant Seal Overlook. By late spring, the show is mostly over, although smaller numbers of seals can be seen in almost every month of the year.
Birdwatching at Abbotts Lagoon
You can spot birds everywhere at Point Reyes, but for sheer diversity and easy viewing, head to the brackish waters of Abbotts Lagoon and its neighbouring freshwater ponds. Follow the trail along its edge and you can easily spot western grebes, pie-billed grebes, coots, black-shouldered kites and Caspian terns. The autumn migration season is the best time to build up your birder’s life list, but you’ll find interesting sightings here year-round.