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 The lighthouse no longer operates—it’s been replaced by an automated light on the cliffs below—but it’s a fine place to snuggle up to your travel companion while you gaze wistfully out to sea.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 parking lot, a short uphill walk leads to the Lighthouse Visitor Center and an observation deck where you can look down at jagged rock 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 gray whales pass by this spot on their annual migration from Alaska to Mexico, so stop at the visitor center 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 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Friday–Monday but the visitor center 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 one 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, breakers 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 center at Bear Valley is a great place to start exploring, and kids love its interactive displays. Get updates on whale watching (typically January to mid-April), wildflower displays (best in early-to-late spring) and hiking trail conditions. Smaller visitor centers 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 fall rutting season. Then move on to 200-acre Abbotts Lagoon to witness rich bird life (more than 45 percent of North America’s bird species have been spotted at Point Reyes). For beach walks, try dog-friendly Kehoe Beach or kid-friendly Drakes Beach. When the tide rolls out, explore the tidepools at McClures Beach. When the fog rolls in, head to Bear Valley and hike trails through dense forests of Douglas fir and Bishop pine.
Five Brooks Ranch in Little River offers the opportunity to explore the seashore from a completely different vantage point: atop a trusty steed. With access to more than 120 miles/193 kilometers of trails, expert guides lead horseback riders on trips lasting anywhere from one hour to an entire day (pony rides are also available for youngsters). The popular Fir Top Trail ride climbs 1,300 feet/396 meters through towering groves to the Inverness Ridge, offering glimpses of the roaring Pacific below.
For more iconic ocean views that are well worth the effort, take the 308 steps down (and yes, up on the way back) to the 1870s Point Reyes Lighthouse. 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 harbored his ship the Golden Hind here in 1579 while exploring the New World. A small visitor center and bookstore are open on 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 brayed-tan sand, wild waves, and unforgettable sunsets. (Access is at the parking lots for North Beach and South Beach.) Another great drive-up beach is Limantour, located about 20 minutes’ drive 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 southeast end.
If you’re willing to walk a bit, you’ll find seclusion at Point Reyes’ hike-in beaches, including dog-friendly Kehoe Beach on the peninsula’s northern tip. An easy, nearly level trail skirts alongside Kehoe Marsh, where songbirds flit, and pink and yellow mustard grows waist-high in the spring. Near the ocean, the marshy terrain morphs into giant sand dunes and sandstone cliffs. Farther north, near Pierce Point Ranch, is photogenic McClures Beach, set in a cove bookended by rugged cliffs. During low tides, head south to explore rocky tidepools teeming with sea life. At minus 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 homemade jam, local gossip, and live music every Saturday from June to October. The low-key, all-organic Point Reyes Farmers Market is smaller than many, but it's a prime example of how quality trumps quantity. Browse the booths featuring local oysters, grass-fed meats, artisan cheeses, home-grown sheep’s wool, olive oil, farm-fresh eggs, and picked-at-dawn vegetables.
After you’ve checked out all the offerings in the main space, look for a simple white banner in the back that says “GBD,” which stands for Golden, Brown, Delicious—three words that perfectly describe the incredible grilled cheese sandwiches made by Osteria Stellina. The secret recipe? Wood-fired Brickmaiden bread dipped in Straus Creamery butter and oozing Cowgirl Creamery cheese. Settle down on a hay bale and enjoy—this snack is perfect for fueling up before a hike in nearby Point Reyes National Seashore. But if you’re more into noshing than hiking, stroll downtown’s three or so blocks and you’ll find more culinary gold, like the crazy-good scones and muffins at Bovine Bakery and champagne-style honey mead at Heidrun Meadery.
Before you head to the market, be sure to check their calendar of events to see what will be going on. They host musicians playing everything from bluegrass to Brazilian jazz to Middle Eastern music weekly, and also welcome chefs and, in collaboration with Point Reyes Books, cookbook authors to take part in the Chef’s Booth series, where they can talk about their latest releases and lead a cooking demonstration with products featured at the market. (Alice Waters of Chez Panisse and French Laundry fame was an early participant.) Have kids? They’ll have a blast at the KidsZone, where there are crafts, a mini farm stand, and a play kitchen. Children must be accompanied by an adult.
If you’d like to have a knowledgeable guide unlock the secrets of Point Reyes’ foodie nirvana, ride along with the agricultural and culinary experts at West Marin Food & Farm Tours. Four- to five-hour tours offer insight into family farming and artisan food production and give you a backstage pass to see how cheese is made, oysters are farmed, and grass-fed animals are raised. Pick your flavor—the company offers an Oyster Lover’s Tour, Cheese Lover’s Tour, or the all-encompassing Flavors of West Marin Tour.
In Point Reyes, deer and tule elk roam the grasslands, sea lions and seals bask on the beaches, songbirds flit through the coastal chaparral, herons and egrets feast in the marshes, and gray whales cruise near the shoreline. It’s almost impossible not to see wild creatures on a visit here, but to maximize 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—a subspecies of elk found only in California—roam throughout the peninsula. The 500-pound elk were once common, but by the 1870s they were nearly hunted out of existence. Today Point Reyes’ reestablished herd numbers more than 500 animals. When the bull elks are in their “rut” (typically July through September), you may hear the males bugling or sparring with a raucous clash of 40-pound antlers. Year-round, tule elk graze near the road leading to Pierce Point Ranch. If you don’t spot them from your car, try hiking 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 18 feet and weigh more than two tons—the seals recline on the beaches, brawl with their neighbors, and make awkward, jerking movements as they scooch from sand to sea and back. To see them, park at the Chimney Rock Trailhead, then 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.
Birding 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 neighboring 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.