With most of the peninsula designated as National Seashore, it is a refuge for both wildlife and people.
Wind And Fog
Point Reyes also happens to be the windiest spot on the Pacific Coast, and the second foggiest place on the North American continent. The gentle hills come to an abrupt halt at the edge of the ocean, sometimes in a tranquil expanse of dunes and expansive beaches, but more often in cliffs that plunge hundreds of feet to the sea below. It is a wild, enthrallingly beautiful place.
About the climate: Unless you enjoy unrelenting fog, I’d say avoid the summer, when the chilling fog is most tenacious. Winters are actually a good time to visit, as is spring. We were there mid-May, and although the mornings dawned foggy and cool, each day cleared and turned sunny. Spring is also the season for wildflowers, and we hiked through vast fields of giant lavender and yellow lupine, stands of deep purple iris, and giant cow parsnip.
Point Reyes National Seashore is not a place that can be seen in a few hours—even a full day won’t do it justice. Winding roads meander across the peninsula, and it’s a 20-45 minute drive from the visitor center to access trailheads scattered across the park. We grouped our hikes together, choosing a couple of short hikes each day so that we could experience the variety of landscapes. Even in three full days, we barely scratched the surface of all there is to do in the park.
Here, the highlights of our time in Point Reyes:
The Bear Valley Visitor Center
The excellent visitor center has beautiful displays on the wildlife, geology, and history of Point Reyes Peninsula, including exhibits on the Coast Miwok, the native peoples. A short trail from the visitor center leads to a full-size replica of a Coast Miwok Village.
This is the place to pick up maps of the National Seashore and hiking trails and to get up-to-date information on trails, including trail closures, wildflower bloom, and weather conditions at the lighthouse (too much fog and you won’t be able to see anything; too windy and they close the stairway).
Hiking At Point Reyes
We hiked trails through wetlands to beaches, over sand dunes, along bays, and high above the Pacific. Wildflower season was in full bloom, and we lucked out in seeing a pod of gray whales and herds of tule elk. For being so close to a major population area, we were surprised to find so few other people on the trails. A few of our favorites:
~Limantour Spit Trail
A two-mile (one-way) scenic trail that starts off through meadows, leads to an estuary, and then after a steep hike over the dunes, opens to beautiful, expansive Drake’s Beach, which we shared with only a couple of other people. At the tail end of whale watching season, we were fortunate to see a pod of gray whales cavorting in the water just offshore.
A two-mile (one-way) trail through forest and stately cow parsnip leads to an expansive view of scenic mudflats and oyster farms below. You might not think of mudflats as picturesque, but these truly were—the designs made by the tides look like artwork when viewed from above.
A lovely 2.5-mile (one-way) trail that begins with a stroll through open grasslands and coastal scrub, the birding is wonderful all along the way. The grassland and marsh birds love perching on the fence posts along the trail, making for easy photo ops. A bridge connects the lagoons and turns into a sandy beach trail that leads to beautiful Great Beach. This was yet another beach we had to ourselves.
~Tomales Point Trail
An open trail through grasslands and high along a bluff, the views are magnificent. On one side, you have views of Tomales Bay, and on the other, the Pacific Ocean. This is also the Tule Elk Reserve, and is where you’ll most likely be treated to sightings of the endangered tule elk. The entire trail is just over 5 miles one-way, but even if you hike only 2 miles to Windy Gap, you’ll have great views. Avoid this trail on a foggy or windy day—with fog you’ll have no views, and wind would be miserable on this high, open trail.
The Point Reyes Lighthouse
Located at the very tip of California’s longest peninsula, the lighthouse at Point Reyes protected ships entering or leaving the San Francisco Bay for more than a century.
While most lighthouses are built high on a promontory, the Point Reyes Lighthouse was built low so the light would be below the fog. On a cool, misty morning, we trekked 308 steep steps down to the lighthouse and back up again (the equivalent of climbing 30 stories), enjoying the sight of hundreds of Surf Scoters and Common Murre floating on the ocean far below.
Retired as a historic relic in 1975 when automated lights took over, it’s now a part of the national park, with an interesting small museum and lighthouse tour.
The lighthouse tour basically consists of walking inside and looking up at the light, but it’s pretty cool. It’s an original first-order Fresnel lens that was displayed at the 1867 World’s Fair in Paris before it was dismantled and shipped across the ocean to Point Reyes. As such, it’s more ornate than the usual lighthouse lights.
The wind-sculpted cypress along the trail bear witness to the insanely high winds that buffet the landscape. The winds are so fierce that the stairs are often closed for fear that a hapless tourist might be blown away. Check with the visitor center before you go; they keep track of lighthouse conditions.
Cute Little Point Reyes Station
The hamlet of Point Reyes Station (population 850) is a small and lovely dairy cow-themed town just outside of Point Reyes National Seashore. It’s the place to go for any services you might need (grocery, post office, gas station) and for delightful shops, galleries, and eateries.
The emphasis is on local, sustainable, and of course, anything dairy. Which means yummy pastries made with local butter at Bovine Bakery, exquisite cheeses from local pastured milk crafted by Cowgirl Creamery, and ice cream churned by Straus Family Creamery, one of our long-time favorite organic dairies.
Locals say the best place for a special dinner is Osteria Stellina, and we agree. In the cozy dining room, we enjoyed a delicious meal of locally sourced foods, and a fun evening socializing with friendly folks from Point Reyes Station and San Francisco. We got invited by our next-door table mates for a personal tour of the de Young museum (one of our favorite experiences when we were in the city) next time we’re in San Francisco. More reason to return to the area!
Where To Stay
Unless you’re backpacking, there are no camping facilities within Point Reyes National Seashore. But that’s fine, because Olema Campground is just 3 miles outside the park in Olema, near the Bear Valley Visitor Center.
We enjoyed our stay in the campground; it was quiet, peaceful, and convenient. There’s a laundry, post office, and propane on site, and the staff is helpful. We paid just over $45 a night with our Good Sam discount—the weekly rate drops it to under $40, and we’ll go for that next time we’re in the area. (Samuel Taylor State Park is just 6 miles away, but for smaller RV’s only—no hookups and $35 a night.)