On the surface, time seems to stand still on Point Reyes, California. There are no strip malls, no fast food joints, nothing to mar the spectacle of nature, which is protected today as a National Seashore. Little has changed in hundreds of years except that the entire area sits astride one of the most active earthquake faults in the world.
Located just north of San Francisco, a roughly triangular peninsula juts out into the Pacific Ocean, connected to the continent by a small ribbon of land. To the south, Bolinas Lagoon and to the north, Tomales Bay, separate the peninsula from the mainland. What makes it different from the rest of California is that the peninsula, which sits on the San Andreas Fault, is a “traveling” strip of land. As evidenced by the 80-100 million-year-old igneous rocks, it actually started out more than 310 miles to the south near Tehachapi in southern California. Over the centuries, movement of the Earth’s tectonic plates has pushed Point Reyes north, at a rate of almost two inches per year, and it is continuing its slow journey. Sometimes, however, an earthquake will accelerate the process. During the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, Point Reyes was propelled 20 feet north along the fault.
You can walk on top of the earthquake fault near the Bear Valley Visitors Center — just don’t expect to see gaping chasms. A quick stroll over the 0.6-mile long Earthquake Trail provides interesting descriptions of the geology of the area and the impact of earthquakes. It includes a wooden fence that was split and moved apart by about 20 feet in 1906.
With over 147 miles of hiking trails of different lengths and difficulty, there is much to see and do on Point Reyes. Many paths take you into the southern part of the peninsula where there are no roads. Some are long enough to require an overnight stay at one of the peninsula’s four campgrounds.
The northern part is more accessible, bisected by Sir Francis Drake Boulevard which takes you from Point Reyes Station west to the lighthouse. Side roads take you north towards Tomales Point or southwest to Limantour Beach a well as off to the beaches. Irrespective of whether you choose to hike or drive, you will be rewarded with spectacular nature and wildlife in this unique land with over 70,000 acres of dunes and beaches, pine forests, lakes and waterfalls, meadows, and grasslands.
Over 900 species of plants are clustered on this small ribbon, including 50 species that are endangered in the rest of California. Point Reyes is home to over 45 percent of the bird species of North America as well as to a number of mammals. During our brief visit, we see Tule Elk, a bobcat, foxes, seals, sea lions, and the ubiquitous cows which supply much of the milk sold in San Francisco.
We spend two days driving and hiking around Point Reyes. One of our favorite walks is to McClures Beach near Tomales Point, just past Pierce Point Ranch (a 19th-century cattle ranch that has been preserved as an outdoor museum). A narrow trail drops down a ravine through the lupine-covered hills to a secluded cove. Steep granite cliffs enclose the areas where waves smash into the sea stacks standing offshore. The largest of these is the Elephant Rock, covered with nesting gulls and cormorants. Pay attention to the tides or you could find yourself cut off from the path, with no escape.
As you walk, keep your eyes open for the herds of Tule elk grazing on the hillsides. They are a conservation success story. In the 1890s the elk had been hunted practically to extinction before two bulls and eight cows were brought to Tomales Point (the Tule Elk Preserve). Today there are more than 450 elk roaming the Preserve.
At the other end of the peninsula, rising from the valley to moorland where cattle graze, is one of the foggiest, windiest lighthouse stations in the US. Wind gusts of 40 mph are common and some as high as 130 mph have been recorded. Thick fog blankets the area for 2,700 hours a year. It is one of the most popular sites for visitors, especially because during the whale migration season (November to March) you can spot the behemoths directly below you. If you are really lucky, you might see a mother and calf.
Three hundred steps lead down to the 1870 lighthouse, which is 294 feet above sea level on a rocky outcrop. It is a steep descent but there are resting platforms where you can stop and admire the view.
When you have finished your visit, drive down to Drake’s Bay (named after the English Explorer, Sir Francis Drake, who is thought to have stopped here in the 1500s to repair his ship, the Golden Hind), for a delicious Mexican lunch at Drake’s Bay Cafe.
Take your mushroom quesadilla and flan (homemade by Jessie Franco and her daughter, Abby) out to the deck and enjoy the sunshine and view of the water. Or if you prefer, stop at Johnson’s Oyster Farm at Schooner Bay to picnic on fresh oysters pulled out of the water as you watch. Just be sure to bring your own oyster knife, gloves, and lemons! These are the only two places on Point Reyes itself where you can get food, besides the tiny town of Inverness on the edge of Tomales Bay.
To truly appreciate the beauty of Point Reyes, visit in every season. Hopefully, the underground activity will remain as serene as the surface for a long time.
We take our entire gamut of lenses to Point Reyes and use almost all of them. The most useful, however, are the 200-400 mm lens with teleconverters to photograph the wildlife, and the 14-28 mm wide-angle lens for landscapes A sturdy tripod to shoot in windy conditions and a neutral density filter to capture silky waves are also put to full use.
IF YOU GO
The best way to reach Point Reyes is to take California Highway 101 north from San Francisco to the Stinson Beach exit and then follow signs north on Highway One as it twists and turns along the coast where magical vistas await. Point Reyes National Seashore can be accessed from Point Reyes Station. There are two Visitor Centers operating at this time — Bear Valley Visitor Center (Open throughout the year from 1000 to 1700 on weekdays and 0900 to 1700 on weekends; Tel 415-464-5100) and the Lighthouse Visitor Center (Open Friday through Monday from 1000 to 1630. Closed Tues and Thurs; Tel 415-669-1534). The stairs to the lighthouse are closed whenever winds exceed 40 mph. During whale migration season the Park Service has a free shuttle bus from Drake’s Beach to the lighthouse parking lot.
Drake’s Beach Cafe (1 Drakes Beach Road, next to the Visitor Center which is closed) is open only on weekends at the moment although there are plans to open on other days as well.
Johnson’s Oyster Farm (17171 Sir Francis Drake Boulevard; tel 415-669-1149) was open at the time of writing; however, efforts were being made to shut it down. Please check before planning to go there.
CAUTION: As tempting as they might look, the beaches along the western shore of Point Reyes are dangerous because of riptides and undercurrents. There are also rogue or “sneaker” waves that can occur. These are unusually large and powerful waves that slam onto the beach unexpectedly and can carry off the unsuspecting visitor. They can occur at any time without warning.