Visitors to San Francisco who want to see Southern California need go no farther than West Marin: Millions of years ago the entire landmass that is now the Point Reyes National Seashore was located more than 300 miles down the coast. It has moved north because this same day trip to West Marin is also a journey to a different continent.

The Point Reyes Peninsula and the Farallon Islands that are 30 miles offshore are part of the Pacific continental plate, while the mainland of Marin and San Francisco are part of the western edge of the North American Plate. These two plates, the largest of a dozen plates that comprise the 62-mile-thick crust of the earth, are grinding together, with the Pacific Plate headed toward Alaska at a rate of about 2 inches per year, on average. The average was boosted on April 18, 1906, when a quiver in the San Andreas Fault launched the peninsula northward nearly 20 feet in a matter of seconds. The fault extends through Tomales Bay, runs offshore of the Golden Gate, and cuts into the California mainland at the southern end of the peninsula on which San Francisco is built. Two or three jolts like the Big One of ’06 and, conceivably, both part of Marin and San Francisco could be islands.

As is often the case, this grand and peculiar land of Point Reyes was discovered by people who were looking for someplace else. In 1579, English adventurer and raconteur Francis Drake was sailing north in search of the Northwest Passage, searching in earnest since he and his 58-man crew were pursued by Spanish galleons, who, in turn, where motivated to recover a boatload of gold, silver, porcelain and spices that Drake had pirated from Spain some months earlier. Drake’s ship, the Golden Hind the last of five that had set sail from England on a mission to circle the globe on behalf of Queen Elizabeth began to take on water in heavy seas off of Cape Mendocino. Drake sailed back to where he had seen the only safe harbor, at a large bay whose pale cliffs reminded his crew of Dover in their homeland now called Drakes Bay. The ship was repaired during a six-week layover, during which time the Englishmen were entertained by their hosts, the Coast Miwok.

At the time of Drake’s arrival, the Miwok had called Point Reyes home for several thousand years. Although two Spanish vessels would make landfall at Drakes Bay during the next 25 years, the Miwok would enjoy about two hundred more years of peace and quiet before their way of life, in a matter of decades, would be destroyed. At that time, the early 1800s, the Miwok lands were granted by the Mexican government’s mission system to the three “Lords of Point Reyes”: James Berry, Rafael Garcia, and Antonio Osio. By the mid-1800s, when the Americans took California from the Mexicans, Point Reyes was divided up and leased as dairy ranches.


Unlike other parts of California, where the story of a native culture’s disappearance plays like a broken record, the lands of the Point Reyes Peninsula remain essentially unchanged from the Miwok days of antiquity. For the latter part of the nineteenth century, the lands of Point Reyes were preserved due to their value as dairy ranches, when ships from San Francisco would sail daily to reap a harvest of butter and other dairy goods. During the post-World War II boom that hit California, grand schemes were underway to construct multi-lane freeways through West Marin and build large suburban developments. But in the early 1960s due to the miraculous efforts of many almost the entire peninsula was designated a National Seashore.

Although many of the same plants and animals share both sides of the San Andreas Fault, keen observers will note differences between these two continental plates. On the mainland the Bolinas Ridge greenish outcrops of serpentine rock are apparent, having been thrust up from the ocean by tectonic movements. The peninsula consists largely of sedimentary rocks, overlaying a granitic basement. The mixed fir forests of the peninsula’s ridges also contrast with the steep grassy slopes on the ridge, which are pocketed with redwoods and oaks.

As different as it may be from the North American plate, the seashore also varies as much along the 25 miles from its southern tip to its northern. On the south, the Bolinas Mesa is crumbling into the sea. Open bluffs face a large lagoon and the spreading waters of the Gulf of the Farallones Marine Sanctuary. Agate Beach offers tide pool exploration, and the southern trails of Palomarin lead to open seascapes.

Moving north from Bolinas to the northern trails of Palomarin and those of Five Brooks and Bear Valley the landscape becomes choked by a mixed Douglas fir forest, with tangled undergrowth of vines, ferns and shrubbery, all of it spreading over a narrow, 1,000-foot high ridge. With this portion of the seashore is the Philip Burton Wilderness Area, featuring backpacking campsites. Trails also run down the Olema Valley, the rift zone of the San Andreas Fault, where scrambled topography has caused Olema Creek to run northward to Tomales Bay, while nearby Pine Gulch Creek flows south to Bolinas Lagoon. Hikers also can take trails eastward across the fault line, up to the Bolinas Ridge, which is part of the GGNRA.

Beginning north of the Olema Valley is Tomales Bay, a narrow 12-mile inlet under whose waters runs the San Andreas Fault. The Bear Valley Visitors

Center, with its system of trails, is located near where the valley meets the bay. Tomales Bay State Park, as well as portions of the PRNS, features calm-water beaches and pine-shaded hiking trails through lands where many Miwok archeological finds have been made. West of these bay beaches, Limantour Road heads over the Inverness Ridge toward the ocean. Here visitors will find chaparral and California-laurel valleys, on trails offering supreme vistas.

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