What’s Best: A historic lighthouse, wildflowers, migrating whales, birthing elephant seals, and postcard views all attract a pilgrimage of admirers to these high cliffs at the western reaches of the seashore.
Parking: From Hwy. 1 between Pt. Reyes Station and Olema, turn west on Sir Francis Drake Blvd. Continue through Inverness and veer left toward lighthouse, past Pierce Point Rd. Continue on Drake Blvd. for about 12 ml. to parking at road’s end. Note: Additional parking in hiking description. Be Aware: On weekends and holidays, from January through early April, the road may be closed past South Beach. Visitors are directed to a shuttle bus at Drakes Bay; ticket fee for adults, children are free.
Agency: Point Reyes National Seashore
Point Reyes, jutting 10 miles out to sea, is the windiest place on the Pacific Coast and the second-foggiest. Since the Agustin wrecked here in 1595, some 37 other ships have met a similar fate. Balmy, sunny days occur more frequently in the fall and winter. From the Point Reyes Lighthouse parking lot, head down the cliff-side road to your right. After passing through a cypress tree tunnel, you’ll come to the Lighthouse Visitors Center and adjacent historic buildings. Behind the center is an observation deck, 600 feet above sea level. The deck is a popular spot to observe migrating gray whales, which head south beginning mid-December and return in March and early April.
The lighthouse is below, down more than 300 concrete steps, set on a point that was blasted away in order to put the beacon under the fog line when it was constructed in 1870. The lighthouse’s 6000-pound French Fresnel lens was shipped around the Horn to San Francisco and then carted out here by oxen. The beacon warned mariners until 1975, when automated lights were installed by the Coast Guard. During the morning of 1906, when the lighthouse and entire peninsula moved 20 feet northward during an earthquake, the lighthouse was out of service for 13 minutes. Note: Lighthouse stairs are normally open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m, Thursday through Monday, but may closed during high winds.
POINT REYES HEAD MAP SAN FRANCISCO Photo Gallery
Chimney Rock and the Life Boat Station tide pools show the head’s wilder side. Parking: Veer left on a narrow paved road, where the lighthouse road forks right. Continue for a mile through pasturelands to the trailhead. Chimney Rock is a now-fallen arch that is the eastern end of the hammer-head point. The trail begins to the right. You curve atop an open hill, which in late winter and spring boasts a plethora of coastal wildflowers. During winter rains and the foggy days of summer, the same path may evoke the Scottish moors at their most forlorn a different kind of drama.
Staying left, the trail meanders to the point, where you can view Chimney Rock, as well as the entire sweep of coastline from Drakes Bay around to Duxbury Point at Bolinas. Be Aware: Cliffs are sheer and unstable; stay back.
Point Reyes lighthouse
The historic Life Boat Station is set in a protected cove on the Drakes Bay side of the point. From the parking area, walk down the road that points to the seal-viewing area, and keep right. The wood-frame station building was built in 1927, although lifesaving boats have been at work near the lighthouse since 1890. This station was active until 1968. At low tide, the rocky beach beyond the station features some of the best tide pools on the northern peninsula.
Just down from the Chimney Rock trailhead is the seal-viewing area. The massive elephant seals, numbering some 1,500 in these waters, have made a comeback since being hunted to near extinction. They haul out to breed from December through March: quite a sight. Mature bulls can tip the scales at 5,000 pounds, but, lovesick, they do not eat during the breeding period and lose up to 30 percent of their fat. Seal pups start at around 65 pounds, but during the first month, fortified by mother’s milk that is 55 percent fat, they pork up to 300 pounds. Be Aware: Elephant seals are protected by federal law; obey posted closure areas and keep 100 yards away.
Bike: The short roads to the Lighthouse Visitors Center and Life Boat
Station and Chimney Rock Trail are all open to bicycles. The best bet for cyclists, however, may be to come out on winter and spring weekends during the peak times when the road out to the lighthouse is closed at South Beach. You can jump on the pedals and ride out to the point. About 3.5 miles from the road closure you come to a fork: The right fork goes 1.5 miles to the lighthouse, and the left goes the same distance to Chimney Rock. Rolling pasturelands with blue-water vistas border the roads.