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Visiting the Point Reyes National Seashore

A woman walks down a trail in a grassy field at the Point Reyes Seashore.
Hiking along the Point Reyes Seashore Trail. Photo © Miguel Vieira, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

map of Marin County
Marin County
A haven for wilderness buffs, the Point Reyes area boasts acres of unspoiled forest and beach country. Expect cool weather even in the summer, but enjoy the lustrous green foliage and spectacular scenery that result. Point Reyes National Seashore (1 Bear Valley Rd., 415/464-5100, daily dawn-midnight) stretches for miles between Tomales Bay and the Pacific, north from Stinson Beach to the tip of the land at the end of the bay. Dedicated hikers can trek from the bay to the ocean, or from the beach to land’s end. The protected lands shelter a range of wildlife. In the marshes and lagoons, a wide variety of birds—including three different species of pelicans—make their nests. Over a thousand elephant seals call these beaches home, while endangered Myrtle’s silverspot butterflies can be found in the dunes and grasslands. The pine forests shade shy deer and larger elk.

There are also a number of ranches, dairy farms, and even an oyster farm that still operate inside the park. Grandfathered in at the time the park was created, these sustainable, generations-old family farms give added character and historical depth to Point Reyes. Another remnant of past times is the historic Point Reyes Lighthouse, which is located on the cliffs of the Point Reyes Headlands, a point of land that is supposed to be the windiest place on the West Coast and the second foggiest spot in North America.

The Point Reyes area includes the tiny towns of Olema, Point Reyes Station, and Inverness.

Visitors Centers

The Bear Valley Visitors Center (1 Bear Valley Rd., 415/464-5100, Mon.-Fri. 9am-5pm, Sat.-Sun. 8am-5pm) acts as the central visitors center for Point Reyes National Seashore. In addition to maps, fliers, and interpretive exhibits, you can watch a short video introducing the Point Reyes region. You can also talk to the park rangers, either to ask advice or to obtain beach fire permits and backcountry camping permits.

Two other visitors centers are located at different spots in the vast acreage of Point Reyes. The Ken Patrick Visitors Center (Drakes Beach, 415/669-1250, Sat.-Sun. 10am-5pm) sits right on the beach in a building made of weathered redwood. Its small museum focuses on the maritime history of the region, and it acts as the host area for the annual Sand Sculpture event held on the beach every Labor Day Sunday.

Finally, the Historic Lighthouse and Visitors Center (415/669-1534, Thurs.-Mon. 10am-4:30pm) is the most difficult of the three to access. You must walk about 0.5 miles up a steep hill from the parking lot to get to this visitors center. You’ll find the lighthouse right at your feet once you arrive.

Point Reyes Historic Lighthouse

The jagged rocky shores of Point Reyes make for great sightseeing but incredibly dangerous maritime navigation. In 1870 the first lighthouse was constructed on the headlands. Its first-order Fresnel lens threw light far enough for ships to see and avoid the treacherous granite cliffs. Yet the danger remained, and soon after, a lifesaving station was constructed alongside the light station. It wasn’t until the 20th century, when a ship-to-shore radio station and newer lifesaving station were put in place, that the Point Reyes shore truly became safer for ships.

The Point Reyes Historic Lighthouse (415/669-1534, Thurs.-Mon. 10am-4:30pm) still stands today on the point past the visitors center, accessed by descending a sometimes treacherous, cold, and windblown flight of over 300 stairs, which often closes to visitors during bad weather for safety reasons. It’s worth a visit; the Fresnel lens and original machinery all remain in place, and the adjacent equipment building contains foghorns, air compressors, and other safety implements from decades gone by. Check the website for information about twice-monthly special events when the light is switched on.

Getting There and Around

Point Reyes is only about an hour north of San Francisco by car, but getting here can be quite a drive for newcomers. From the Golden Gate Bridge, take U.S. 101 north to just south of San Rafael. Take the Sir Francis Drake Boulevard exit toward San Anselmo. Follow Sir Francis Drake Boulevard west for 20 miles to the small town of Olema and Highway 1. At the intersection with Highway 1, turn right (north) to Point Reyes Station and the Bear Valley Visitors Center.

A slower but more scenic route follows Highway 1 into Point Reyes National Seashore and provides access to the trails near Bolinas in the southern portion of the park. From the Golden Gate Bridge, take U.S. 101 north to the Mill Valley/Stinson Beach exit. Follow the road under the freeway, and when the road splits at the stoplight, turn left onto Shoreline Highway (Hwy. 1). Follow Shoreline Highway, and do not turn right onto Panoramic Highway, for almost 30 miles through Stinson Beach and past Bolinas Lagoon to the coast. From the lagoon, it’s 11 miles north to Point Reyes Station. Expect twists, turns, and generally slow going as you approach Point Reyes.

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