Unplugging at Point Reyes National Seashore, home to a famous lighthouse, pristine beaches and off-the-grid peace
A marooned fishing boat is reflected in low tide pools along Tomales Bay at Point Reyes National Seashore.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
A view of the bow of the Point Reyes, one of many shipwrecks along the Point Reyes Headlands.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
A surfer passes through a ray of the setting sun in Bolinas Bay.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
The view from the trailhead to the lighthouse overlooks Point Reyes Beach.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Visitors walk the half-mile trail approaching the Monterey cyprus trees en route to the historic Point Reyes Lighthouse.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
A sparrow sings on the side of the trail to the Point Reyes Lighthouse.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
The Point Reyes Lighthouse stands watch over the Pacific.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
A kayaker paddles out as a fisherman returns in Bolinas Bay.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Visitors find natural places to nap at the Bear Valley Visitor Center.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Surrounded by tall grasses, visitors walk along the Earthquake Trail at the Bear Valley Visitor Center.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
John Lill of Kentfield enjoys the scenery as he reads on a sandbar along Tomales Bay.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
The Marin-chic village of Point Reyes Station has one gas station, a bevy of boutiques and “little star,” a.k.a. Osteria Stellina, a big-city Italian restaurant in a charming little town.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
The view through the balcony at a newly renovated room at Tomales Bay Resort in Inverness.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Drakes Beach is a landscape of cliffs-meet-surf.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
The surf swirls at Drakes Beach as the sun creates prism images.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Stunning cliffs fill the landscape at Drakes Beach.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Early morning fog hovers over a cattle ranch near the trailhead to the Giacomini Wetlands. The trail down to the restored wetlands habitat meanders through a series of cattle gates and is a good birding spot.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
A cow wanders in the early morning fog near the trailhead to the Giacomini Wetlands.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Tule elk stand poised on a hillside in the Tule Elk State Natural Reserve. The native elk once numbered in the thousands, until they were nearly hunted to extinction in the 19th century. Today, the elk population is the largest it has ever been in California.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Surf and sun create a dreamscape at Drakes Beach.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Beachgoers enjoy vast sandbars along Tomales Bay.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Clear water and the deep blue sky at Tomales Bay.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
A handwritten sign in the Bear Valley Visitor Center didn’t offer much hope for a colorful sunset: “99% chance of fog tonight,” it advised, followed by the postscript: “This is likely an underestimation.”
But I’d come nearly 500 miles to see the sun’s bright, hot rays reflected on the facade of the Point Reyes Lighthouse at end of day. I shrugged off the forecast and drove 21 miles to the edge of the continent to take a look.
“It’s clear,” I thought cheerily as I got out of my car in the lighthouse parking lot on a sunny July afternoon. But wisps of fog began blowing across the half-mile trail to the summit. And as I reached the top, a blanket of gray gloom swirled in from the sea, swallowing the lighthouse and the surrounding rocky terrain. My mood became as dark as the overcast sky. There was no way I’d see a sunset tonight.
Point Reyes National Seashore, a triangle of land north of San Francisco, offers visitors pristine beaches, dramatic waves, rocky headlands, tide pools, marshes, open pastures and forested ridges. Besides being one of the foggiest places in North America, it is the windiest place on the Pacific Coast and home to more than 50 threatened or endangered species. The United Nations has named it an International Biosphere Reserve in recognition of its unique biological communities.
While here, I hiked the beach and forest trails, walked nearly 700 stairs in a round-trip journey to and from the famous lighthouse, spotted humpback whales, elephant seals and Tule elk, and explored a portion of the 80 miles of coastline that make up this protected region, one of 10 National Park units designated as national seashores.
Without the designation, the peninsula here — fewer than 50 miles from a metropolitan area that’s home to 8 million people — may not have fared as well as it has. In 1962, with proposed development threatening the coastal scenery and habitat, President Kennedy signed a bill designating it a park service seashore, joining the likes of Cape Hatteras, N.C., the first such park (1953) and Canaveral, Fla., the last (1975).
Every year Point Reyes, or King’s Point, draws 2 1/2 million visitors, people such as Shelby D’Ambrosi and Gabriel Villasenor from nearby Berkeley, who visited on a summer weekday and found the park uncrowded despite the time of year. “It’s so special to be able to get away from the world and unplug here, to see the ocean and pods of whales,” D’Ambrosi, said.
With about 150 miles of hiking trails to explore, plus 71,000 acres of protected land and 32,000 acres of wilderness, Point Reyes allows visitors to enter a quiet land far from the noise of the city.
Besides the treasures onshore, the offshore waters are considered among the world’s richest. Sunshine, currents and the contour of the seafloor combine to provide a feast for birds, seals, whales and other creatures. Two national marine sanctuaries, Cordell Bank and Greater Farallones, safeguard marine resources.
I went in search of one of those resources during my visit, walking to Elephant Seal Overlook to catch sight of the huge animals, which weigh up to 6,000 pounds and have trunk-like snouts that give them faces only a mother could love.
The seals, once hunted nearly to extinction, visit the park semiannually, lounging on the beach near Chimney Rock, getting some much-needed rest after their 12,000- to 14,000- mile annual migration, the longest of any marine mammal.
As we watched half a dozen seals, a loud sonorous sound filled the air, sort of a cross between a thunderous burp and an off-key air horn. “They consider that sexy, like some men I know,” said Honolulu resident Alyse Prayton, who was standing next to me. Everyone on the overlook laughed.
I decided to try again for a sunset view, driving through the park one more time past farmland — dairy and beef operations have operated here since the 1850s — and stopping to take one last look at some of the beaches: Point Reyes Beach, an 11-mile expanse of shoreline where thunderous waves often can be seen, and Drakes Beach, a curving bay with sand dunes and calm waters. It’s named for explorer Sir Francis Drake, the first Englishman thought to have seen the region.
The afternoon was clear and promising as I parked in the lighthouse lot, but I knew now that the weather here couldn’t be trusted. That was why dozens of ships had smashed into the rocks below the station, and why several lighthouse keepers were said to have gone mad from the storms and isolation.
It was still good as I walked the pathway to the summit. A spectacular view of Point Reyes Beach and the Pacific Ocean spread out before me, with the golden tones of a late-day sun coloring the land, lighthouse and sky. And there was a bonus in the water; three humpback whales were dining on krill or anchovies. I watched them for nearly an hour, their long flippers and humps flashing in the late afternoon light as the sun slid toward the horizon. There wasn’t a bit of fog in sight. And then the big orange ball fell into the sea. A couple of people who had joined me to watch the sunset applauded.
It was worth the second trip. Both the sun and the humpbacks put on a spectacular show.