This California photo safari yields bobcats, oysters and viewing tips
The pandemic had canceled our 25th wedding anniversary, pending further notice from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Well, 2020 is still technically our 25th year together, despite COVID-19. But rather than trying to transform an anniversary trip to Greece and Portugal into a virtual event, my husband, Alan, and I decided to drive to Northern California instead.
The new plan had sentimental significance, because our honeymoon in August 1995 had taken us on a driving trip to Sonoma wine country.
This trip also served a practical function. Alan owns an Africa safari company, now shut down until international travel revives.
Planning tours is his sweet spot, so organizing a driving trip amid pandemic restrictions not only put him back in his comfort zone but also kept him too busy to overfeed his sourdough starter — nicknamed Yeasterday in tribute to the Beatles — in the quest for the perfect loaf.
Given Alan’s background, it’s not surprising that he Googled a new kind of safari travel: Point Reyes Safaris, led by professional wildlife photographer and naturalist Daniel Dietrich.
For Alan, a third-generation Californian, Point Reyes was unexplored territory. And Dietrich’s safari took us into the authentic heart of the area in unexpected ways.
Point Reyes National Seashore and its creatures do not supply the wow factor of an African safari with a constant parade of majestic elephants, giraffes, zebras and big cats hunting their prey.
Still, the quieter experience of being on the lookout for local creatures can be addicting. At the beach, you may see elephant seals and sea lions, or spot whales and orcas offshore. Inland, tule elk, coyotes, assorted raptors, weasels, badgers, foxes, barn swallows and bobcats may surround you in the park’s grasslands and pine forests. The area is home to more than 45% of North American avian species and is dotted with wildflowers.
We even glimpsed Point Reyes’ blue-eyed coyote, a female thought to be one in a million with her rare eye color.
Many people head for Point Reyes and nearby Tomales Bay in search of fresh oysters. I don’t consider them food — too wiggly — but on our first day there, Alan was determined to have lunch at Tomales Bay’s Hog Island Oyster Co., which he had seen on Netflix’s “The Chef Show” (pandemic binge).
We went, but COVID-19 restrictions meant the picnic tables were closed. Plus, if you bought oysters there, you’d have to shuck them yourself. On the staff’s advice, we went to Hog Island-owned Tony’s Seafood, where oysters and other less rubbery fare are served ready to eat.
Tomales Bay is dotted with rustic inns, including Nick’s Cove, where we stayed in a fireplace cabin called Heart’s Desire. Unfortunately, pandemic-induced early closures of nearby restaurants left us with no place open for dinner.
So on our first night, we left our cozy cabin and dreams of wine and fresh fish to drive 15 miles to Petaluma to find Old Chicago Pizza Restaurant, in downtown’s Lan Mart Building, built in 1876 and former home of a brothel. We toted our weighty deep-dish pie back to Nick’s Cove and ate it in front of the fire.
The next day was Safari Day. We had signed up for Dietrich’s half-day safari ($495 for five hours). He also offers a 10-hour safari at $795, recommended for the photographer interested in taking time to get shots of one specific species.
Dietrich left a high-tech career in San Francisco to devote himself full time to wildlife photography and the study of nature. At Point Reyes, “My favorite by far is the bobcat, so elusive and shy, but so confident,” he said.
Even though I had binoculars, I missed the first bobcat that crossed our path, even with Alan and Daniel waving and pointing as the creature slipped away. From then on, it became Dietrich’s mission to make sure I saw a bobcat before the day was over.
Pre-COVID-19, he would pile clients into his vehicle and make multiple photo stops. Now you drive your own car and follow him as he communicates by a radio he provides. (He also provides appropriately sterilized binoculars.) He knows where to stop and the best places to search for species of your choice.
Point Reyes has about 150 miles of hiking trails, so we were expecting more hiking than we did. A lot of that, however, may have had to do with the slight awkwardness of the two-car situation. You should still wear hiking shoes, because of dirt roads and occasional uneven terrain. Also, bring a jacket, because Point Reyes gets chilly as dusk approaches.
We visited Point Reyes in late August, just before wildfires began raking Northern California, and some trails in the area remain closed. The national park is open, and Dietrich said the area he covers on his safaris is unaffected.
Dietrich tailors your tour to your interests. I was pretty animal agnostic, but Alan had his heart set on foxes and bobcats. He forgot about looking for furry creatures when he became enamored with a great horned owl and its mate that Dietrich had pointed out. The female remained partly hidden, but we spent more than half an hour watching the male stretch one leg into a yoga-like pose so Alan could get the shot.
We trudged through an old farm, now occupied by the park ranger, looking for badgers and foxes Dietrich told us tend to hide under the farm’s wooden structures. We did not find foxes and badgers that day but watched in amazement as a nest of baby swallows opened their beaks as their mothers zoomed in and out of the barn to feed them.
We decided against making an evening trip to the beach to look for elephant seals and instead chose to spend more time inland with the majestic Tule elk as they grazed in the early evening mist. Dietrich also filled us in on the continuing conflict between the elk preserve and neighboring dairy ranchers and farmers looking to expand their operations.
It’s a good thing we waited. Just before our five hours ended, I spotted a large golden bobcat, eliciting a huge smile from Dietrich.
“That was a good sighting,” he said.
If you go
Point Reyes National Seashore is roughly 30 miles north of San Francisco off Highway 1. Some roads within the park are closed because of recent fires, but the area is open to visitors. No entrance fee. Information and closure updates at nps.gov/pore
WHERE TO STAY
Nick’s Cove Restaurant, Oyster Bar & Cottages, 23240 California, Marshall; (415) 663-1033, nickscove.com. King room with balcony $395 a night for two; breakfast included. Restaurant closed for indoor dining; counter service available.
WHERE TO EAT
Hog Island Oyster Co., 20215 Shoreline Highway, Marshall; hogislandoysters.com
Tony’s Seafood, 18863 Shoreline Highway, Marshall; (415) 663-1107, tonysseafoodrestaurant.com. Outdoor dining and takeout 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Closed Wednesdays. Mains $15-$24. Takeout: Live unshucked oysters $2 each. Tomales Bay clams and mussels $6 a pound.
Old Chicago Pizza Restaurant, 41 Petaluma Blvd. North, Petaluma, Calif.; (707) 763-3897, oldchgo.com. Thin crust, deep dish and double crust pies $13-$36
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