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Just 22 miles north of San Francisco in Marin County, Point Reyes National Seashore is noted not only for a wealth of scenic vistas but for its remarkable biological diversity. This protected reserve has it all: ocean waves crashing against rocky headlands; mile after mile of wide, sandy beaches; open grasslands and brush-covered hillsides; freshwater lakes and saltwater estuaries; dense woodlands aromatic with the scent of pine.
The national seashore's 71,000 acres are along and west of SR 1. The Point Reyes peninsula is a well-defined geological area that was created by a rift zone of the San Andreas Fault; a portion of the peninsula lies below sea level, forming Tomales Bay.
Grass-tufted dunes line the wild coastal beaches; some are wide open while others are more secluded, edging tucked-away coves backed by rocky cliffs. Inland are rolling hills, lush meadows and Inverness Ridge, cloaked with towering stands of Douglas fir. Nearly 450 species of birds have been spotted within Point Reyes. The approximately 80 resident wildlife species range from diminutive (the California tortoiseshell butterfly) to impressively large (the northern elephant seal).
Point Reyes also is a protected haven for tule elk, one of two subspecies of elk native to California. The mammals were on the brink of extinction in the 1870s before a conservation-minded rancher had the foresight to protect a surviving herd on his ranch near Bakersfield. Subsequent preservation efforts were successful, and today free-ranging tule elk can be seen in such wilderness areas as the Tomales Point grasslands.
The park headquarters is at Bear Valley, half a mile west of Olema, the hamlet that is Point Reyes' unofficial gateway. The Bear Valley Visitor Center on Bear Valley Road provides information about Point Reyes facilities and has exhibits depicting the park's ecosystems and cultural heritage, including a seismograph and a touch table. Reservations for backcountry camping and beach fire permits can be obtained here. Many trailheads for park hikes are located nearby. The center is open Mon.-Fri. 10-4:30, Sat.-Sun. and holidays 9-4:30, with reduced hours in winter. Closed Christmas. Phone (415) 464-5100.
Near the park headquarters are three points of interest: the Morgan Horse Ranch, a working ranch with exhibits about the breed; Kule Loklo, a replica of a Coast Miwok Indian village; and Pierce Ranch, a former dairy ranch with self-guiding trail exhibits. At the end of Mesa Road is Point Blue's Palomarin Field Station. Bird-banding demonstrations are given Tuesday through Sunday mornings from sunrise to noon, May 1 through Thanksgiving; Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday mornings, rest of year.
The Earthquake Trail begins at the Bear Valley Picnic Area, across from the visitor center. This short paved loop explores an area within the San Andreas Fault zone. Interpretive signs describe the geological forces at work, and a section of fence that moved 16 feet from its original location during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake is a sobering example of their power. You might also spot the occasional mule deer drinking from a creek that runs along part of the trail.
The Lighthouse Visitor Center, at the end of Sir Frances Drake Boulevard, has exhibits about wildflowers, whales, seals, birds and maritime history. From the parking lot it is a .4-mile, mostly uphill walk to the building. Open Fri.-Mon. 10-4:30. Closed Christmas. Phone (415) 669-1534.
The Kenneth C. Patrick Visitor Center, off Sir Frances Drake Boulevard at Drakes Beach, is open Sat.-Sun. and holidays 9:30-4:30, Dec. 26 through mid-Apr. (staffing permitting). Phone (415) 669-1250 for updated information.
Point Reyes Lighthouse shares the rocky headland with the Lighthouse Visitor Center. Visitors must descend 300 narrow steps from an observation deck to reach the oceanfront beacon, built in 1870. The lens room is open Fri.-Mon. 2:30-4 (weather and staffing permitting). The stairs to the lighthouse are closed if sustained winds exceed 40 mph.
Hiking, beachcombing and bird-watching are all outstanding. Nearly 150 miles of hiking and horseback riding trails fan out from Bear Valley. Some 35 miles of trails also are open to bicyclists; trail maps are available at the visitor centers. Pets are not permitted on any trails (with the exception of the Kehoe Beach Trail) or at campgrounds. Leashed pets are permitted at Kehoe Beach (north of the Kehoe Beach Trail), Limantour Beach (southeast of the parking lot, adjacent to Coast Camp) and at Point Reyes/Great Beach (from the North Beach parking lot to the south).
Hikes within Point Reyes National Seashore vary from easy jaunts of less than a mile to strenuous treks that can take all day, depending on the terrain. The Woodpecker Trail is a short loop that explores Bear Valley's forest and meadow habitats, with interpretive signs describing plant and animal life. The trail begins at the Bear Valley trailhead (south end of the Bear Valley parking lot).
The 1.6-mile Chimney Rock Trail offers spectacular views of Drakes Bay and the ocean, with rocky cliffs dropping off steeply to the water below. The spring wildflower display is renowned, and from January through May it's possible to spot migrating gray whales. This hike is challenging if the weather is foggy or windy. It begins at the Chimney Rock trailhead near the Point Reyes Lighthouse (a 45-minute drive from the Bear Valley Visitor Center).
Abbott's Lagoon is a 2-mile stroll through open grasslands and coastal scrub. Spring wildflowers are plentiful and bird-watching is excellent, particularly in the fall and winter. The trailhead is a 25-minute drive from the Bear Valley Visitor Center via Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and Pierce Point Road.
Point Reyes beaches are spread out over a wide area, and getting from one to another can take upward of half an hour. If you're just visiting for the afternoon or the day, focus on one or two beaches; staff at the Bear Valley Visitor Center can offer suggestions.
Limantour Beach is a long, narrow spit of sand where numerous shorebirds feed at the water's edge and in the nearby wetlands. Harbor seals bob in the gentle surf or bask in the sun. McClures Beach, reached by a short, steep downhill hike, is backed by a small cove with a jumble of rocks at either end; the crashing surf here is dramatic. Great Beach, also known as Point Reyes Beach, is an 11-mile expanse of pristine, undeveloped shoreline where the surf can also be heavy.
Note: At these and other beaches, especially those that face the open ocean, exercise caution when venturing near the water. “Sneaker waves”—unexpectedly large waves that can reach much farther up the beach—have the ability to catch people in rip currents and quickly pull them out to deep water.
Various ranger-led programs take place throughout the year, and there are four hike-in campgrounds. Permits can be obtained at the Bear Valley Visitor Center; phone (877) 444-6777 for camping reservations. Camping is $20 per night for up to six people; reservations are highly recommended on weekends and in summer. Hikers and campers should carry a canteen, since the stream water is not potable.
The national seashore is open all year. All sites are closed Christmas. Admission is free. For additional information contact the Superintendent, Point Reyes National Seashore, 1 Bear Valley Rd., Point Reyes, CA 94956; phone (415) 464-5100.
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