No trip is complete without a visit to the Point Reyes Headlands and the iconic Lighthouse. Whether you are an avid birder, whale watcher, geologist, or a maritime or lighthouse enthusiast, this popular destination has it all.
The rock lover in your group will enjoy learning more about the natural history of Point Reyes which starts with a closer look at the area’s geologic foundation. Here you can discover how the whole peninsula is really more like an island that sits on the Pacific Plate (the same tectonic plate as Japan) and has moved northwest for millions of years along the San Andreas Fault to its current location. The best evidence of this can be found in the Point Reyes Conglomerate and sandstone, the two substrates that make up the point, which are easily viewed right outside the Lighthouse Visitor Center.
It was this very outcropping that created havoc for early mariners and which continues to do so to this day. Known today as the Point Reyes Headlands, it was originally coined La Punta de los Reyes (the Point of Kings) on January 6, 1603 by Spanish explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno. Many a ship fell prey to the dangerous headland that juts out into the sea just 10 nautical miles north of San Francisco Bay. A combination of geography, geology, strong currents, wind and other navigation issues made this point a hazard for the unwary sailor. Before the lighthouse lens was shipped from France and the cast iron housing was brought over from San Francisco, the point was a final resting place for numerous ships and sparked the early US Lifesaving Service (today’s Coast Guard) to build a rescue station along the adjacent 10-mile beach in hopes of assisting those in dire need.
By December 1, 1870 the Point Reyes Lighthouse first shone and a legacy of keepers kept the light on from a half an hour before sunset to a half an hour after sunrise. The characteristic flash pattern was achieved by careful positioning of the lens and fine-tuning of a clockwork mechanism, so that mariners at sea would see one flash every five seconds, which was known as Point Reyes' signature in this latitude. Additional coal-fired and later electric horns were also used to warn mariners of the dangerous landmass when summer fogs kept the point shrouded from sight. Mariners could also tell what lighthouse they were passing by listening for a series of blasts; Point Reyes Lighthouse was one blast every 30 seconds. By 1975 new technologies eclipsed the need for the light and fog horns, and the US Coast Guard turned the historic light over to the National Park Service so generations could experience California’s early maritime history. This is a must-see for any lighthouse buff, as it is the only West Coast light that still has an original 1st order Fresnel lens floating on wheels and attached to its original clockwork. Download the Historic Lighthouse brochure, or pick one up at any visitor center. Also check out the map depicting the number of famous shipwrecks that met there end along the shores of Point Reyes.
The area around the point is protected by two national marine sanctuaries: Cordell Bank and the Gulf of the Farallones. These protected ocean areas provide prime habitat and feeding gounds for a variety of marine mammals and birds which can easliy been seen throughout the year from various vantage points at the lighthouse. The most popular time to visit the Lighthouse is during the annual Pacific gray whale migration (December-June), which peaks in mid-January for the southern migration and mid-March for the northern migration, but whales can be seen sporadically throughout the year. If you have families with kids, bring them in March when the whales are much closer and easier to see. Regardless of the time of year, bring your binoculars and keep your eyes on the ocean for a chance to spot random whales, seals, sharks, sunfish, and even jellyfish. In the process you may also see pelicans, cormorants, deer, foxes, or weasels perched on the rocky slopes. Peregrine falcons have also been known to frequent the Point, making for dramatic bird-watching!
The Point Reyes Lighthouse is a 45-minute drive from the main visitor center at Bear Valley along Sir Francis Drake Highway. Visitors can access the Lighthouse Visitor Center, the upper observation deck, or the 308-foot staircase down to the lighthouse on a short 0.4-mile hike from the parking area. Ranger-led tours of the lighthouse kick off between the hours of 2:30 and 4:00 pm Friday –Monday, but the stairs are subject to closure when winds speeds exceed 40 miles per hour or lightening is present. On weekends and holidays from late December through mid-April, visitors may be required to ride a shuttle bus from Drakes Beach to the Lighthouse and Chimney Rock areas. It’s best to check conditions by calling the Lighthouse Visitor Center in advance at (415) 669-1534, but be advised conditions can change rapidly.
Point Reyes is considered the windiest place on the Pacific Coast and the second foggiest place on the North American continent. Weeks of fog, especially during the summer months (July - early September), frequently reduce visibility to hundreds of feet and winds over 40 mph are not uncommon in spring (April-June) and in winter storms (Dec-Feb). It's all worth it though to walk in the footsteps of former lighthouse keepers - just make sure you wear plenty of layers, bring binoculars, snacks, good walking shoes and your enthusiasm. Be aware that the 308 stairs down to the Lighthouse itself (and back up!) can make for a physically strenuous experience.
Branch Out: Instead of walking towards the lighthouse hikers can walk down the paved road to the Sea Lion Overlook just yards from the Lighthouse parking lot. There is a set of 30 wooden stairs to walk down with an overview of a large cove riddled with rock outcroppings. When seals are present you can see them swimming in the water, or hear the characteristic bark of the California and Stellar sea lions perched on the rocks. Well-trained eyes may also glimpse a few Harbor seals hauled out on a small beach to the left. These "true" seals are much smaller and appear grayish in color from this vantage point. Bring binoculars for the best viewing opportunity and be sure to keep a look out for migrating whales, dolphins or other interesting sea creatures.