The Point Reyes Lighthouse is possibly the most dramatic in all of California. To start with, Point Reyes is the windiest place on the Pacific Coast. It's also the second foggiest place in North America. The lighthouse sits at the westernmost tip of a headland that juts out 10 miles into the sea. It's the ideal spot to put a warning light to help sailors keep from crashing on the rocks.
But to make Point Reyes' location even more eye-popping, the only place to put it adds to the effect. So seamen navigating through the fog and along the coast in a rough storm could see it, they had to build at the bottom of a cliff near the water. The pathway going down to it is so steep that you could get dizzy just looking at it from the top of the 300-step staircase that leads down the cliffside.
What to Do While You're There
The Lighthouse Visitor Center is on the west side of Point Reyes peninsula. You can explore how the lighthouse was built and learn about the lives saved during its 125-year history. You can see the original, 1867 clockworks and first-order Fresnel lens during limited hours, weather permitting.
On selected dates during the summer, you can participate in the Illuminating the Light program.
If you plan to walk down to the lighthouse from the visitor center, here's what you need to know. Those 300-plus steps plunge in a steep descent that's equal to a 3-story building. The only way you can get out is the way you got in: by walking! Point Reyes is one of the foggiest spots anywhere, so bring warm clothing even if you don't need it inland.
From December through early April, you can see elephant seals and watch whale migrations at Point Reyes. So many people try to go there during that time that the park rangers close Sir Francis Drake Blvd. past South Beach on weekends. You can still get to the lighthouse when that happens by taking a shuttle bus. You can catch it at the Drake's Beach parking lot and shuttle tickets are sold at the visitor center there.
Everyone wants to take a picture of Point Reyes Lighthouse, but don't get your hopes up for a bright scene with sunny skies at the foggiest place in North America. Just make a quick search for Point Reyes pictures online—there may not be a single one with a clear blue sky.
A Fascinating History
The Point Reyes Lighthouse was built in 1870. The tower has 16 sides and is 37 feet tall. It's an exact twin of the Cape Mendocino Light, which is not open to the public.
The lighthouse's first order Fresnel lens and clockwork system were made in France. They got to California on a steamer ship that traveled around the southern tip of South America. Then they were carried three miles and up 600 feet to the top of the headlands on ox-drawn carts.
A head keeper and three assistants worked at Point Reyes. They split up the work into four six-hour shifts. Among their tasks was winding the clockwork mechanism every two hours to keep the light rotating. In 1938, the light was electrified. Before that, the keepers also had to keep the oil-burning wicks trimmed to keep the light burning bright.
Even with all the diligent maintenance, sailors sometimes complained that they couldn't see the light through the fog. In 1881, a steam siren was added. That was replaced by a steam whistle in 1890. Finally, an air diaphone (a foghorn) was installed in 1915 that could be heard as much as 5 miles away.
Point Reyes is a cold, foggy, windy place. Sometimes the wind was so strong that the lightkeepers had to crawl up the hill on their hands and knees to keep from being blown away.
Even with four families living there, it was an inhospitable place that drove many keepers to despair. Lightkeeper Edwin G. Chamberlain wrote this in the station’s logbook: "Better dwell in the midst of alarms than reign in this horrible place."
Other keepers stayed a long time. The longest-serving was Paulus Nilsson, who signed on as the first assistant in 1897, became head keeper in 1909, and worked at Point Reyes until 1921.
The U.S. Coast Guard retired the Point Reyes Lighthouse from service in 1975. They installed an automated light and turned over the operation of the facility to the National Park Service.
To learn more about life at the lighthouse, you can read a year of Point Reyes lighthouse keeper's logs from 1888. It's an interesting story that details what they had to do to keep the station running.
The stairs close when winds exceed 40 miles per hour, but you can see the lighthouse from the top of the stairway any time. The visitor center is closed some days. Check the Point Reyes website for the current schedule.
The long, scenic drive makes the lighthouse feel much further from San Francisco than the 36-mile drive to get there.
You can get there via US 101 north of San Francisco. Go west on Sir Francis Drake or take California Hwy 1 north through Stinson Beach to Olema. After you get to the Point Reyes National Seashore entrance, it will take about an hour to drive out to the lighthouse.
If you want to spend more time in the Point Reyes area, there are plenty of resources for helping you to plan a quick weekend getaway.
More California Lighthouses
If you're a lighthouse geek, you will enjoy reading a guide to visiting the lighthouses of California.