If you've seen a few pictures of Point Reyes National Seashore or taken a quick drive through it, you might think it's nothing more than a beautiful park with a picturesque lighthouse. But that's only a small part of what you can find in the 100-square-mile national seashore and surrounding 33,300 acres of coastal wilderness.
Estuaries, windswept beaches, coastal scrub grasslands, marshes, and coniferous forests are just a few of the things Point Reyes contains. And then there's the wildlife, which includes a magnificent herd of once-endangered tule elk. You can even see a dramatic example of movement on the San Andreas Fault which runs through the park.
Things to Do at Point Reyes
Stop in at any of the three visitor centers: Bear Valley (near CA Highway 1), Lighthouse or Drakes Beach for more information, maps, and current conditions.
These sights are listed in the order you would see them.
The first place to go at Point Reyes in the Bear Valley Visitor Center, where you can get up-to-the-minute information and tips from the park rangers.
Near the visitor center, you can walk right on top of the infamous San Andreas Fault. One easy place to locate it is on the Earthquake Trail, which leads from the parking lot near the Bear Valley Visitor Center to the spot shown above. Just before the big quake that shook San Francisco in April 1906, this fence was continuous. Afterward, it had moved to where you see it now, a distance of about 20 feet.
Kule Loklo Coast Miwok Indian Village
This structure, made of redwood bark is typical of those built by the Coastal Miwok people who lived in the Point Reyes area. Built as a cultural exhibit, Kule Loklo, which means Bear Valley shows modern visitors how the area's earlier inhabitants lived.
Most of the time, it's uninhabited, but it comes alive during the Big Time Festival held each July. The Roundhouse is also used for religious gatherings by the Coast Miwok people. Rangers offer free guided tours on the weekend in the summer. Check at the Visitor Center for a schedule.
Northwest of the Bear Valley Visitor Center, you can visit a remnant of Marin County's coastal past.
Dairy ranches such as this one are a common sight at Point Reyes. The oldest dates to the 1850s when early settlers realized that the cool, moist Point Reyes climate afforded near-ideal conditions for raising dairy cows. After California became part of the United States and after a long battle in the courts, a San Francisco law firm gained control of over 50,000 acres here, creating a thriving dairy industry whose products were delivered to San Francisco by boat.
Located on the road to McClures Beach, Pierce Ranch was one of the area's most successful, established in 1858. Today, the buildings are restored, and you can take a self-guided tour.
McClures Beach is a small beach, reached by walking down a dirt path. In spring, wildflowers bloom along the trail. A large rock formation nicknamed Elephant Rock anchors one end of the beach, and you may find starfish on the rocks during low tide.
Point Reyes Lighthouse
To get to the lighthouse at Point Reyes, take Sir Francis Drake Boulevard to its end.
The best-known feature at Point Reyes is this lonely lighthouse. To keep it below the fog, it's at the bottom of a steep staircase, making it a scenic subject for your camera.
The lighthouse visitor's center includes an excerpt from a lightkeeper's log and exhibits about the keeper's life. Here's how you can find out more about how to visit the Lighthouse.
Drakes Beach is a long, wide stretch of sand backed by dramatic white sandstone cliffs. It's seldom busy.
Limantour Beach and Sculptured Beach
Getting around Point Reyes seems a little confusing sometimes, but a look at the map may help you understand why. There are lots of inlets and marshes, and the roads have to go around them. Return to Sir Francis Drake Boulevard from Drakes Beach and take Limantour Road to get to Limantour Beach and Sculptured Beach.
Limantour Beach is actually a long, narrow stretch of sand between the bay and an estuary. You can see lots of wildlife in that area, including shorebirds, gray whales, harbor seals, and the endangered snowy plover. You can reach it from the parking area.
If you go east from the parking area, you'll reach Sculptured Beach, with water-carved rocks on the shoreline. At low tide, they are exposed and make an exciting place to go tidepooling.
You can find out more about it in the Limantour Beach guide - and about its use for clothing-optional recreation here.
Wildcat Beach and Alamere Falls
Alamere Falls is a rarity; a 40-foot-tall n waterfall called a tidefall which drops directly onto a beach. There are two of them in California (the other is McWay Falls in Big Sur).
Wildcat Beach is where you'll find this natural wonder. It's most impressive during the rainy winter season.
To access Wildcat Beach, enter the National Seashore from the south end near the town of Bolinas and drive to the Palomarin Trailhead which is near the Point Reyes Bird Observatory. From there, you have to hike more than 5 miles, one way.
On most weekends, the Palomarin Trailhead parking lot fills up very early in the morning. If you arrive too late, you may be turned away.
More Things to Do at Point Reyes
Kayaking: Blue Waters in Marshall offers classes and rentals. You can also kayak in Drakes and Limantour Esteros except March 1 through June 30, when they are closed to protect harbor seals during pupping season.
Animal Viewing: Once endangered, tule elk now number over 200 at Point Reyes. They are most common at Tomales Point. Other animals you may see include northern elephant seals, harbor seals, more than 80 kinds of mammals and 29 types of reptiles. Nearly half of all bird species in North America have been spotted at Point Reyes. That's 490 different kinds of birds, in case you were counting.
Creative Workshops: Point Reyes National Seashore Association offers seminars and workshops for photographers, artists, and nature lovers.
Horseback Riding: Five Brooks Stables nearby offers guided trail rides
What You Need to Know About Point Reyes National Seashore
When to Go to Point Reyes National Seashore
At the risk of sounding like someone from the local visitor's bureau, every season at Point Reyes has its charms. Check this list to see what appeals to you.
- Whale migration: January-April
- Elephant seals: December-March
- Bird migration: Spring through fall
- Harbor seal pups born: March-June
- Wildflowers: Peak April-May
- Tule elk mating season: July-October
- Sand sculpture contest: Sunday of Labor Day1
- Beautiful: Anytime
Point Reyes in the Winter
From the end of December through mid-April, things get busy at Point Reyes — and it's all about the animals. Gray whales migrate past the shore, and elephant seals come onshore to have their babies.
So many people want to see them that the narrow roads could get choked with cars. To keep traffic flowing, individual vehicles are prohibited. The only way to get to the lighthouse or the Elephant Seal Overlook at Chimney Rock is by taking the winter shuttle bus from the visitor center at Drakes Beach. That's the Kenneth C. Patrick Visitor Center, not the one at Bear Valley. Find out more about the winter shuttle bus here
Other parts of the park are still accessible by car during that time, including most of the beaches and Pierce Ranch.
Point Reyes National Seashore Tips
Natural hazards include poison oak, stinging nettle, and ticks (which can carry Lyme disease). Wearing long pants and being aware of your surroundings can help keep them off you.
Dogs can disrupt wildlife, so their presence is limited. They are not allowed on any of the hiking trails and must be kept on a leash elsewhere. They are permitted on Kehoe Beach, Limantour Beach and Point Reyes Beach.
Point Reyes weather varies widely and may not be what you think. Check the weather forecast before you go. At the lighthouse, it's almost always windy and frigid, and often foggy.
If you plan to visit and/or photograph the beaches, check the time for high and low tide to maximize your enjoyment.
The winding drive out to the lighthouse can be nausea-inducing for those prone to motion sickness. If you're one of them, you know what to do.
Point Reyes has no entry fee, but there is a camping fee and a fee to ride the shuttle in winter. You also need reservations if you're going camping.
How to Get to Point Reyes National Seashore
Point Reyes National Seashore is at 1 Bear Valley Rd. in Point Reyes Station, CA. You can find more information at the Point Reyes website.
Point Reyes National Seashore is located about 30 miles north of San Francisco on California Hwy 1. To locate destinations inside the park, use this map.
Where to Stay at Point Reyes
Camping at Point Reyes
You will find several campgrounds at Point Reyes, but they are all backcountry campgrounds that you have to hike or boat into. You can find a description of them on the Point Reyes website.
If you are looking for a place where you can camp in an RV or pitch a tent near your vehicle, check this list of nearby campgrounds.
Point Reyes Hostel
The only other place to stay inside the National Seashore is the Point Reyes Hostel. It's just off Limantour Road near Limantour Beach, Sculptured Beach and lots of hiking trails.
They have two historic ranch buildings and a new "green" addition. You can stay in a shared dorm room or a private room, and use the guest kitchen.
More Lodging Nearby
You can find more suggestions for how to find a place to stay in the area in the West Marin getaway guide.