Tomales Bay and Point Reyes Road Trip

Pacific cliffs at Point Reyes National Seashore
Janet Kopper / Getty Images

West Marin County—especially Tomales Bay and the Point Reyes National Seashore—offers dramatic ocean vistas and awe-inspiring hiking trails. These two destinations and all of the natural wonders around them are popular with nature lovers, campers, beachgoers, and anyone who wants to get away from the daily grind of the big city. Given its close proximity to the San Francisco Bay Area, this excursion makes the perfect day trip or weekend getaway. Just grab your beach towel, load up a cooler, and hop in the car.

Getting There

Your exact destination depends on where you're heading to, as there are various trailheads in the area that will bring you to different locations, but the towns of Olema or Point Reyes Station are the best points of reference. They're located about 37 miles north of San Francisco, tucked away in the forested hills of Marin County. Whether you're coming up from the city of San Francisco or from the East Bay—such as Oakland—you have two main driving routes to choose from: the scenic route or the less difficult route.

Scenic Route

The most appealing way to get to the park entrance is to start in San Francisco and cross the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, and then continue up along Highway 1 (dubbed the Pacific Coast Highway) until you reach the town of Olema. If you were to look at a paper map, this route also seems like the fastest and most direct way to reach Point Reyes, but Highway 1 is notoriously windy. Even though the distance between San Francisco and Olema is only 37 miles, the scenic route takes about 75 minutes of white-knuckle driving on curvy roads with steep cliffs. But in return, you'll be rewarded with some of the most breathtaking views that California has to offer.

Easy Route

Even if you're starting your journey in San Francisco, it's usually faster to reach the park by driving over to the East Bay and taking Interstate 580 north across the San Rafael Bridge. Even though it looks like a lengthy detour on the map and it's about 10 extra miles than the scenic route, driving on the Interstate actually saves about 15 minutes of driving time. Plus, if driving on sharp and narrow roads sounds worrying to you, you'll feel much more comfortable sticking to the main highway.

The Best Time to Go

The best time to visit Tomales Bay and Point Reyes depends on what you're looking for. Summer is usually better for sitting out on the beach and basking, but locals from around the Bay Area flock to these scenic beaches on sunny days, clogging up Highway 1 into a traffic nightmare. Not only that, but California's infamous June Gloom weather means that the coast is often plagued with heavy fog and overcast, even if it's sunny a few miles inland. September is an ideal time to visit to get the best weather and fewer crowds, since children are back in school and most people are back to work after summer vacations.

The winter months may see lower temperatures, but on a sunny day with high visibility, it's one of the most magical times to visit. It'll likely be too cold to hang out at the beach, but the hiking trails will be mostly empty and you can fully enjoy the majesty of the forest as it drops into the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean.

A weather check before you leave is imperative. Even if it's warm and sunny in your starting location, the weather can quickly change in just a few miles thanks to the Bay Area's volatile microclimates.

Things to Do 

Heading north from Olema to Tomales Bay, there are plenty of excursions along the way. Abbotts Lagoon and Bolinas Lagoon both offer exceptional birding opportunities. In fact, Bolinas Lagoon is home to more than 245 different types of birds. For a spectacular site, visit the Audubon Canyon Ranch during the third weekend in March or the second weekend in July to experience heron and egret nesting season. 

Water lovers will enjoy the beaches along the Point Reyes National Seashore. Kehoe Beach is one of the most scenic and sheltered beaches along the stretch, and Muir Beach with its overlook is a favorite of the locals. Check out the plentiful fauna there, like shorebirds and amphibians, but note that the north section of the beach is clothing optional. You can also bring your kayak and drop it in the water at various locations or rent one at Blue Waters Kayaking.

The oyster farms at Tomales Bay are open to the public and sell their delicious catches as soon as they're harvested from the water. You can sit at one of the many restaurants in the area to enjoy them grilled, such as Tomales Bay Oyster Company or Hog Island Oyster Company, or pick up a bag of raw oysters and hike with them to enjoy as a picnic on the beach (don't forget to bring shucking tools and a little lemon, hot sauce, and any other condiments you like). Oysters are available year-round, but the best season to eat them is from September to April.

Places to Stay and Eat

You'll find a few small hotels and bed and breakfast options along the Point Reyes National Seashore. Check online hotel reviews and compare prices on lodging options in Olema, Marshall, and Point Reyes Station. One of the most spectacular lodgings in the area that's also budget-friendly is the HI Point Reyes Hostel, where you can book a private room or just a bed in a dormitory so you can meet other travelers.

Nick's Cove, just north of Marshall, is a favorite waterfront eatery with attentive service and exceptional food. Try their Crab Louis Salad or their Tomales Bay Barbecued Oysters to sample some local fare. And the Station House Cafe in Point Reyes Station features farm-to-table cuisine, a full bar, live music, and outdoor seating.