Point Reyes is a National Seashore located north of San Francisco. It is a beautiful place to see animals, nature, and, of course, the ocean, but be warned that the drive is a long and winding road. You’ll need to plan extra time to get to your destination, but we think Point Reyes National Seashore is worth spending a day visiting.
There are some amazing things to do and see at Point Reyes. We saw a bunch of wildlife that surprised us. California seems more like a people watching spot than an animals watching spot, but we watched a coyote digging in a field. We saw a herd of elk grazing in a meadow. Deer munched on the thick grass on both of our hikes, and along the side of the road. Each of those were on the drive out to the point. While at the ocean, we spotted a whale spouting in the surf. We watched dozens of elephant seals. And since we are birders, we identified over 20 species of birds, from pelicans to rhinocerous auklets. Keep your eyes open for these species as you visit.
There are three Visitor Centers at Point Reyes National Seashore. Each are in different areas of the park, so you are able to speak with a ranger no matter where you are visiting. Each Visitor Center has different hours, so make sure to check before planning your trip.
Bear Valley Visitor Center
The first is the main large Visitor Center located at Bear Valley. We spent a little time looking at the displays in this large building and picked up/turned in our Junior Ranger Booklets. There are also a few good nature walks in this area. We walked the Earthquake Trail, which was very interesting. It lies right on the San Andreas Fault, which is marked out with posts. There is a gap in the fence of about 16 feet, where the earth shifted during the 1906 earthquake. You gain a sense of the power of an earthquake by looking at the fence that used to be in one place, but is now so far apart. A second walk in this area is called Woodpecker Trail. It is short and easy and appropriate for kids.
The second Visitor Center is at Drake Beach. This is a popular stop because the elephant seals are usually very close. When we were there, there were cones set up around the snoozing pinnipeds so you could only stand within 30 feet. Rangers are there to keep people back, but this is the best of view of them. There is a small museum area and a store as well. There is also a very large beach here to enjoy.
Point Reyes Lighthouse
Point Reyes has a very small Visitor Center at the lighthouse. You could only squeeze a few people inside, and there isn’t much to see, but the rangers gave us some great tips on what to see.
There is a great walk down to the lighthouse. It is very steep and has over 300 steps. It’s also narrow, though there is a railing on both sides. You can only pass people with difficulty on the way up and down, but there are several spots to rest. When you arrive at the very bottom you can walk in and around the lighthouse. Be warned that it is freezing and the wind cuts like ice even in the summer, so shorts and a t-shirt aren’t enough. The views from the point are amazing, though. There is also very limited parking at the lighthouse.
Cypress Tree Tunnel
One of the most unique things we did at Point Reyes was stop at the cypress tree tunnel. There is a parking area just outside the gate, and a short walk through the towering trees. This variety of trees has a large, mostly flat canopy, and the trees stretch right across the road, giving the illusion of a massive tunnel. We had the place mostly to ourselves, but it can get quite busy with people searching for the perfect photo. The Cypress Tunnel is located on the main road toward the lighthouse. You can’t miss it.
Our favorite hike in Point Reyes National Seashore was Chimney Rock. This hike has a little up and down, but nothing like the lighthouse. It ventures along the top of the headlands to a point overlooking a seastack called Chimney Rock. The hike runs about a mile each way, so it is categorized as easy. The views are beautiful as you walk along a narrow strip of land out into the ocean.
This is a good place to see animals. At about a third of a mile, the trail has a very short branch to a crest. It’s only about 10 steps, but you can look down at the beach far below and this is where we first spotted the elephant seals. Just keep little ones back from the edge. We also spotted a few whales at the end of the trail near Chimney Rock.
Here is the itinerary that we followed while visiting Point Reyes. We hope it will help you with your plans. We began at the furthest point (the lighthouse) because we had heard that it had the smallest parking area.
- 9:00-9:30 Cypress Tunnel (can also stop here on the way back)
- 9:40 Arrive at the Lighthouse parking area. Walk to Visitor Center.
- 10:00 Visitor Center opens. Pick up Junior Ranger booklets.
- 10:00-10:45 Walk through museum and hike to lighthouse.
- 11:00-12:00 Chimney Rock Hike
- Lunch: We brought a picnic lunch and ate it in the car since it was SO windy.
- 12:30-1:00 Drake’s Beach & Visitor Center. This stop could be longer if you play in the water.
- 1:45-2:45 Bear Valley Visitor Center. Turn in Junior Rangers. Hike one of the nature trails (or both if you have time).
- This is when we left the park because we went to another adventure. There are lots of other things to do in Point Reyes. Here are a few we had on a short list:
- Woodpecker Nature Trail (0.7 mile)
- Abbotts Lagoon (1.8 mile roundtrip to the bridge)
- Point Reyes Beach South or North to view the rough ocean
- Kehoe Beach (1.2 miles)- only dog-friendly beach in the park.
- McClures Beach (0.8 miles)
Point Reyes National Seashore takes most of a day to visit, partially because of the long drive. Still, we found this spot to be a wonderful way to get out of the city. This was one of our favorite spots in the Bay Area. Make sure to stop at Muir Woods and Marin Headlands, too. These are both National Park Service sites worth a visit.