Last updated: 06/10/2023
Discover Point Reyes, an incredible peninsula located a few kilometers north of San Francisco, where colonies of elephant seals breed. Get ready for incredible views and lots of natural beauty.
POINT REYES NATIONAL SEASHORE
Point Reyes is a peninsula located about 50 km north of San Francisco that forms part of the Point Reyes National Seashore, a conservation park and nature reserve of over 287 km², founded in 1962. The Point Reyes Peninsula is an area separated from the rest of the territory by a fissure zone of the San Andreas Fault. This is because it is on a different tectonic plate than the rest of Tomales Bay, producing a difference in soils and vegetation. The peninsula includes wild coastal beaches and headlands, estuaries and highlands. The closest towns to the park are Point Reyes Station, Inverness and Olema, which serves as the gateway to Point Reyes National Shore.
FAUNA AND FLORA OF POINT REYES
Point Reyes has a great diversity of fauna and flora. The northernmost part of the peninsula is maintained as a reserve for Tule elk. This reserve is also very rich in birds of prey and seabirds. Point Reyes is a special breeding area for elephant seal colonies and is highly sought after by gray whale watchers. In addition, the park is home to various vegetation formations such as a coastal forest of Douglas fir, live coastal oak, Bishop pines, marshes, prairies, among many others.
CLIMATE IN POINT REYES
The Point Reyes region is heavily influenced by the Pacific Ocean, creating a climate without extremes of heat or cold. Thus, any season of the year can be interesting to visit the park. Check out the main features in each month of the year:
- WINTER: As with the rest of the state of California, rainfall in Point Reyes is concentrated in the winter months. Between one rain and another it is common to be sunny, although it is quite cold. Although temperatures usually vary between 5ºC and 15ºC, it is one of the most interesting periods to visit the park due to the migration of whales and elephant seals.
- SPRING: Spring days are marked by a lot of wind, causing low temperatures in March. In late May and early June, temperatures can rise significantly in the region around Inverness Ridge. Temperatures usually vary between 8ºC and 21ºC.
- SUMMER: The summer months are marked by the absence of rain, but often there is intense fog. Bear Valley and Tomales Bay often have morning fogs that last until noon. Afternoons are usually sunny and warm with a light breeze. On the other hand, the beaches and observation sites are around 7ºC cooler, with heavy fog common throughout the day in July, August and September. Temperatures usually vary between 11ºC and 23ºC.
- AUTUMN: The coastal areas of Point Reyes experience some of the clearest days in late September, October and early November. Showers can happen at the end of another, bringing clouds, wind and rain. The strongest winds occur in November and December during southerly gales. Temperatures usually vary between 8ºC and 20ºC.
WHEN TO VISIT POINT REYES
The park can be visited at any time, as it is open all year round. However, in Winter, there are more chances of seeing a wide variety of animals. There are several beaches at Point Reyes National Seashore, where elephant seals gather in colonies to breed. Colonies vary in size, but all are vulnerable to disturbance during this period. To protect them, parts of the beaches that host their colonies are closed to the public seasonally.
On the beaches near Chimney Rock, female elephant seals are giving birth and nursing their pups, while those that gave birth more than a month ago are weaning. Drakes Beach is closed from mid-December to the end of March due to the presence of baby elephant seals. In mid-February, the gray whales start heading north. You tulle moose can be seen year-round at Tomales Point. It is worth checking all the information about openings and closings of the beaches on the official website before visiting.
HOW TO REACH POINT REYES
The most convenient way to get to Point Reyes is by car. The peninsula is located along the west coast of California, approximately 50 km north of San Francisco. For those in San Francisco, the adventure begins by crossing the Golden Gate Bridge on Highway 101 (see how to pay the Golden Gate Bridge toll in this link). Then take Highway 1, California's famous coastal scenic road. The Bear Valley Visitor Center is the gateway to the park.
SHUTTLE BUS IN WINTER
As Sir Francis Drake Boulevard is closed to private cars, including bicycles, on Saturdays, Sundays and federal holidays between 9:00 am and 5:45 pm, the most convenient way to visit the lighthouse region and its surroundings during this period is through a shuttle bus. It operates between the last Saturday in December and the end of March (or mid-April) only on Saturdays, Sundays and federal holidays from 9:30 am to 4:30 pm. On weekdays and during the period when the bus does not operate, it is possible to visit the place by car, parking in the Lighthouse or Chimney Rock car park. The value of the ticket is US$ 7 per person and can be purchased from the Kenneth C. Patrick Visitor Center in the Drakes Beach region.
RECOMMENDATIONS TO VISIT POINT REYES
- Use closed and comfortable shoes to visit the park.
- Bring water to stay hydrated while hiking the trails.
- Always take a sweater because the winds can be freezing.
- Cell signal very limited and for the most part non-existent. It is recommended that you use some form of offline GPS (you can download maps from Google Maps to have them offline or use some other app – I recommend maps.me). If you need wifi, the Bear Valley Visitor Center offers a free connection (the other visitor centers don't offer wifi).
- It is forbidden to use drones in the park.
- The Lighthouse region is the foggiest and windiest of the west coast, so pack a sweater even in the warmest months.
WHAT TO DO IN POINT REYES
You will find several options of what to do in Point Reyes. To facilitate your planning, we put all the tips in this post on the interactive map below. Here are top attractions, visitor centers, beaches, dining and lodging tips, and loads of tips!
1. VISITOR CENTERS
Point Reyes is attended by 3 Visitor Centers, being them:
>> BEAR VALLEY VISITOR CENTER
This is the park's main visitor center, located less than 1 km from the town of Olema along Bear Valley Road. It offers information about the entire history of the park, trails, as well as licenses for to camp in the park and do bonfire on the beach.
There are exhibits with information about the different ecosystems and cultural heritage of the park. There is a bookshop on site that sells natural history books, cards and posters. The official website recommends that visitors set aside at least 45 minutes to view the exhibits and watch an audiovisual program. You can take the opportunity to know the Morgan Horse Ranch (created in 1970 to house a horse breeding and training program) and the Kule Loklo (a recreated village of the Coast Miwok Native American tribe). See the location map in this link. (Hours: daily from 9:30 am to 5:00 pm)
>> KENNETH C. PATRICK VISITOR CENTER
This Visitor Center is located just off Drakes Beach and has exhibits on maritime exploration in the 1500's. It also displays a 'series of fossils and marine environments. A minke whale skeleton is suspended from the ceiling. Adjacent to the Visitor Center is a bookstore that sells books, guides, postcards and maps about the park and oceans. Next door, you can buy packed lunches and coffee. It is worth remembering that this visitor center does not have a wifi connection. (Hours: Saturday and Sunday from 10am to 4.30pm)
>> POINT REYES LIGHTHOUSE VISITOR CENTER
This visitor center is located about 45 minutes west of Bear Valley in the Point Reyes Headlands at the end of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. This location offers exhibits that tell the story of the Point Reyes Lighthouse, as well as marine animals such as whales, seals and sea lions, as well as wildflowers, birds and maritime history. Attached to the Lighthouse Visitor Center is the Ocean Exploration Center, which highlights North Central California's rich and meaningful ocean environment. (Hours: Friday to Sunday from 10am to 4pm)
The stairs leading to the lighthouse are only open from Friday to Sunday from 10 am to 4 pm, but they can close whenever the wind speed exceeds 64 km/h. The lighthouse's first gallery (the middle chamber, which contains the clockwork and from which visitors can see the Fresnel lens up close) is open only subject to weather and staffing conditions, Friday through Monday, from 1:30 pm to 3:30 pm. It is worth remembering that to reach the lighthouse, you have to go down 313 steps with an elevation equivalent to a 30-story building! So keep in mind that it's a strenuous walk back.
HOW TO GET TO THE LIGHTHOUSE VISITOR CENTER
Us weekends and holidays from late December to mid-April, when whale watchers visit the lighthouse area, visitors must take a bus shuttle (US$ 7 per person) from the Kenneth C. Patrick Visitor Center. There is a 700 meter steep walk from where the bus stops to the Lighthouse Visitor Center.
2. CHIMNEY ROCK
chimney rock is an area located east of Point Reyes that is popular with visitors who want to see elephant seals, birds and wildflowers. The trail leading to Chimney Rock is 2.8 km long (round trip) and offers beautiful views of Drakes Bay and the California coastline.
On the way, you'll pass the historic Chimney Rock Lifeboat Station, which operates rescue work for people and ships that have run aground along the coast. The place is very famous for being an observation point for elephant seals.
Point Reyes has nearly 130 km of coastline. Many of these areas can be safely accessed by visitors. Some beaches have wide strips of sand, while others do not. Anyway, remember that these beaches, even during the summer months, have low temperatures and the waters are usually very cold, making swimming in the sea inadvisable. The most visited beaches tend to be Drakes Beach, Limantour Beach and Great Beach (the southern end of Point Reyes Beach). Remembering that some of them may be closed during the season when the elephant seals have their babies. Pets are allowed exclusively on parts of Kehoe, Limantour, Great Beach and must be on a leash at all times. Check out details about point reyes beaches right away:
- Abbotts Lagoon Beach: You have to walk 2.5 km through the coastal vegetation, crossing a bridge over a creek until you reach the beach. The lagoons that form the beach attract a large number of migratory birds in autumn and ducks in winter. It is important to be careful not to disturb the breeding of birds on the beach between early June and mid-September.
- Drakes Beach: It is a long beach surrounded by white sandstone cliffs that faces the Kenneth C. Patrick Visitor Center. The formation of the beach through feelings coming from the remote cliffs 10 to 13 million years ago. Bear in mind that the beach is closed during the breeding season for elephant seals (from December to March).
- Heart's Desire Beach: This beach is part of Tomales Bay State Park in the far north. It is a cove that is located in Tomales Bay and is a very popular place for families with young children. As it is not directly on the open ocean, the waters are slightly warmer at this beach.
- Kehoe Beach: A 1 km walk along a marsh and over a sand dune takes visitors to the northern end of Great Beach, called Kehoe Beach. In this region, it is possible to explore a stream that reaches the Pacific Ocean, large dunes and many rocks. Dogs are allowed on leash on the northern part of the trail. The southern part is a protected habitat and dogs are not allowed to access this area.
- Kelham Beach: Accessing this secluded beach is a 7.5km hike along the Bear Valley Trail. Care must be taken, as it is famous for having high tides, which cover much of the beach.
- Marshall Beach: Located next to Tomales Bay and south of Tomales Point, this beach has a parking area that is 3 km away on a dirt road. You have to walk about 2 km to reach the beach.
- McClures Beach: This beach is accessible via a short but steep walk. Surrounded by rocks, the beach is very popular with surfers. To reach this location safely, go only when the tide is low.
- Palomarin Beach: The beach is located at the southern end of Point Reyes, between Bolinas Point and Wildcat Beach. The walk is made by the cliff and recommended only for the most experienced, because it is extremely tiring. She is famous for making tidal pools (puddles that form between rocks).
- Point Reyes Beach: Also known as Great Beach or Ten-Mile Beach, this huge beach is over 17 km long. The place is sought after by experienced surfers, as the sea is rough, it tends to be rough and the waves can be high. Dogs are allowed on a leash but cannot access north of North Beach as it is a protected area. During the winter, areas of the beach are taken over by elephant seals.
- Sculptured Beach: The carved beach is located 3 km south of Limantour beach. During low tide, it is possible to see the carved beaches that beautifully decorate this place.
- Wildcat Beach: This is a 4 km long beach located in the Phillip Burton Wilderness, in the southern part of the park. The only safe place to access Wildcat Beach is at Wildcat Campground, at least 9 km from the nearest trailhead. The shortest route to the Wildcat Campground is along the coastal path from the Palomarin Trailhead on the southern part of the coastline. Those who do this trail are interested in accessing the Alamere Falls waterfall, located about 1.5 km south of the Wildcat Campground.
There is no shortage of opportunities to trails in Point Reyes, as the park has nearly 150 miles of hiking trails. Trails can be closed for various reasons like preventing erosion, or protecting endangered species, etc. Before starting a trail, make sure it's open. There are trails for all profiles, from the most peaceful ones, lasting up to 1 hour, to others with about 6 hours of walking. See the complete list of the main trails with important information, distances and tips by accessing this link. Maps of the north of the park are here and from the trails to the south are in this link. Then we will talk about some interesting and short ones:
- Earthquake Trail (1 km): A short, paved trail that explores the San Andreas Fault zone. The trail begins at the southeast corner of the Bear Valley Picnic Area, across the access road from the Bear Valley Visitor Center.
- Kule Loklo Trail (1.3 km): This short trail leads to a replica of a village of the American Miwok Indian tribe, who lived there before the Europeans arrived. There are explanatory totems that describe the culture and history of this tribe and the structures of the village.
- Elephant Seal Overlook Trail (0.8 km): From the Chimney Rock car park, follow the driveway and follow the gravel path. It runs all the way from the cliff overlooking Drakes Bay and Drakes Beach to the Elephant Seal Overlook. In this area it is possible to see many elephant seals. By car from Bear Valley, it takes about 45 minutes to reach the site.
- Chimney Rock Trail (2.5 km): The Chimney Rock Trail offers beautiful views of Drakes Bay and is known for its wildflowers in the spring. In this area there is no beach, as the cliffs reach directly into the sea. From January to May, you are likely to see migrating whales. Fog and wind can make this hike challenging.
- Limantour Spit Trail (3.2 km): This trail gives you the opportunity to see birds through the marshes of Limantour Estero, to the north, and on the beach of Drakes Bay, to the south. Elephant seals can also be seen in the waters of this region. The car park is just 300 meters from the start of the trail, which is paved for the first 400 meters, but then becomes quite sandy as it is on a narrow path between dune vegetation.
5. SEEING ANIMALS
>> ELEPHANT SEALS
There are several beaches at Point Reyes National Seashore, where elephant seals gather in colonies to breed. Some of the main areas are:
- Point Reyes Headlands: In this area, starting in 1981, the first elephant seals returned to Point Reyes after a period of near extinction. The region is made up of small beaches covered by large rocky cliffs. The site can experience strong waves, which can reach the base of the cliffs, making it difficult for baby elephant seals to survive.
- South Beach: The elephant seal colony is located at the southern end of Great Beach, a long, wide, sandy beach with sand dunes. This colony formed in the 1990s after severe winter storms drove fur seals out of the Point Reyes Headlands colony. Even if the beach has heavy waves, it is wide enough for the pups to remain safe from the strong waves.
- Drakes Beach: The colony that lies along this long sandy beach and around the peninsula of chimney rock (smaller beaches) began to form in the mid-1990s and early 2000s. The sites within Drakes Bay are beaches protected from large waves, but the sites on the ocean side of Chimney Rock can be affected by large waves and swells. of winter storms.
AREAS CLOSED DUE TO ELEPHANT SEALS
As we mentioned earlier, from mid-December to the end of March, some of the Point Reyes areas are closed for the birth of babies. Among them are:
- The southern end of South Point Reyes Beach, also known as Great Beach, to the Lighthouse
- The road leading from the gate at the end of Chimney Rock Road to the Fish Dock area, including adjacent beaches
- Drakes Beach, from the south end, opposite the Kenneth C. Patrick Visitor Center, continuing south
- Southern end of Drakes Beach, below the Elephant Seal Overlook, is closed year-round
>> GRAY WHALES
As the gray whales migrate along the Pacific Coast, we may have a brief chance to see them. Whales spend about a third of their lives migrating from the cold, nutrient-rich waters of Alaska to the warm, shallow waters of Mexico's Baja California region. They make this journey in order to feed and procreate. They forage most of the year in the cold, food-rich waters of Alaska, but must migrate south to the warm, salty lagoons of Baja California, where they give birth in the winter. Along the way, these animals are often seen on the shores of Point Reyes. While some gray whales begin their migration from Alaskan waters in October and others don't return to Alaska from Baja California until June, off the coast of Point Reyes, the peak of southward migrationusually occurs in mid january and the northward migration occurs in mid march. Late April to early May is the best time to see mothers and their babies near the coast.
WHERE TO SEE GRAY WHALES
As the Point Reyes Peninsula juts out 10 miles into the Pacific Ocean, it's possible that visitors will be able to observe them with some ease. A good place to see them is at Point Reyes Headlands, from the area chimney rock up until Point Reyes Lighthouse.
6. OTHER ATTRACTIONS
- PHILLIP BURTON WILDERNESS & ALAMARE FALLS: Phillip Burton Wilderness is an area within Point Reyes with wilder and less explored vegetation. There are areas of forests, coastal vegetation, dunes and rocky coastline. In addition to a wide variety of wildlife, the area is home to over 100 miles of trails. One of the great attractions of Phillip Burton Wilderness is Alamere Falls, a waterfall that cascades over a 30-foot cliff and ends at the southern end of Wildcat Beach. To get to the place is not easy, as you have to walk for about 20 km (10 km to go and 10 km to come back). If you decide to venture out, don't stay too close to the cliff because there are areas with coastal erosion.
- TOMALES POINT: Formerly known as Pierce Point, this area is located at the north end of Point Reyes. This is a popular area for anyone wanting to see moose, birds and wildflowers. A short trail of just over half a kilometer takes visitors to McClures Beach. The Tomales Point trail is 15 km round trip.
- PIERCE POINT RANCH: Founded in 1858, the renovated Pierce Point Ranch is one of the oldest ranches on the Point Reyes Peninsula. The park's official website recommends taking 20 minutes to drive around the ranch and just over an hour round trip to and from the Bear Valley Visitor Center by car. The ranch is located at the north end of Pierce Point Road.
- KPH RADIO STATION & CYPRESS TREE TUNNEL: Historic Maritime Radio Receiving Station KPH Guglielmo Marconi located and commissioned the construction of a wireless telegraph transmitting station west of Bolinas and a receiving station at Marshall on Tomales Bay in 1913–14. The radio equipment, ship-to-shore Morse communications, and teletype (some of which date back to World War II times) remain intact, have been restored and made functional, and are used to transmit on various frequencies, including KPH. Next to the radio station is the Cypress Tree Tunel. Monterey Cypresses were planted around 1930 and currently form a “Tree Tunnel” at the site.
WHERE TO EAT IN POINT REYES AND SURROUNDINGS
During the tours, we recommend that you carry something in your bag or backpack to make a picnic because, depending on where you are, you will have difficulty finding places that sell food. The park has several picnic areas: Bear Valley Picnic Area (21 picnic tables), Drakes Beach Picnic Area (9 picnic tables), Five Brooks Trailhead (6 picnic tables), Limantour Beach (2 picnic tables), Pierce Point Ranch (4 picnic tables) ), Estero Trailhead (1 picnic table), Chimney Rock Boathouse (2 picnic tables), and on the Observation Deck at Point Reyes Lighthouse (1 picnic table). At the Kenneth C. Patrick Visitor Center there is a small café that sells some packaged sandwiches and is an interesting option for those who are hungry during their walk through the park. In addition, we marked on the interactive map, at the beginning of the post, some options of restaurants and markets that sell ready-to-eat foods in towns around the park. Below is a list of some options, separated by city:
Inverness Store Deli
Saltwater Oyster Depot
- inverness park
Inverness Park Market Deli
The Taproom @ the Inverness Park Market
Hog Island Oyster Bar
The Marshall Store's Deli and Oyster Bar
Tony's Seafood Restaurant
Rancho Nicasio Bar and Restaurant
Due West Market
Due West Restaurant
Sir and Star at the Olema
- Point Reyes Station
The Cowgirl Cantina
Point Reyes Butcher Shop and Restaurant
palace market deli
side street kitchen
Station House Café
Toby's Coffee Bar
Whale of a Deli & Market
WHERE TO STAY IN POINT REYES
- CAMPING: Point Reyes National Seashore offers year-round camping along Drakes Bay and among the hills and valleys of the Phillip Burton Wilderness, as well as camping on the west coast of Tomales Bay. The campgrounds in the park are: Coast Campground, glen campground, Sky Campground, wildcat campground and Tomales Bay (it serves as a “parking lot” for those on a boat). Due to its location near the San Francisco Bay Area, campgrounds in Point Reyes are in high demand. For this reason, it is advisable to book in advance. It is possible to make a reservation online in this link or check available same-day permits at the Bear Valley Visitor Center. See more information about camping in the park by accessing this link and this other link.
- ACCOMMODATION: The only place to stay in Point Reyes other than the camping areas, and the Hostelling International Point Reyes. The hostel offers shared dorm-style accommodation as well as private rooms.
BOOK NOW your hotel and save up to 50%. Travelers readers are with a SUPER DISCOUNT! And the best, with FREE CANCELLATION*!
*check the hotels with free cancellation on the website
TOURS TO POINT REYES
For those who don't want to rent a car and still want to get to know Point Reyes, the tip is to join a guided tour. Check out some available options:
- Discover Point Reyes National Seashore and Giant Redwoods
- Discover Point Reyes' natural wonders and ancient redwoods all-inclusive
- Muir Woods Escapade Outdoor Adventure (Stinson Beach + Mount Tamalpais Park)
- Address: 1 Bear Valley Road, Point Reyes Station, CA 94956
- Schedules: daily from 6 am to midnight
- Visitor Centers: Hours vary according to the time of year – check in detail here before leaving
- Bear Valley Visitor Center: from march to october open on weekdays from 10 am to 5 pm and on weekends and holidays from 9 am to 5 pm | from november to february open on weekdays from 10am to 4.30pm and on weekends and holidays from 9am to 4.30pm
- Lighthouse Visitor Center: from friday to monday from 10 am to 4:30 pm
- Kenneth C. Patrick Visitor Center: open only on days when the bus shuttle open, that is, on weekends and holidays from the end of December to the end of March or beginning of April, between 9:30 am and 4:30 pm
- Entrance: free
Save these tips to Pinterest!
Read more about parks in California:
- The amazing Yosemite Park in California
- California: Death Valley, the Valley of Death
- California: Sequoia National Park, the park of the giant sequoias
- Crystal Cave: Marble Cave at Sequoia Park in California
- California: Kings Canyon Park and the Deepest Canyon in the USA
- Lassen Volcanic Park: The Volcano Park in California
- Big Basin Redwoods Park: California's Oldest Park
- Muir Woods: Redwood Forest Next to San Francisco