On average, nearly 2.4 million people make the trek to visit Point Reyes National Seashore every year. This wonderful park, located just north of the bustling city of San Francisco in central California, is described as a ‘natural sanctuary’.
Why is it called that? Well, Point Reyes is home to over 1,500 species of lush plant life and both land and marine wildlife. Within the park boundaries you can walk along numerous beaches overlooking the Pacific Ocean, get lost in woods full of Douglas Fir trees and roaming elk, or explore the geology of the San Andreas Fault Zone. There are kayaking opportunities, historical buildings and something for just about everyone to enjoy. Here is all you need to know before your visit to Point Reyes National Seashore.
Point Reyes Visitor Centers
Point Reyes National Seashore comprises over 240 kilometers of protected wilderness both on land and sea. Within the park boundaries you can explore miles of a vast trail system, camp at one of the four backcountry campgrounds to sleep under the stars, tour one of the historical structures from long ago, learn about the plants and animals at one of the three visitor centers or get your toes in the ocean at one of the famous beaches.
First stop before setting out to explore is a visit to one of the visitor centers. Each visitor center has maps and guides available as well as a ranger on duty to answer all of your questions about Point Reyes.
The main visitor center is the Bear Valley Visitor Center located at 1 Bear Valley Road. Here you will find exhibits focusing on the diverse ecosystems within Point Reyes National Seashore as well as the cultural heritage of this area.
The Lighthouse Visitor Center is geared more towards showing maritime history as well as marine life with its exhibits and educational books within the small bookstore.
The Kenneth C. Patrick Visitor Center, which is located on Drakes Beach, has an entire minke whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling! Other exhibits include maritime exploration from way back in the 1500s, and many more cool marine fossils.
Marine Life Encounters
One very unique experience at Point Reyes National Seashore is the local residents: the elephant seals! The elephant seal males, also known as bulls, make their way to the coastline before the females in the winter during the month of December. From December until March you can see the entire elephant seal colony while they go through their mating and birthing season. A great place to get a view is from the Elephant Seal Overlook near Chimney Rock. It is a must stop because seeing the interactions between mommy desk and her pups is a delightful, one of a kind experience for young or old.
However, elephant seals are not the only marine life encounter you can have. The large gray whale giants will migrate to the shores of Point Reyes National Seashore during their migration from chilly north Alaskan waters. To see the whale pods, visit the headlands of the Point Reyes Peninsula in mid-January for the southern migration and in mid-March for the northern migration. The very absolute best opportunity to see gray whales is in late April and early May. This is when mother gray whales and their not so small calves get really close to shore. That is one beautiful sight to see.
Point Reyes Hikes
A way to explore the amazing diversity of the beautiful Point Reyes National Seashore up close is to go about it on foot. Within the park boundaries are over 150 miles of trails in their vast trail system. Hikes here will take you from coastal walks to shady forests, to earthquake fault lines and much more. Here are some popular hikes to try.
- Coast Trail to Kelham Beach: The length of the trail is about 7 miles, but with less than 400 feet in elevation gain it still is an easy stroll. The trail starts through a Douglas fir forest to bring you to a secluded beach. It is a beautiful way to go deep into the Phillip Burton Wilderness and to the coastline.
- Sky Trail and Bear Valley Loop: Starting from the Bear Valley Visitor Center is this almost 13 mile loop. Rated as a moderate hike this rewarding loop promises views throughout the entire trail. Make sure to look for the slugs who love the muddy terrain.
- Earthquake Trail: This is a great trail for all ages. This paved less than a mile hike takes you down the San Andreas Fault Zone. The interpretive signs throughout the route give a glimpse into the power of the 1906 earthquake that hit the Bay Area.
- Mount Wittenberg Trail: 4 miles and an elevation gain of about 1,300 feet takes you to the very top of Mount Wittenberg. The trail weaves you through the woods of Point Reyes to the top of Mount Wittenberg. Although the views are limited, it is a beautiful hike full of plants and wildlife.
Other Things To Do At Point Reyes
Morgan Horse Ranch: Located near the Bear Valley Visitor Center, visitors can see the horses used by park rangers who use them to patrol the beaches and deep backcountry areas of the park.
Point Reyes Lighthouse: Hours to visit the lighthouse are limited, but it’s worth a visit if you can plan to see it on a day when it is open. Note that it is a 10 to 15 minute walk from the parking lot and you’ll have 313 stairs to walk down (and then back up). This historic lighthouse was built in 1870 and served for 105 years.
Tule Elk Reserve: Visit the Pierce Point Ranch and Tule Elk Reserve where you can see majestic Tule Elk, learn about the history of dairy ranching, and enjoy beautiful scenery. The best time to view the Tule Elk is July through October.
Kayaking: The Point Reyes area is a prime destination for kayaking. Visit the Parks page for a full list of kayaking destinations, launch site details, and information about kayak rentals.
- Point Reyes National Seashore has the notoriety of being both the windiest and the foggiest place along the entire west coast. Knowing this will help you come prepared. Even if it’s hot just a few miles inland, the beach stays in the cooler 50s and 60s. Especially in the summer months.
- If you want to bring your furry friend there are a few ocean facing beaches where they are allowed:
- Kehoe Beach
- Limantour Beach
- Point Reyes/Great Beach
- Want to bring them on trails? Your dog is welcome on the Kehoe Beach Trail, the Cross Marin Trail, and the Bolinas Ridge Trail. You can also bring your pet on a boat in the Tomales Bay as well as on these National Seashore beaches on the west side of Tomales Bay.
- Kilkenny Beach
- Long Cove Beach
- Fruit Tree Beach
- Marshall Beach
- No Name Beach
- Tomales Beach
- Elk Fence South Beach
- Want to go swimming at one of the beaches at Point Reyes National Seashore? Limantour and Drakes Beach are the beaches to hit. They provide the easiest and safest swimming and the ocean temperatures stay at about 50-60 degrees all year. Just keep in mind that there are no lifeguards at Point Reyes for anyone who is not confident with ocean swimming.
And there you have it! Everything you need to know before you go to Point Reyes National Seashore. I hope you get an opportunity to explore all the beauty, the diversity, and the coastal charm that this special place so near to the urban landscape has to offer. Please remember to always practice Leave No Trace principles and always, always have fun.
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Kaitlin is a former ballerina who now travels around the country in an 18-foot converted school bus. Her and her husband have welcomed 34 sweet children into their home the past eleven years. Although they would not be a forever home for all of them, they adopted their daughter buckets and are legal guardians to their son monkey. Follow their crazy adventures on Instagram @runawaymusbus