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Things To Do On Your San Francisco Vacation: The Point Reyes National Seashore

Updated on June 19, 2013
Point Reyes Beach along the northwest side of the Point Reyes peninsula.
Point Reyes Beach along the northwest side of the Point Reyes peninsula. | Source

The Point Reyes National Seashore: An Island in Time

The Point Reyes National Seashore is a 111 square mile peninsula in west Marin County, an hour drive north of San Francisco. The peninsula is separated from the mainland by the San Andreas fault and is inching its way northwest to one day truly become an island.

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Originally settled by the Coast Miwok over 3,000 years ago, Sir Francis Drake was the first European explorer to come ashore in 1579. Spanish explorers claimed the land for Spain, but when Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, California was divided and given to land grantees who established ranches and traded tracks of land without permits.

In 1851 California became an American state and ater years of litigation over the Point Reyes Peninsula, much of it was awarded to the law firm of Shafter, Shafter, Park, and Heydenfelt. The lush grasslands of the peninsula became home to California's new gold: butter and cheese to supply a growing San Francisco.

The lush grassland is rich feed for livestock as on this farm at the base of the Inverness ridge.
The lush grassland is rich feed for livestock as on this farm at the base of the Inverness ridge. | Source

The Shafter brothers established Home Ranch and sub-divided the peninsula into 30 tenant dairy ranches. Despite the boom in dairy production (an estimated 3,500 dairy cows on 17 working ranches by 1868), most access to the Point Reyes peninsula remained by sea and The Point Reyes Lighthouse was built in 1870. The North Pacific Coast Railroad did build a train line in 1875 that terminated in the new town of Point Reyes Station. However, easy land access to the peninsula didn't happen until 1930 with the opening of Sir Francis Drake Highway that connected to the freeway from San Francisco. As a result, the peninsula remained relatively untouched despite the population explosion of the greater San Francisco Bay Area.

Because much of the Point Reyes peninsula is still in its pristine natural state, it was declared a "National Seashore" by President John F. Kennedy in 1962. It is covered by beaches, sand dunes, grasslands, waterways, forests, and pastures. It is home to much of the organic dairy farming that makes California a leading dairy producing state. Fourth and fifth generation families still run its dairies and farms. It is rich in history, full of interesting outdoor activities, and a heaven for foodies. It is well worth spending a day or two of your San Francisco vacation exploring the Point Reyes National Seashore. Included here are the top things to do on your visit to the Point Reyes National Seashore.

Tour the Point Reyes Lighthouse

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Just some of the 308 concrete stairs that descend to the lighthouse.
Just some of the 308 concrete stairs that descend to the lighthouse. | Source

The Point Reyes Peninsula has always had a close association with the sea and ships. The primary means of getting to and from the area was largely by boat well into the 20th century. Because the headland of the peninsula juts out into the Pacific from the mainland by 10 miles, it is the windiest location on the Pacific Coast and second foggiest in North America. As you can imagine, Point Reyes has a close association with shipwrecks as well.

The lighthouse was built in 1870 and remained in continuous operation until 1975 when the Coast Guard replaced it with an automated light and fog signal. It is situated 300 feet (approximately 35 stories) below the top of the cliff to ensure that it was below the level of the fog. There are 308 concrete steps that descend to the lighthouse (which means 308 stairs to ascend after your visit), so it's not for the faint of heart. The Visitor's Center is open 10:00am-4:30pm Thursday through Monday and offers exhibits on the lighthouse, the life of lighthouse keepers, shipwrecks, as well as whales, sea lions, and other wildlife. The Lens Room of the lighthouse is open from 2:30 pm to 4 pm, Thursday through Monday from mid-April through December, and a Park Ranger is on hand to give you a tour of the lighthouse history and function.

Go Hiking, Camping, or Wildlife Viewing

A view of Drakes Bay from the Estero Trail, Point Reyes National Seashore
A view of Drakes Bay from the Estero Trail, Point Reyes National Seashore | Source

The Point Reyes National Seashore contains over 150 miles (240km) of hiking trails each with its own stunning views and vistas of the area. A map of the area with trails is available from the National Park Service web site for Point Reyes. Horses are allowed on most trails, and the Five Brooks Stables offers a variety of activities and services, including guided trail rides. Dogs, however, are not permitted on the trails. Sorry.

Whether you are up for a long and strenuous hike or just a spot to watch the local wildlife (of which there is plenty), the Point Reyes National Seashore is sure to please.

Eat: Dairy, Oysters, and Organic Vegetables Abound

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Given the Peninsula's rich history with dairy, oysters, and farming, it's no surprise that local produce is aplenty. Aside from the high quality local products, the area's farmers and producers are leaders in organic farming and animal husbandry. As such, Point Reyes National Seashore is one of the few places in the world where the food found in its restaurants and shops is both local and organic. The magic combination.

In addition to several great local restaurants such as Nick's Cove (Marshall), Osterina Stellina (Point Reyes Station), The Station House Cafe (Point Reyes Station), and Drake's Bay Oyster Company (Inverness), you can eat the Bay Area's favorite oysters right at the farm at the Hog Island Oyster Company. If oysters are not your thing (or even if they are), tour and sample the cheese of The Cowgirl Creamery.

Visit Tomales Bay: Boating, Kayaking, and Beach

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Sailing on this part of the Pacific Ocean is not for the faint of heart as the shipwreck history that you can tour at the lighthouse will attest. On the eastern side of the Point Reyes peninsula is Tomales Bay. Tomales Bay is the most popular place for kayaking in the National Seashore.

With 80 miles (130km) of shoreline, there is plenty of opportunity to visit the beach. However, as experienced West Coast folk know, the waters of the Pacific in this part of California are often too cold to comfortably enjoy the water without a wetsuit and the undertow is fierce. Tomales Bay, on the hand, offers warmer and gentler waters.

Key Places Mentioned In This Hub

show route and directions
A markerPoint Reyes Lighthouse -
Point Reyes Lighthouse, Inverness, CA 94937, USA
get directions

B markerHog Island Oyster Company Farm -
20215 State 1, Marshall, CA 94940, USA
get directions

C markerInverness, CA -
Inverness, CA, USA
get directions

D markerOlema, CA -
Olema, CA 94956, USA
get directions

E markerCowgirl Creamery -
80 4th St, Point Reyes Station, CA 94956, USA
get directions

F markerPoint Reyes Beach -
Point Reyes Beach, California 94937, USA
get directions

G markerPoint Reyes Station, CA -
Point Reyes Station, CA, USA
get directions

H markerMarshall, CA -
Marshall, CA 94940, USA
get directions

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    • SidKemp profile image

      Sid Kemp 4 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

      Hi Mickis!

      Excellent Hub! I've been to Deception Pass in Washington State, so I know the power of coastal Pacific points. I love lighthouses, and this is the first one I've ever heard of that one walks *down* to! This is a must for me the next time I make it to the San Francisco Bay area.

    • MickiS profile image
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      MickiS 4 years ago from San Francisco

      SidKemp, having been to Deception Pass, you'll be well prepared for the power of the wind at Point Reyes. I sure hope you get to see it on a clear day when you visit. It's stunning and the photos don't do the scene justice.

    • profile image

      Milli Thornton 4 years ago

      I thoroughly enjoyed this Hub and you've swayed me to want to spend a couple of days eating and exploring at Point Reyes next time I'm visiting that part of California. I know I could spend a good part of one day in the lighthouse and its visitor's center alone. (But I'll be sure to get fit first for those 308 steps back up!)

      I was so glad to hear the area was designated a National Seashore. This is the kind of wilderness and heritage we want to protect.

      I loved all of your photos, and both maps were helpful in visualizing where it is in relation to San Francisco, as well as locations for the restaurants and attractions pointed out by your Hub. I'm eager to try almost everything you covered (I'm not a kayaker but I would enjoy doing some kind of boating on Tomales Bay).

      Thanks for sharing your Point Reyes experience with us. You've given me itchy feet to want to visit there today!

    • MickiS profile image
      Author

      MickiS 4 years ago from San Francisco

      You're welcome, Milli. Thank you for the great comment. I'm not a kayaker either, but I sure did enjoy some great oysters at Hog Island while sitting on the shore of Tomales Bay. I hope you get the chance to explore the area on your next trip here.

    • profile image

      Milli Thornton 4 years ago

      I forgot to add that I found the history fascinating. Thanks for the well-rounded info.

      I wonder if any signs of the North Pacific Coast Railroad still exist. A scenic railroad trip on Point Reyes would be sublime!

    • MickiS profile image
      Author

      MickiS 4 years ago from San Francisco

      The Train Station still exists in Point Reyes Station, but it's Toby's Feed Barn and The Station House Cafe. The tracks are long gone, unfortunately.

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      oceansider 4 years ago

      I've been to San Francisco several times, but have never been to Point Reyes. I have gone all the way up the coast of CA through Oregon and into Washington, but don't remember seeing Point Reyes. Thanks for the information.....it looks really beautiful!

    • MickiS profile image
      Author

      MickiS 4 years ago from San Francisco

      Yep, just driving the coast, Oceansider, you would gone inland at this part of California through Marin County and missed the peninsula. Guess you'll just have to come back! :-)

    • Om Paramapoonya profile image

      Om Paramapoonya 4 years ago

      I wish I could go to San Francisco every weekend. *sigh* It's the most amazing city I've been to so far. Thanks for sharing this lovely hub. Maybe I'll try kayaking next time I visit SF.

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      Milli Thornton 4 years ago

      I agree with Om Paramapoonya. I live far from SF (I'm in Ohio) so I can't just drive there whenever I want to. It's been about 10 years since I've been there, and I have fond memories of the city. This Hub made me badly want to get back to SF - but not unless I can also visit Point Reyes.

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