A late spring visit to Point Reyes National Seashore in Northern California afforded me an opportunity to take pictures of many of its iconic features, flora and fauna including the Point Reyes Lighthouse, beaches, Visitor Center, historic Lifeboat Center, tule elk, deer, elephant seals and whales.
Several small communities just outside the park are also very picturesque. I’ve included shots taken in Bolinas, Olema and Inverness.
President JFK signed a bill authorizing the purchase of 53,000 acres—most of the Point Reyes peninsula—at the recommendation of the National Park Service to protect it from further development on September 13, 1962. 18,000 acres were leased back to dairy ranchers, part of a compromise allowing them to continue operations along with tourism and other park activities.
Winter is the busy season at Point Reyes NS as tourists arrive for whale watching from the lighthouse or to view sea lions near Chimney Rock. Sir Francis Drake Boulevard access to the headlands is closed to vehicles during this season but the National Park Service provides shuttle bus service from Drakes Beach.
Point Reyes National Seashore pictures
A wall map painted on the side of the Olema Liquor and Deli highlights many of the locations shown in following photos.
Olema is an unincorporated community 2.25 miles south of Point Reyes Station in Marin County, California.
In addition to the previously mentioned store, there are shops, restaurants, a lodge and several bed and breakfasts, like the Olema Inn on the right below, with a nearby campground. The Bear Valley Visitor Center is about a mile from here.
Shortly after entering the Point Reyes peninsula you will pass through Inverness CA on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. Another unincorporated community, Inverness, is on the southwest shore of Tomales Bay on the San Andreas Fault which bisects the bay seperating the geologic peninsula from the California mainland.
Inverness has two or three restaurants, a post office, general store, library and a number of hotels and inns.
A shipwrecked wooden boat, the Point Reyes, is a popular photographic subject and easily spotted as you enter town.
Inside the Park
Drakes Bay is about 15 miles from Inverness. Named for the famous English sea captain Sir Francis Drake who is believed to have discovered the bay on his voyage to circumnavigate the globe. He may have stopped here for repairs.
A visitor center with a small museum and café, a wide stretch of sandy beach and drive up access make Drakes Beach a popular stop. This is also where you catch the shuttle bus in winter for the only access to the lighthouse and Chimney Rock.
Point Reyes Lighthouse
The windiest spot on the Pacific Coast, Point Reyes is also the second foggiest place on the North American continent. Summer months are particularly fog bound—which accounts for its winter popularity with tourists. The Point Reyes Lighthouse was installed on the headlands (jutting 10 miles from shore and a hazard for any ship sailing north from San Francisco) in 1870.
The lens and mechanism were imported from France, around South America by steamer to SF and installed on a platform blasted from the rocks—a very involved and time consuming process.
The first amazing view upon arriving at the Point Reyes Lighthouse parking area is Point Reyes Beach.
The small Lighthouse Visitor Center at the top of the cliff is well worth checking out. It contains lots of information about the whales that migrate past the lighthouse. You may be able to see some from a viewing area just a few feet away.
The lighthouse itself had to be built closer to the water to be below the typical high fog that blankets the coast. Wooden steps were replaced with concrete in 1939. There are 308 steps and a couple long fairly steep ramps. In the telephoto shot below the closer resting/viewing platform is about half way to the top.
Once you descend the stairs you can step into the lighthouse to view the mechanism used to rotate the light.
A “first order” Fresnel lens (largest size) provided lifesaving notice of the rocky shore until it was retired from service in 1975. Crystal prisms concentrate the light making it visible as far as the horizon. Rotation of the 6000 pound lens caused the light to sweep over the water creating the Point Ryes signature pattern of one flash every five seconds.
The Coast Guard installed an automated light and foghorn in 1975 and transferred ownership of the lighthouse to the National Park Service. The new light below (also visible in the first lighthouse photo above) is to the right. The slightly higher light to the left is a backup. Bulbs need to be changed only once every three months.
Whale Watching at Point Reyes Lighthouse Station
While you can watch for whales from the view area at the top of the cliff where there are docents with binoculars and telescopes, the best views are from the walkway around the lighthouse. You will need your own binoculars or telephoto lens though.
If you visit during the winter season the next stop for the shuttle bus will be at Chimney Rock.
A 1.6 mile round trip walk will take you to the point. Along the way you can view the historic Point Reyes Lifeboat Station, wild flowers and most likely sea lions. On my visit we also sighted deer both here and at the lighthouse stop.
The photo below is the view from the end of the point. The land in the distance on the left is the southern end of the peninsula.
An elephant seal was in the small pool just behind the arched window rock in the center of the photo above. The shot below is an extreme telephoto view.
On your walk to or from the parking lot you will have a nice view of the historic Lifeboat Station at Point Reyes. Lifesaving operations moved from Great Beach to this more protected location in 1927 where heavier, faster, motorized lifeboats replaced human-powered surfboats.
The photo below gives you some idea of the rocky shore an unsuspecting ship would encounter on the southern edge of Point Reyes between the lighthouse and Chimney Rock.
The Chimney Rock walk is also known for the many wildflowers you may see along the way.
A shorter walk in the other direction from the Chimney Rock parking lot takes you to a Sea Lion Overlook. By late March only pups were left resting up for their first solitary ocean voyages.
On this visit we spotted several deer on our walk to the Sea Lion Overlook. We had sighted a few more at the lighthouse.
Tule Elk at Point Reyes National Seashore
Tule Elk can be seen at many locations at Point Reyes—we spotted a herd near Drakes Bay Visitor Center—but most reliably in the Tule Elk Reserve at Tomales Point on the north end of the peninsula.
Tule Elk were thought to be extinct until a small herd, numbering less than 30, were discovered near Bakersfield CA in 1874. On my visit I saw only cows in both the herd near Drakes Bay and at Tomales Point. I look forward to returning for another visit in the rut season, July through September, when I hope to see and photograph some bulls.
There are several historic ranches at Point Reyes National Seashore. Most are still active with favorable park land leases.
Pierce Point Ranch, shown below, one of the oldest on the Point Reyes Peninsula has been restored and can be visited. It is at the north end of Pierce Point Road in the Tomales Point Tule Elk Preserve.
The body of water mid-photo is Tomales Bay. The Pacific Ocean (and the elk in the pictures above) are at my back.
I'll end this photo essay of Point Reyes National Seashore with a couple photos I shot back outside the park again in the small town of Bolinas at the very southern tip of the Point Reyes Peninsula.
If you have an interest in lighthouses you can see additional California lighthouses on my pages about Alcatraz Island, Fort Point (below the Golden Gate Bridge), Point Bonita Lightouse (Marin Headlands), Point Pinos Lighthouse in Pacific Grove and the Old Point Loma Lighthouse in San Diego.
Visit other National Parks and National Monuments in the US from my National Parks page.
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Website and all photos copyright © 2001–2016 Lee W. Nelson