A short drive from the urban growl, you can this wild place virtually to yourself.
Point Reyes National Seashore is the ornithological sweet spot of the West, and Rich Stallcup can show you why. Twenty years ago Stallcup, a founder of the Point Reyes Bird Observatory and a mentor to birders and other naturalists around the world, treated himself to a "big sit." He roped off a 12-foot circle beside a coastal marsh, set up a chaise longue before dawn, and tuned his radio to country music. For the next 10 hours he watched the Pacific tides attract ducks, herons, egrets, and other waders while all around him the layered habitat—firs, madrones, alders, willows—lit up with feathers of every color. That day he spotted 114 species of birds.
Stallcup's observations over the years have contributed to a tally of more than 475 bird species in this triangle of coastline, forest, and grasslands an hour's drive north of San Francisco. The Seashore has more avian diversity than any other U.S. national park—more, in fact, than any of 40 whole states. "Everywhere you go there are birds, but here they are easier to see," Stallcup says. "They haven't been persecuted. They haven't been chased or shot at. So it seems that becoming one with wildlife is easier here."
It's not just birds that are drawn to this lovely place. Almost 2 million people found their way to Point Reyes last year. But don't let that put you off: Around any bend on any of the trails in the park's 71,068 acres is a chance to feel you have the land to yourself.
You can stroll on miles of tawny sand, open ocean at one side and marshes a flutter with birds at the other.
President John Kennedy signed the bill creating Point Reyes National Seashore in 1962 and, local lore goes, was to have dedicated it the next fall after his stop in Dallas.
"Ask yourself, why is this place preserved?" says national park ranger Steve Anastasia. "What does it give to you? " Inside the Point Reyes Lighthouse on the headlands that have wrecked at least 120 ships since 1595, Anastasia is showing visitors the 3,000-pound Fresnel lens whose flashing beam saved countless other ships between 1870 and 1975, the year an automated beacon took over. "Some come here for the solitude," he says. "For others it's a place to discover. For others it's the elephant seals and whales in winter. There's something personal here for everyone to find, and we don't have that opportunity very often in our lives anymore."
In summer, one thing you'll discover at Point Reyes is microclimates. A 40-mile-an-hour wind may drive a cold fog against the lighthouse while 13 miles inland at Olema, where Highway 1 and Sir Francis Drake Boulevard meet near the park entrance, the day is calm and hot. Dress for sunny California and, say, the coast of Wales.
A good starting point is the Bear Valley Visitor Center, a quarter mile west of Olema. The lighthouse and Drakes Beach have visitor centers too, but this is your main source for maps, exhibits, and rangers' advice. From here it's a 30-minute drive to two of the most convenient of the park's dozen beaches.
On Limantour Beach, at the foot of Limantour Road, you can stroll on three miles of tawny, wind-scrubbed sand with open ocean rumbling at one side and marshes aflutter with birds at the other. Drakes Beach, off Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, is a gentler spot: Tall sandstone cliffs give some protection from the summer winds, and if you want a restroom, a shower for sandy feet, a pay phone, or a snack at the little cafe, they're right there. The visitor center has a whale skeleton and exhibits on Drake, who supposedly spent five weeks in the area repairing his Golden Hinde.
Six miles past the Drakes Beach turnoff is the lighthouse. Looking down from the parking lot, you're apt to see (unless fog obscures it) surf foaming along the ruler-straight 10 miles of Point Reyes Beach. Then a short walk uphill takes you to the visitor center's exhibits on wildflowers, whales, birds, shipwrecks, and lighthouse keepers. Venture 308 steps down the cliff and you're at the lighthouse itself. There, a ranger might mention that Point Reyes is separated from mainland California by the San Andreas Fault and that in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake this part of the peninsula jumped north 18 feet in less than a minute. At the sturdy little lighthouse, the lens slipped off its tracks, the keepers pushed it back on, and the beacon shone as usual that night.
Point Reyes National Seashore is a place to get out and breathe—to ride a bike or a horse, paddle a kayak, spot a bird, and walk on some of the park's 140-plus miles of exquisite trails. Rangers can point you to one that suits you.
The Bear Valley Trail, the park's most popular, is a mostly casual walk of 8.2 miles round-trip. It starts at the visitor center, passes through a forest, alongside a creek, across Divide Meadow (where Teddy Roosevelt hunted deer and, yes, bears), and ends near Arch Rock, a natural sculpture created by centuries of waves.
For a more challenging and more dramatic hike, consider the Tomales Point Trail (9.4 miles round-trip) at the north end of the park. The trailhead is 40 minutes by car from Bear Valley to the end of Pierce Point Road, a scenic drive worth taking anyway (you might have to stop for a stray cow from a working ranch). On this trail, rounding a knoll amid coyote brush and bush lupine, you might pause and take in the splendor: Tomales Point stretching northwest between the dark, thunderous Pacific and the quiet waters of Tomales Bay sitting atop the San Andreas Fault, where the Pacific tectonic plate you're standing on grinds against the North American plate. Tule elk roaming a nearby ridge are descended from the handful brought to Point Reyes for protection in 1978. (They're most exciting during the rut that starts in late July.) Overhead, a Caspian tern—think of a guy in a black derby, his nose painted reddish orange—soars in a wide arc.
If you're at Point Reyes for the weekend, you can find plenty of places to stay. At least 30 inns and cottages within minutes of the park entrance offer rooms in a profusion of styles at varying prices. Least expensive of all is the Point Reyes hostel—the only lodging inside the National Seashore besides camping—which has 40 dormitory beds and one private room.
You have plenty of choices, too, when you're hungry. In Point Reyes Station, a charming town just outside the park, you might grab a bear claw at the Bovine Bakery; gourmet diner food at the Pine Cone; an award-winning Cowgirl Creamery cheese at Tomales Bay Foods; or a bowl of cioppino at the upscale Station House Cafe. If you're looking for candlelit romance (and a prix fixe dinner starting at $58 per person), try Manka's, a high-end lodge and restaurant in nearby Inverness.
Back in the park, you'll see birds everywhere. From August 25 through October and again from May 20 through June—Rich Stallcup charts the precise dates—you can glimpse one of nature's great mysteries: the appearance of "accidental" migratory birds. They arrive from the northeastern United States and from Canada—a lone plumbeous vireo, an American redstart, perhaps a magnolia warbler, a little beauty dressed in yellow and black like a Pittsburgh Steeler. Just in from Ontario, the warbler intended to migrate to the West Indies or the Yucatan Peninsula, flying southeast. But it arrives at Point Reyes because a rare genetic anomaly called "mirror-image misorientation" makes it fly 90 degrees off course, or southwest. Its brief presence alongside normal migrants and the species that live here year-round adds to the visual thrill for bird-watchers waiting with binoculars, telescopes, and cameras.
An accidental will stay for two or three days. Then it leaves at dusk and, doomed by its internal compass, continues flying southwest into the night. It will find no landing pad, only the vast waters of the Pacific. And then, if not killed by a jaeger or skua or some other winged predator, it falls unnoticed into the sea.
Human visitors to Point Reyes National Seashore are more fortunate. They can come back.
Photography by Mark Compton
This article was first published in July 2005. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.