Point Reyes Whale Watching

11:59PM February 7, 2008 3 Comments »

Point Reyes Lighthouse

The grey-whale migration is in full swing at Point Reyes National Seashore, one of the premier spots on the entire California coast to spot these enormous mammals. But there’s more here than just whales. Hike rocky headlands rising from the sea, scope the wide-open sky for migratory birds, kayak Tomales Bay, or stroll long, sandy beaches beside the roaring surf.

On the other side of the San Andreas Fault from the Marin shore, the 65,000-acre peninsula is on an entirely different tectonic plate, and it feels like it too: this is the windiest, foggiest place on the West Coast. Except for several 19th-century dairy farms, the land has remained completely undeveloped since Sir Francis Drake landed here in 1579 to repair his ship, the Golden Hinde. The peninsula’s eastern side is marked by pine forests and the steep hillsides of Inverness Ridge, the spine of Point Reyes; west of the ridge the land undulates in rolling prairies and grasslands, with wide-open vistas of sky and sea.

Get your bearings at the Bear Valley Visitor Center, the park’s headquarters. Pick up a copy of the fog-proof Tom Harrison hiking map. The Drakes Beach Visitor Center is smaller and 30 minutes from the mainland, but has interesting historical exhibits about Sir Francis Drake, as well as a good cafĂ©.

At the very tip of the peninsula, the postcard-perfect 1870 Point Reyes Lighthouse sits below the 600ft-high headlands—308 steps, to be exact—in order for the beam to shine under the typically high fog. Bring binoculars to spot passing ships and whales, and listen for the braying and barking of elephant seals lazing on the rocks. Make it a point to go inside the lighthouse to see the giant first-order Fresnel lens when the lighthouse is open. Even if it’s not, you can still whale-watch from the point. Because it’s ten miles out to sea, you’ll have a drop-dead vantage point on the migrating gray whales (December through April), an awesome sight!

Whale-watching Road-closure Alert:
On weekends and holidays, from late December through mid-April, the road to Chimney Rock and the lighthouse—the top spots for viewing migrating gray whales—closes to vehicles south of South Beach. To relieve traffic jams on the narrow road, the park has initiated a shuttle-bus service from Drake’s Beach. For full details, read this.

Beaches flank Point Reyes, some mellow, others fabulously treacherous. The surf is calm enough for wading at Drakes Beach; its drive-to access and proximity to a visitor center and rest rooms make it good for families with kids, but that’s also its drawback: too many people. There are fewer beachcombers on Limantour Beach, and the birdwatching is fantastic. On the Tomales Bay side, the water is warmer and sometimes smooth as glass, perfect for little kids; head to Heart’s Desire Beach, part of Tomales Bay State Park—one of the state parks Schwarzenneger proposes closing.

But for real drama, head to the Great Beach, a 10-mile-long stretch of sand that gets positively hammered by the surf; this is one of the few Northern California beaches to face almost due west, and it gets killer waves. Seriously. Listen up: Do NOT turn your back on the ocean here; rogue waves drown inattentive visitors every year. (Read more tips and cautionary tales about beach safety at Point Reyes, including how not to drown if caught in a rip current.)

Crisscrossed by 140 miles of hiking trails, Point Reyes’s most dramatic hikes are atop coastal bluffs, by the beach, and along Inverness Ridge. For the most bang for your buck—especially if you have out-of-towners in tow—it’s hard to beat the Tomales Point Trail at the park’s northern end. Park at Pierce Point Ranch, then trek over undulating grasslands, hundreds of feet above the surf, through the Tule Elk Preserve, with herds of wandering elk just yards away. (Stay back: they’ll charge if you get too close!) The moderately easy 3-mile one-way hike is long enough for most, but continue another 1.7 miles to the tip for stellar views of Bodega Head.

For equally stunning vistas, take the more challenging Inverness Ridge Trail from Limantour Rd to the top of 1282ft-high Mount Vision (which you can also access by car from the other side). Near the lighthouse, the jaw-dropping Chimney Rock Trail has stellar wintertime whale-watching, and in spring awesome wildflowers.

From the Bear Valley Visitor Center, the Arch Rock Trail is wildly popular, primarily because the trailhead is near the main visitor center; the four-mile trek to the beach shows off the peninsula’s varied landscape—pine forests, grasslands, and coastal bluffs—but you can’t access the beach at trail’s end. For a big, easy wow, take the half-mile roundtrip loop along the Earthquake Trail to see an 18ft break in an old wooden fence, a remnant of the 1906 earthquake—a must-do if you’re starting your day at the Bear Valley Visitor Center.

A Note about Dogs on Point Reyes:
Unlike at state parks, you can bring your pup to parts of the park so long as he stays on a short leash (less than six feet long). The rangers are very strict about enforcement; remember, if you get a ticket here, it’s a federal offense. (I know, I know…don’t blame me.) Dogs aren’t permitted on any trails (except Kehoe Beach access trail), and they’re allowed only on a few beaches. Read the rules before you come.