NorCal Roadtrips

An Explorer's Guide to Northern California

Pt. Reyes National Seashore Itinerary

Bear Valley Visitor CenterDirections: From San Francisco exit Hwy. 101 in the village of Corte Madera in Marin County at the San Anselmo exit onto Sir Francis Drake Blvd. west. Follow it thru Ross, San Anselmo, and Fairfax on into West Marin (county) to the hamlet of Olema. Turn right (north) for a short distance and then turn left onto Bear Valley Road and stop at the well-marked Bear Valley Visitor Center. Pick up park and trail maps and you are ready to go. If you are tent camping, one of the hike-in camps (Sky) is nearby.

From the Visitor Center there are two options. It's best to do them on separate days if possible as you have a lot of territory to cover and you don't want to be in a hurry.

Option 1 has you exit the Visitor Center, return to Hwy. 1 at Olema and drive south, paralleling the San Andreas fault zone. Try to pick a day when an earthquake isn't scheduled. You'll pass several trailheads noted on your map (Five Brooks in particular) with trail access to two of the hike-in campgrounds at the seashore (Glen & Wildcat), a place to rent horses, and ultimately have access to the quaint and unusual village of Bolinas, a place where residents march to the beat of a very different drummer. If you are of the white belt and coiffed hair type of upbringing this may not be a spot where you'll be comfortable. But the homicide rate is low so the risk is not great. Another choice is to continue south on Hwy. 1 past the Audubon Canyon Ranch along pretty Bolinas Lagoon to the village of Stinson Beach. Popular with tourists, it has a nice beach and plenty of places to grab a meal, particularly on a sunny day.

Option 2 has you exit the Bear Valley Visitor Center and head north. Bear Valley Road will end at Sir Francis Drake Blvd. so take it toward Inverness. Don't turn right toward Pt. Reyes Station (yet). On the way you'll pass the road to Limantour Beach, a very nice choice if a beach is in your future. The Point Reyes Hostel is on the way, and another of the hike-in campgrounds (Coast) is accessed from here. But when you reach Sir Francis Drake Blvd. stay the course until you reach a well-marked "Y" in the road. Flip a coin, as you'll ultimately want to drive in both directions. For now, bear left toward the lighthouse. After a short while you'll see Mt. Vision Road on the left. Drive to the end for nice views and some photo ops. Have a picnic if you're so inclined. When you've had enough back-track and turn left to continue your venture. Next up is Drakes Estero, worth a quick detour, where one of the local oyster farms (soon to be closed by federal edict as of late 2013) has a facility but doesn't sell them here. By now you are passing family farms that have been around since the mid-1850's and are still productive today. When you see the TV ads for California cows being happy cows you can see why if this is your pastureland. You'll pass North and South beaches and a turn to Drakes beach and eventually come to another "Y" in the road. For now turn right and park in the lot for Point Reyes Lighthouse. Walk about 1/2 mile to the point and descend about 300 stairs to the lighthouse. Someone has estimated that the 300 stairs are the equivalent of climbing to the top of a 30 story building, so beware. As of this writing the lighthouse is closed Mondays & Tuesdays so check at the Visitor Center, but there is also a sign on the road before you get too far with the hours posted. Another warning; it can be so foggy here that you can't see the lighthouse from a few feet away, and the wind can be so bad that you can barely stand up. Gusts of 130 mph have been recorded here. But you can never tell what's in store until you are almost there. Exciting stuff. If its a clear day the views are great. Leaving the lighthouse drive to well-marked Chimney Rock, a hot spot to view migrating whales or just gaze at the ocean. See the remains of a historic lifeboat station there too. Now you're headed back to that original "Y" in the road where you turned toward the lighthouse. This time turn right and venture to Tomales Bay State Park.

Hearts Desire BeachThere's a nice family-oriented beach (Hearts Desire Beach) where you can actually swim safely (no lifeguard though) and an equally nice picnic area. At about this spot you can turn onto L Ranch Road and drive to a trailhead for Marshall Beach or bear left on Pierce Point Road. Do the latter. You will pass Abbotts Lagoon and you should take the time to take that trail. There's plenty of parking because we're not the only ones who like that hike. Its short and ends at the ocean after passing a lagoon that often teems with birds.

Pierce Point RanchBack on the road, you will dead-end at Pierce Point Ranch, a fine place to spend some time wandering among the old ranch buildings and a lucky National Park Service employee's residence. Plan to hike about 4.5 miles to Tomales Point along the bluffs overlooking the ocean. Two pointers: this is part of a tule elk reserve and you will very likely spot from one to a hundred vying with local cattle for being happy. It is also an area inhabited by mountain lions, to the extent that there is a warning sign posted near the trail. You never want to take the offensive, but we like to carry a serious knife with us so we can play defense if needed. If you've even been eyeballed by one of these beautiful critters in a remote area you'll never forget it. It's a very serious stare.

So much for nature. Time to head back to the entrance and get ready for some civilization. Get back on Hwy. 1 and head north briefly to Pt. Reyes Station. This is one of the better towns in northern California to hang around. Toby's Feed Barn is a throwback to simpler times and is a place to get some fresh produce or some cool music CD's that you won't find at home. We picked up a Patsy Cline tribute album that can't be beat, unless its a real Patsy Cline. Also some nice Brazilian guitar. If you brought your cow, buy some feed. Hit the Cowgirl Creamery Store and get some cheese, theirs and more. Get some rural Marin County clothing in the same building. There's a western store that actually caters to people who own and ride horses; at least buy a belt. And the food is pretty good too, anything from a sandwich to a fine sit-down meal. The Station House Cafe has been around forever serving a lot of locals along with the rest of us. The Western Saloon is another throwback; the kind of place you rarely see any more. So go exploring in town for a change. Heading north on Hwy. 1 again you'll pass a sign for Millerton Point, part of Tomales Bay State Park. If you stop you may have a nice beach to yourself, and a walk north will take you to a spot overlooking a working oyster farm. A great picnic spot. Next up is the Marconi Conference Center/ State Historic Park, once a very real working facility founded by Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of radio and 1909 winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics. Now its a conference center awaiting restoration of the buildings into something more comprehensive. As you drive along in the vicinity of Marshall you will have two opportunities to stop and buy some BBQ'd oysters. First up is the Tomales Bay Oyster Company, popular on weekends for folks who want to have a picnic and use the provided BBQ's to have that special lunch; oysters and other shellfish are sold on-site. A little further on is the Hog Island Oyster Company, with a more refined approach. Either way you can't go wrong.

Nick's CoveNext up: Nick's Cove. Long an institution in these parts as a no-nonsense place to eat BBQ'd oysters on the deck or a crab sandwich inside, in recent years it has been gently gentrified to offer some fine food that would be at home in San Francisco, appropriate given its ownership by Bay Area restaurant giant Pat Kuleto and chef Mark Franz. As of 2013 it's under new ownership but still worth a visit. The food is priced to attract regulars and travelers alike; not so the lodging. This is for folks who want the best or close to it.

Only one last stop before heading home. Tomales is a tiny place with a bakery, hotel that serves as one and the historic William Tell House, essentially a saloon that serves decent food in a historic setting. Its one of those places that you like for what it is and would probably be offended if they served fois gras. Road warriors just need a decent steak or burger after a long day on the trail.

At Tomales head east on the Tomales-Petaluma Road until you hit Hwy. 101. If you are headed south and Petaluma is out of the way, follow the signs to Novato. You're done for today.

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