Point Reyes is a National Seashore, known for stunning beaches and unique geology, just over an hour north of San Francisco. We visited Point Reyes for a one-night backpacking excursion. Jump to park basics, camping, hiking, or our trip.
Point Reyes is a National Seashore just north of San Francisco. There is no difference between a national seashore and a national park, as far as I can tell, except the name and the fact that one is part ocean. Both are managed by the National Park Service (NPS).
The park is known for dramatic undeveloped beaches, wildlife, and unique geological characteristics.
Point Reyes is home to groups two large mammals we did not see, the Elephant Seal and the Tule Elk, both of which are endangered species whose populations are now growing in the park. The seals are best seen in winter on the beaches. Gray whales can be seen occasionally as well, usually in the winter. Another fun nearby “wildlife” activity is eating oysters at one of the spots around Tomales Bay.
Geologically, Point Reyes is a peninsula bordered by the San Andreas Fault. Tomales Bay sits directly on top of the fault. Unlike the neighboring mainland, on the North American plate, Point Reyes sits on the Pacific Plate. These plates are getting pushed in different directions, so the rocks on Point Reyes match the rocks in the Tehachapi Mountains, which are over 300 miles south. During the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, the island moved 17 feet in just a few seconds, and a section of fence still exists to show the jump. Aside from rock, plant, and that fence, you can’t really see the fault anywhere in the park. This NPS guide explains the fault really well.
The park is full of horse and bike trails through the forest, which are all well marked. Some of the “people only” trails are overgrown, and we had to watch out for stinging nettle and mosquitoes. It’s also relatively flat, as the elevation of the point is only 1,411 feet. This all made for fairly boring hiking. Fortunately, in addition to the wildlife, there were wildflowers in bloom all over the park.
Camping: There are four backcountry walk-in campgrounds, and there are also boat-in campgrounds if you are feeling especially adventurous. Here’s the NPS description of the campsites. The park brochures warn you to be careful with beach hiking so you don’t get caught somewhere when the tide comes in. There are also signs warning about tsunamis, which is a fun disaster to consider while you’re setting up your tent.
Hiking / Biking / Horseback Riding: There’s a network of trails throughout the park, many can be used by hikers, bikers, and riders. We did not bring our bikes because we didn’t realize that there would be bike racks available when the bike trail ended and the hiking trail began. If we did it again, we would ride out and leave the bikes locked up overnight, in order to speed up the slowest part of the hike.
One sad note is that one of the more famous hikes, to Arch Rock, is currently closed after a piece of the arch fell in March 2015 and one person died.
Fees were $0 to enter the park, $20 to camp.
We headed north from SF on Thursday around lunchtime, due to an over-excessive birthday celebration the previous evening. The drive to Point Reyes is very scenic, which I’ve learned actually means full of twists and turns. It took a little over an hour to get to the park, and once there we were told there was availability at all four walk in campsites. We picked Wildcat because we wanted to be near the beach and a friend had recommended it to Adam.
After stopping by the visitors’ center to get map and a campsite assignment, we packed up our bags and took off for the hike. We did not see any bikes on the path, but we did pass a few folks and their horses along the way. The climate was temperate rainforest like, with thick fog and lots of humidity. Although we were only a few miles from the ocean, it didn’t seem at all like a beach climate.
The hike to Wildcat Camp is 6.3 miles, if you take the most direct route, and it took us 2 hours and 40 minutes to get there. Our usual 2 m.p.h. pace improves on flatter ground. We were the only ones at camp most of the afternoon. We did see one group of people later in the day, which was surprising because we were told that all the campsites were reserved. It was great to have the place to ourselves but, again, annoying that such a great spot was going largely unused. Interestingly, there were places for horses at camp, which sounds logistically challenging to me, and there were grills if you were willing to pack in charcoal but wood fires are not allowed.
We got the tent set up and decided to go check out the beach. The beach is a few hundred yards from camp, and from there we walked about a mile south along the beach to Alamere falls. There was also a hike through the woods along the bluffs but we wanted to enjoy the view and change in terrain. We had the place to ourselves.
On Friday, we packed everything up for the hike back out of the park. It would have been fun to check out the other back country sites, and also to drive over to the Lighthouse at Chimney Rock, but we wanted to get back to the city to cook dinner and play settlers with our amazing hosts, Purdy and Julien.