We San Franciscans know we’ve got it good. We’ve got access to some of the best food in the world; our bridge-filled sunsets are golden; and we absolutely lose our minds when the temperature strays from the typical 55°–68° range. (Author’s note: I’m not kidding. How does one actually survive in Texas?)
But what we forget from time to time is that we are literally (yes, literally) surrounded by breathtakingly stunning and accessible wilderness. For those of you who crave wildlife sightings and are tired of run-of-the-mill trash pandas,* don’t stress. A short drive north to Point Reyes is bound to fulfill your mini-safari-esque cravings. Follow this guide for your next North Bay wilderness and wildlife adventure.
Start your day at the Point Reyes Lighthouse, which is about a two-hour drive from San Francisco via Highway 101. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a chance to see both the lighthouse and possibly a whale or two. (Note that peak gray-whale-viewing season is mid-January through mid-April.) I personally was treated to a wall of Karl on my walk from the parking lot to the lighthouse, which is roughly 15 minutes up, followed by 300 stairs down the cliff to the lighthouse itself. But even with the fog, the lighthouse area is a perfect place to check off as your first task in this guide.
1. Spot the Tule Elk
Whether they’re in the fog or grazing with their herd in the sun, tule elk are plentiful in this area as well as in neighboring Drakes Beach. In fact, Point Reyes National Seashore is the last remaining US national-park unit with tule elk. These majestic creatures are accustomed to human Instagrammers but should be given ample space. But if you’re patient, and especially if you have a zoom lens, you can snag some great shots and spend some peaceful moments with these animals.
At the risk of sounding fatalistic, it’s also worth noting that the tule elk have been impacted significantly by the drought. One hundred and one elk calves were born in 2012, but only 23 survived by 2014.
2. Hike the Jagged Coastline
Forget the Cliffs of Moher (OK, don’t, actually—I hear those are awesome). Look at this. I’m not kidding—this coast is two short hours north of us. What’s your excuse? OK, I’ll settle down. But seriously, most people would travel days to see this, and yet this is in our northern backyard.
After taking in the lighthouse area, reverse your route; but instead of keeping to the left at the fork to stay on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, take your first right to head to Chimney Rock. Park at the trailhead and head up on the hike to your right. This partial loop trail will not only treat you to the view pictured but will give you ample opportunity to take in local wildflowers, including mule’s-ear sunflowers, lupines and good ol’ California poppies. Spring is the best time to see this colorful carpet in full bloom.
From the view above, I saw not only several hawks but also a handful of elephant seals in the distance. It was chilly even in the sun, so bring a jacket. But consider having a windy but view-tastic picnic from the top of this two-mile hike. In fact, if I were you, I’d bring some Chimney Rock cheese from Cowgirl Creamery, Acme bread and Vinho Verde. It would be perfect in so many ways.
3. Experience the Blorpitude of Elephant Seals
After chowing down cheese and bread, you might feel a little blorpy yourself. But fear not. To experience some true blorp, you only need to walk toward the water from the Chimney Rock parking lot. Head to the left to find the elephant-seal overlook, which will give you a direct but distant view of a beach often filled to the brim with these tubular beauties. Head to the right toward the historic Point Reyes Lifeboat Station. Chances are you will have a chance to take in a closer view of a single bull (an adult male elephant bull) or two. As with all wildlife, remember to keep your distance. Also, remember that these things can and will climb up from the beach to the driveway. If you spot a rock that seems to be breathing, think twice about approaching it. I had to.
These creatures are incredible to witness in person, especially if you’re able to get to a close but safe viewing distance. Males can reach 20 feet in length and weigh over four tons. Females can live up to 22 years yet lack the elephant-ish proboscis that gives the species its name. (When I say “proboscis,” I mean trombone nose—just so we’re on the same page.) Hunted to near extinction at the end of the 19th century, these animals have made a fantastic recovery on account of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
4. Go Bird-Watching
Your day isn’t over! You’ve seen the land. You’ve seen the sea. Now it’s time to take in the sky. Whether you’re still parked at Chimney Rock or headed back down Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, look up. Seriously, just stop and look up. Point Reyes is home to nearly 500 different species of birds, from red-tailed hawks (pictured below) to the adorably poofy (and ultra-protected) snowy plover.
I’m not a bird watcher myself, but I have found that if I’m willing to sit still somewhere, even for 15 minutes at a time, I can often spot a pretty sweet bird in flight. Give it time, and that bird might land somewhere near you and give you enough time to take a photo. The hawk pictured landed right next to me while I was sitting in my car. I rolled down my window and got this shot (and about 20 more) before it took off.
Want to know every type of bird you can see? Check out this list here. Bonus points for barn-owl, mockingbird and turkey sightings.
5. Watch the Sunset
OK, you’ve had enough hiking, blorping, nomming and elk viewing (or have you?), and it’s time to head home. Whether you detour north to Tomales Bay or take the scenic Highway 1 back home, make some time to take in the sunset. There are countless places to pull over and take in the beauty. Be careful as you pull over, but do it! You won’t regret it.
*No insult intended to the trash pandas (i.e., raccoons) of the world!