Point Reyes: The perfect San Francisco day trip
Just an hour north of San Francisco's main attractions, a world away from clanging streetcars, sightseeing hordes and traffic jams, there's Point Reyes National Park, where visitors can wander in solitude, view wildlife, feel the ocean's spray, and get back to nature. Here, guests can spot migrating gray whales in the winter, hear the bugling of mating tule elk in the late summer, and gaze from the Elephant Seal Overlook near Chimney Rock. Plus, there's no entry fee.
Point Reyes has an impressive network of trails (150 miles worth) that range from under an hour to between three and six hours. Some of the truly mischievous may want to stand on top of the San Andreas Fault (which runs right through the park) and see if they can make the earth move. But this month, the mating calls of the park's tule elk are commanding center stage as they enter the rut (mating season) through early October.
"At the north end of the park, along our Tomales Point Trail, there are about 500 tule elk in the preserve," said John Golda, a park ranger for 13 years. He said that by September, the fog begins to lift, making it easier to see them. "There are plenty of good viewing areas along the trail, and hikers can easily hear the bulls bellowing for the attention of females."
Some may get to see a couple of bull elk sparring for the attention of the females.
"They might seem intimidating, but despite their size, they're pretty bashful animals," Golda said. "But a good rule of thumb for any wildlife is if they stop and look at you, then it's a good idea not to get any closer."
One of the more helpful aspects of Point Reyes is the availability of park rangers to answer questions about key areas of the park. For example, on weekends from July through September, park volunteers will be stationed at the Tomales Point Trailhead and at Windy Gap.
Hit the beach
Another seasonal gem is the hike to Alamere Falls, has been ranked as one of the world's most beautiful waterfalls. It's rare in that this 40-foot- high waterfall flows directly into the ocean. This day hike is located at the south end of the park and is accessible by hiking to Wildcat Campground and then walking about a mile south along the beach at low tide. Check in first at the Bear Valley Visitor Center for more information.
If you're at the park for Labor Day, see the Annual Sand Sculpture Contest at Drakes Beach, on Sunday, September 1. From 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., there's going to be plenty of inventive entries crafted by kids and adults. Just register at the Ken Patrick Visitor Center and bring your buckets.
If you can handle some stair climbing, you might be ready for a trip to the Lighthouse Visitor Center and Point Reyes Lighthouse, open Fridays through Mondays. At the visitor center, guests can learn all about the migrating wales, as well as seals, sea lions, birds and the area's maritime history.
Between December and April, it can get crowded as groups gather to watch the migrating California gray wales from the lighthouse. Like most smart creatures, they're migrating for the winter from Alaska to kick it in Baja. During the migrating season, the park often restricts parking in the area and brings guests in by shuttle bus from Drake's Beach.
From the Lighthouse Visitors Center, it takes 300 steps (about the same as 30 stories of stairs) to get to the lighthouse below. According to the website, the lens room, which houses the original clockworks and first-order Fresnel lens that were manufactured in 1867 and installed in 1870, is open from 2:30 p.m. to 4 p.m., as staffing and weather conditions permit.
Dress for weather. The winds can pick up unexpectedly, and if they hit 40 mph, the stairway to the lighthouse will be closed. Also, remember that you have to take the stairs UP to get back.
For the latest changes in hours, trail closures and park news, click here.