California Road Trip: Point Reyes Lighthouse


When we last left off, Jon and I were making our way from the Tule Elk Reserve over to catch the shuttle bus to the Point Reyes Lighthouse.  It took us awhile to get to the other side of the park, because it is so large (to be honest we were a little unprepared for its size).  Just so you have a little perspective, Point Reyes National Seashore is 100 square miles.  Yep, you read that correctly.  The drive from the Bear Valley Visitor’s Center to the trailhead near the Tule Elk Reserve is 30 minutes.  The drive from the Bear Valley Visitor’s Center to the Lighthouse is 45 minutes!  Our drive from Petaluma to the park itself was only 30 minutes!  Keep that in mind when you visit – and bring food, because there aren’t many services inside the park.

We got to the Visitor Center at Drake’s Beach, the Visitor’s center closest to the lighthouse, and got our tickets for the shuttle bus to the lighthouse.  In the late winter, during the Gray whale migration, they close the road to the lighthouse and make all visitors ride the shuttle bus, because there are so many people there to see the whales and the parking lots can’t accommodate that many cars.  The ticket is only $5 per person though – just be aware that you can’t just come and go whenever (the shuttles run every 15 minutes).

A Gray Whale Skull at Point Reyes Lighthouse

A Gray Whale Skull at Point Reyes Lighthouse

On our way out to the lighthouse, they did play a tape with some historical information about the Seashore and the lighthouse.  The Point Reyes Lighthouse was built in 1870 in order to protect ships from the treacherous Point Reyes Headlands, which jut out 10 miles into the open ocean.  The Point Reyes area is the second foggiest place in North America and is known for its high winds, making it a dangerous area for ships to pass.  After helping ships pass safely for over 100 years, the lighthouse was automated in 1975, but it has been maintained with its original Fresnel lens.

The lighthouse was constructed with some difficulty, because the materials had to be hauled by hand down the cliff where the lighthouse was located.  The lighthouse was constructed down the cliff because it needed to be lower than the characteristically high fog that often blanketed the area.  Workers had dynamited a flat spot on the rocks for the lighthouse to sit.  The Point Reyes Lighthouse has a First Order Fresnel lens, which if you remember my blog post on the Battery Point Lighthouse, you know that a First Order is the largest Fresnel lens that was made.  Imagine trying to haul that down the cliff!

The lighthouse was maintained by four families who lived at the site – a head lighthouse keeper and four assistant keepers – they each worked a six hour shift.  It was considered an undesirable post, because of the high winds and frequent fog (the highest winds recorded there were 133 miles per hour!) and the fact that the nearest town, Inverness, was nineteen miles away.  However, the beauty of the area is something to behold, and apparently it was enough of a draw that one lighthouse keeper stayed 24 years.

Once you get off the bus, you have to walk about a half mile from the parking area to the lighthouse.  You are greeted with beautiful views of the rugged coastline, and then you see the lighthouse down the hill.  In order to visit the lighthouse, you have to be prepared for a workout; seeing it close-up requires a trek down 308 steps (roughly a 30 story building!).  That’s the easy part – because once you see it you have to climb back up 308 steps!  But if you can, go down to the bottom; it is well worth the experience of the wind in your hair and seeing the huge Fresnel lens up close.

A View of the Point Reyes Lighthouse from the Top of the 308 Steps

A View of the Point Reyes Lighthouse from the Top of the 308 Steps

Point Reyes Lighthouse - Built 1870 - 16 Sided Pyramidal Tower with First Order Fresnel Lens

Point Reyes Lighthouse – Built 1870 – A 16 Sided Pyramidal Tower with First Order Fresnel Lens

On the day that we were there, a Park Ranger was answering questions in the lighthouse, and I learned that each lighthouse along the Pacific Coast has a unique flash pattern, so mariners can tell their location by the flash.  The Point Reyes Lighthouse flashes once every five seconds.  The lens is so efficient that it can be seen all the way from the horizon, a distance of about 24 miles.  The lens itself is twelve feet tall and six feet wide, and the building is 37 feet tall.

First Order Fresnel Lens at Point Reyes Lighthouse

First Order Fresnel Lens at Point Reyes Lighthouse

The Point Reyes Lighthouse is also one of the best places in the park to see the Gray whales as they return north from their winter feeding grounds.  There were many people there with binoculars and telescopes.  On the day that we were there, there were 24 whale sightings, but we didn’t see any ourselves.

The Rocky Cliffs that the Lighthouse is Built Into

The Rocky Cliffs that the Lighthouse is Built Into

After visiting the lighthouse and climbing back up those 308 steps (my half-marathoning came in handy there), we got back on the bus for the second stop on the tour.  Elephant Seal Beach.  Jon tried to talk me out of this stop (he was grumpy and we were both hungry – see the paragraph above about how big the park is and how you should bring – more – food); he tried to explain to me that seeing an Elephant Seal was really just the same as seeing a Sea Lion.  Ummm… no…  But I was hungry and not thinking quite right, so he almost had me… but I held firm.  I wanted to go see the Elephant Seals…

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4 thoughts on “California Road Trip: Point Reyes Lighthouse

    • The Cape Meares Light is very similar in style, and also has a First Order Fresnel lens. The Point Reyes Light inspires awe because of its location though – seeing how isolated it is now, and then imagining what it would have been like almost 150 years ago…

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