Tag Archive | Point Reyes National Seashore

California Road Trip: Point Reyes Elephant Seals!

When we last left off, Jon was trying to convince me that I didn’t really want to go see the Elephant Seals – that they were just like Sea Lions.  I told him I was going anyway…

Once you get off the bus at Elephant Seal Beach it is only an eighth of a mile to the overlook.  When we were there, the beach was filled with female Elephant Seals and some babies, but apparently the males hadn’t arrived yet to join the party.  Oh well, the females were still really cool to see.  There is a ranger at the overlook to answer questions and a high powered telescope set up, so you can get a close up view of the beach.  The Elephant Seals here are Northern Elephant Seals – the males can grow between 14 and 16 feet long, and weigh up to 5400 pounds!  The females are up to 10 feet long and 2000 pounds.  As for life expectancy, females live an average of 22 years, and start breeding at 3 or 4 years of age.  The average life span of a male Elephant Seals is about 14 years.  They were really neat to see – even though the distance on the pictures doesn’t do them justice.  I’m so glad we went to see them!

Elephant Seals at Point Reyes - They Are Much Bigger Than They Look Here!

Elephant Seals at Point Reyes – They Are Much Bigger Than They Look Here!

Female Elephant Seals at Point Reyes

Female Elephant Seals at Point Reyes

Also at the same stop is the lifesaving station.  Had we not been so hungry, I would have gone for a visit, because it looked really interesting.  The United States Life Saving Service (USLSS) – the predecessor to the modern U.S. Coast Guard – was founded in 1871, and first established a presence at Point Reyes in 1890.

OverlookTrail

The Trail Coming Back from the Overlook

To date, more than 50 ships have foundered on the rocks near Point Reyes; the lifesaving station ensured that those mariners had a fairly good chance at survival.  And they didn’t just rescue boats; the surfmen also saved two survivors of a DC 3 that crashed (sadly the other five aboard were swept away and drowned before rescuers arrived).  Even though they clearly performed a valuable service, the work wasn’t without risks – evidenced by the small cemetery that contains the graves of three surfmen who died in the 1890s.  At least two more men died while serving at the lifesaving station; two surfmen in 1960 radioed the station to say that they were returning after assisting a disabled vessel, but they never arrived.  Their boat was found the next day on the beach with the propellers still turning; their bodies were never found.

The View From Elephant Seal Overlook - the Historic Life Saving Station is in the Distance

The View From Elephant Seal Overlook – the Historic Life Saving Station is in the Distance

After visiting Elephant Seal Beach and seeing the Life Saving Station, we got back on the shuttle bus for a trip back to the Drakes’ Beach Visitor’s Center.  The driver slowed down for a California Blacktail Deer and pointed it out to us.  To recap, all in all, we spotted California Quail, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, California Blacktail Deer, Tule Elk, Bobcat and Elephant Seal.  Not to mention the ever elusive cows, chickens, seagulls and crows.  It was a fantastic visit.

To Give You Some Perspective - From Left: Elephant Seal (Male), California Sea Lion (Male), California Sea Lion (Female), Harbor Seal (Female)

To Give You Some Perspective – From Left: Elephant Seal (Male), California Sea Lion (Male), California Sea Lion (Female), Harbor Seal (Female)

Once we departed from the National Seashore, we stopped for a while at Point Reyes Station, a small town (population 350) close by.  We wandered around the shops and got some coffee and tea pick-me-ups.  We also found a shop called Zuma that sold handmade products from artisans around the world – they had baskets, scarves and shawls, and jewelry.  Jon and I love hand woven baskets, and we found several that we liked there.  We came home with a Cambodian basket and a Nkuringo Wishing basket from Uganda.  And I got a carved and polished wooden heart trinket too.

By this time, even though I had a snack after leaving the park, I was starving.  We decided to check out the Station House Café, so we popped in right as they were opening at 5 pm.  We were seated right away, and we proceeded to have one of the best meals of our trip!  I had the braised short ribs with Rainbow chard, creamy polenta and local mushrooms.  I paired it with a 2011 Long Meadow Ranch Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc.  My meal was absolutely delicious!  Jon had the Blackened Yellowtail with turnip puree, leeks and cranberries.  Yum!  Our entrees also came with popovers, funnel shaped breads with an egg flavor inside.  The service was great – the food came really quickly, and we enjoyed our visit thoroughly.

My Braised Short Ribs at the Station House Café

My Braised Short Ribs at the Station House Café

After dinner, we headed back to Petaluma and spent the rest of the evening relaxing.  Our day at Point Reyes was an amazing day.

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…

California Road Trip: Point Reyes National Seashore Wildlife

The next day of our trip was devoted to Point Reyes National Seashore.  Jon had visited Point Reyes Station (the town nearest to the park) when he lived in California, and was so struck by the little town that he wanted to visit again.  Of course, when he first told me, I thought he meant he had actually visited the National Seashore and not just the town, but that’s neither here nor there.  I was interested in seeing the National Seashore, so onto the itinerary it went.

Point Reyes National Seashore is one of ten National Seashores in the National Park System.  It was authorized in 1962 by John F. Kennedy, who sadly didn’t live to visit it.  Californians were concerned about protecting their coastline as early as the late 1920s, and encouraged the federal government to take steps to create a park, but the Great Depression got in the way.  So a private group began buying the land and deeding it to Marin County.  This private protection of pieces of the land continued until the late 1950s, when legislation was finally proposed federally to create a National Seashore at Point Reyes.  This park does not disappoint.

We drove from Petaluma on a scenic two lane highway – it was a gorgeous sunny day, so we followed several convertibles with their tops down.  There are also a million bicyclists on the roadway, so if you go when the weather is nice, watch out!  And try to be more patient than Jon about bicycles…  Once we got there, we stopped in at the Bear Valley Visitor’s Center and got a map and figured out where we would be headed.  There were a million school kids there, but they largely disappeared once we were actually in the park.

Outside the Visitor’s Center, I got my first wildlife photos of the day – a blue heron was hanging out in the field outside the Visitor’s Center.  I watched him for a little while, and then noticed a quail couple making their way across the field.  I love quail!  I was able to get several good photos of the pair, and was so pleased to have seen them.

Great Blue Heron at Point Reyes National Seashore

Great Blue Heron at Point Reyes National Seashore

Female California Quail at Point Reyes National Seashore

Female California Quail at Point Reyes National Seashore

Male California Quail at Point Reyes National Seashore

Male California Quail at Point Reyes National Seashore

First, we made our way to the McClure’s Beach Trailhead, and the Tule Elk Reserve.  We had spotted some elk in the Redwood National Forest, but we were zipping along on the highway and I didn’t have a chance to get a picture.  Also, the elk in Point Reyes National Seashore are Tule Elk, where the elk in Redwood National Park are Roosevelt Elk – Tule Elk are smaller and lighter in color.  Along the way  to the elk reserve, we passed several dairy farms, which seems unusual, until you know the story.

Back in the mid 1800s, an attorney owned most of the land on which Point Reyes National Seashore now sits.  He divided the land into 26 tracts, named them with each of the letters of the alphabet, and rented them out to tenant farmers from all over the world, including farmers from Switzerland, Portugal and Ireland.  The farms are still there, passed down from generation to generation and all are marked with their original letter name and the year that they were established.  We saw farms that dated anywhere from 1852 to 1869.

Near the McClure’s Beach trailhead, we found the elk that we were looking for, and watched them for a little while, and got some photos.

Tule Elk at Point Reyes National Seashore

Tule Elk at Point Reyes National Seashore

The elk were cool, but once we started to head back down the road we got the surprise of a lifetime.  Jon spotted a bobcat!  He was walking across the field, away from us.  I was really surprised, because I didn’t think that bobcats were active during the day, but there he was, just minding his own business!  The photos aren’t great, but I did manage to get a picture of him.  He was so neat!  That was the first time I have ever seen a bobcat in the wild.

Bobcat at Point Reyes National Seashore

Bobcat at Point Reyes National Seashore

After seeing the bobcat, we continued our drive to the other side of the park to visit the Point Reyes Lighthouse.  I’ll tell you about that next!

Planning for the California Road Trip

Jon and I had some vacation scheduled for mid-March and of course, it fell to me to make a plan about where we should go.  Jon needed to take his vacation before the busy spring/summer season starts.  For those of you who have followed this blog, you know that I was also dealing with my sweet kitty Martini, who was undergoing chemo treatment for lymphoma.  I wanted to go to Virginia, but I was too anxious about flying somewhere and having something happen to Martini, so we decided on something within driving distance.  Sadly, we made the decision to euthanize Martini on March 1 – she was no longer holding her own against her lymphoma.

So, the idea of a California Road Trip was born.  I had been aching to get to San Francisco to see The Girl with a Pearl Earring, the famous painting by Johannes Vermeer.  The painting is currently on display at the DeYoung Museum until June, on loan from the Mauritshuis Royal Picture Gallery in the Netherlands.

Jon had been itching to visit Point Reyes again; he took a day trip there when he lived in California and really enjoyed the small town on the coast.  And what do you know?  Point Reyes National Seashore is there – an opportunity for me to get a stamp in my National Parks Passport!

We also wanted to visit the Northern California coast – we have seen most of the Oregon coast and the Southern California coast, so it seemed like it just had to be done.  There is also a National Park there – Redwood National Park.  Coast Redwoods are the world’s tallest and oldest trees.

And no trip to California would be complete without wine.  We have visited Napa, Sonoma, and the Santa Ynez Valley, and we wanted to add another wine-notch on our belt so to speak.  We had heard that the Anderson Valley is known for their Pinot Noirs, with cool night temperatures from the coastal fog that settles in the valley.  It sounded like a win!

To round out the trip, I planned visits to Monterey and Sacramento.  Monterey because I have heard nothing but good things about this little seaside community.  And Sacramento because Jon’s long-time friend lives there.  And I think Jon secretly wants to relive his memories of living there.  Or perhaps not so secretly.

So, just like that, we had a plan.  Who am I kidding?  I google-mapped distances, figured out where there were historical sites and national parks, tried to plot overnight stays in the most convenient, yet still affordable locations, and asked Jon 57,975 times for his input.  Which was answered each time with a “Yeah, I’ll look at it tonight.”  And finally I just planned what I wanted to do.  Because secretly (or not so secretly), I would rather just do what I want to do, and hey, if Jon isn’t going to provide input, then who cares!

And that is how the California Road Trip was born.  My series of posts will be coming over the next few weeks!