Western Trips

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Point Reyes National Seashore / Northern California

Point Reyes National Seashore is a fascinating piece of land not far north of San Francisco Bay. Many people make a tour of this beautiful outcropping of coastal land a part of their western trip to San Francisco. The Point Reyes seashore is one of the most scenic on the west coast. Tomales Bay, another very scenic tourist spot is adjacent to Point Reyes, is a great place for boaters, fisherman and oyster lovers.

point reyes national seashore After you've toured the city, a relatively short drive north to Point Reyes is an excellent addition to things to do in San Francisco.

In fact, when you drive to Point Reyes, you'll pass near many other great tourist areas such as Muir Woods, Stinson Beach, Bolinas and the Tomales Bay. You'll find excellent hotel accomodations in several nearby small towns such as Point Reyes Station and others just to the north on Hwy 1.

The First Explorers

The first explorer to arrive at what is now called Point Reyes California was Sir Francis Drake. Drake was on an expedition for Queen Elizabeth I and landed in the area in 1579. Where Sir Francis Drake came ashore is now named Drakes Bay which is on the southern part of the land mass. Interestingly enough, the Spaniards didn't discover nearby San Francisco Bay for another 200 years and when they did they found it by traveling overland in 1769. The Spaniards at that time were exploring north from San Diego with Father Junipero Serra and building missions along the way.

When Drake's expedition traveled inland from the shore they noticed right away that the land had good soil and would be excellent for farming. As it turned out, the inland area of the Point Reyes National Seashore was and still is home to several dairy farms. This started in the 1850's when the United States took over California, and while the ownership of the Point Reyes area was being litigated, a law firm was overseeing the property and it's senior partners began operating dairy farms.

Windy Point Reyes

point reyes lighthouse
The lighthouse
Point Reyes is considered to be one of the windiest points on the California coast.

According to the National Park Service, Point Reyes is the windiest place on the Pacific Coast and the second foggiest place on the North American continent.

Visit there on the right day and you'll surely agree. Winds can be 40 to 60 MPH and have reached 100 MPH and more. Fog can often be present and thick as you can see in the lighthouse photos on this page. In fact, it's foggy on the peninsula quite frequently and is why the lighthouse was erected.

The Point Reyes headlands stick out about ten miles into the Pacific Ocean and it's for this reason that the point had been so dangerous to mariners for over 100 years. Any vessel leaving San Francisco Bay had to take note of the Point Reyes area. Historians count some eighty maritime accidents off Point Reyes claiming hundreds of seamen. Before the Point Reyes lighthouse could be built, a suitable flat site was blasted out of the rock about 300 feet below the cliff. This is the reason that visitors today must walk down the long steps to enter the lighthouse itself.

The Lighthouse

point reyes light station
Very foggy day at Pt. Reyes
The refracting glass used in the Point Reyes Lighthouse was developed by a French physicist named Fresnel and manufactured in France in 1867.

The clockwork mechanism shown below on this page, glass prisms and housing for the lighthouse were shipped on a steamer around the tip of South America to San Francisco. The Point Reyes Lighthouse, also called the Point Reyes Light Station, was first commissioned in 1855 but because of land disputes with local owners the lighthouse was not built until 1870.

Originally operated with oil fueled lamps, electricity first reached the lighthouse in 1938 and in 1975 it became automated. All U.S. lighthouses are now automated simply because with modern technology it's much easier and cheaper to operate. Ownership and management of the Point Reyes Lighthouse at the Point Reyes National Seashore is handled by the National Park Service which keeps the site maintained and preserves it's history. The Cape Mendocino Light further up the California coast is a replica with both being 37 feet high.

Point Reyes Lighthouse Had A Unique Construction

lighthouse clockwork mechanism
Clockwork mechanism Point Reyes
The Point Reyes Lighthouse was constructed different from many others. The lighthouse keepers living quarters were built on top of the cliff above the lighthouse itself. Most other of the early lighthouses had living quarters in the structure itself.

Because of the heavy winds and frequent thick fog, duty at Point Reyes was not always fun. In fact, the nearest settlement to the lighthouse was and is the small town of Inverness, about 19 miles inland. The job of the lighthouse keepers included constant trimming of the wick, winding the grandfather clock style mechanism shown at left every two hours, stoking coal for the steam-powered fog signal, cleaning the large Fresnel lens every day, polishing the brass gears, and repairing the steps and the outbuildings.

There are stories that duty at this remote lighthouse caused psychological problems as well as alcoholism. According to the local newspapers, a story in 1887 reported meager salaries of $800 a year for the top-ranked lighthouse keeper, $700 for his second in command and $500 for two assistants. Not great pay for solitary duty in such a wind swept, fog covered and highly remote area such as Point Reyes.

There are days when it's actually too foggy to see the lighthouse beam and when that occurs it's necessary to have a fog signal. Fog signals sound an identifying pattern to signal the location to the passing ships.To give you an idea of the extreme dangers to shipping at a place like Point Reyes,a lifesaving station was built in 1890 on the Great Beach north of the lighthouse. Men patrolled the beaches working in four hour shifts watching for shipwrecks and the people who would need rescue from these very cold waters. This was necessary even though the lighthouse and fog signal

Pt. Reyes being one of the foggiest places in North America, and for this reason the lighthouse was built just above the water, below the characteristic "high fog" of the Bay Area. Being built on a high cliff above the water this is why the lighthouse itself is only 37 feet high.

lighthouse foghorn
Fog horns at Point Reyes
Point Reyes Light Station operated at first with a steam powered fog signal. The apparatus was invented by a Scotsman named Robert Foulis.

All foghorns operate by using a vibrating column of air to make a tone. The tone can be adjusted up and down thus giving a variety of signals. The lower floor of the lighthouse has exhibit panels on the history of the light and the keepers. The equipment building next and slightly below the lighthouse exhibits the two 1947 super typhon foghorns, the air compressors, and a backup power generator that were employed at Point Reyes.

When you drive to the Point Reyes headlands which is about a 45 minute drive (21 mile) from the Bear Valley Visitor Center, you will find a large parking area. The walk from the parking area to the lighthouse visitor center is 0.4 miles.

point reyes
Bear Valley Visitor Center
When you reach the lighthouse visitor center, the walk down to the light house itself is about 300 feet downhill with steps. It's a somewhat strenuous walk, especially walking back up from the lighthouse, but there are rest areas along the way and the walk is well worth it.

Visiting Point Reyes can be a great addition to your San Francisco vacation plans and can be a perfect combination road trip on your drive north from San Francisco to the Sonoma and Napa county wineries.

(Article and photos copyright Western Trips)

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