The fog that ate Point Reyes Lighthouse

Point Reyes Lighthouse on a rare sunny day
Point Reyes Lighthouse on a rare but exquisite sunny day

The windswept coast along Point Reyes National Seashore offers some of the most austerely beautiful scenery in the entire scenery-rich Bay Area. Standing atop the 300-foot cliff that overlooks Point Reyes Lighthouse, sunlight dances off ocean swells while waves crash into the rocky beach extending north along the coastline. If you can’t take a frame-worthy photo here, your camera must be broken. That, or the fog. Oh right, the fog. Did they not mention the fog before you embarked on the 40-minute drive from sunny Point Reyes Station? Or the fact that the lighthouse is the second foggiest place in North America (and the windiest on the west coast)? That’s not to say it’s still not scenic, just scenic in different way…moody and cinematic.

Point Reyes Lighthouse as not seen during a much more typical foggy day.
Point Reyes Lighthouse as not seen during a much more typical foggy day.

And the scenery starts the moment you separate from the strip malls and development along Hwy 101 and head westward into the vast green spaces of Marin County, and continues as you cross Hwy 1 from Point Reyes Station onto the peninsula via Sir Francis Drake Blvd. The road runs north for a bit, overlooking Tomales Bay, before turning west just after Inverness – a fitting name for such Scotland-esque landscape of rolling and treeless hills often shrouded in fog. The two-lane road passes a series of historic dairy ranches, with park service signs for “A”, “B”, “C”, etc. ranches dating to the late 1800s. There’s a whole fascinating history of the ranches you can read here.

Monterey pines
Monterey pines bending leeward.

Once you finally arrive at the lighthouse parking lot, you may need to patiently wait for a spot to open up. The lighthouse is a popular attraction for tourists, who seem undaunted by the lack of visibility or the brisk wind. Ironically, the fog gods are at their least cooperative during the summer’s high tourist season. After a quarter mile walk to the main park service hut, under a canopy of several Monterey pines bent from the wind, it’s another 308 steps down a one-lane stairway to the lighthouse itself. Of course, with the steps disappearing into the fog, you’ll have to take it on faith it’s actually there.

The lighthouse was built in 1870 and was in service with a crew of actual lighthouse keepers until 1975. There’s a somewhat modern-ish four-plex apartment building, built 1960, near the visitors center where the keepers and their families lived, and a double garage/storage building where the Valley of the Moon amateur ham radio club has taken up residence. If you choose to walk the steps down to the lighthouse, there’s a sign displayed prominently at the top in caution-tape yellow that a strenuous effort is required to climb back up, equivalent of a 30-story building. At some point on your ascent, you’ll probably wonder why the lighthouse is located so far down; basically because it had to be below the level of high, thick fog to be seen by passing ships. The lighthouse is open Friday-Monday, 10am-4:30pm. And from late December to mid-April – whale watching season – visitors are required to take a shuttle bus from Drakes Beach to cut down on traffic.

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