Point Reyes Hiking: The Best Outdoor Tour from San Francisco
I’m not going to lie, Southern California is my jam. I’m obsessed with Palm Springs and Joshua Tree National Park and the overall chill and relaxed vibe of the region. But I’ve obviously been missing out by not giving Northern California a chance in my recent travels. I have vague memories of visiting San Francisco as a kid, riding in a cable car through the hilly streets (and probably getting motion sick from it), but the seashore of Northern California was never high on my “must travel” list. I was proven very wrong. While visiting Petaluma over a weekend for an outdoor camp wedding (with all the Girl Scout vibes you can imagine) we hopped in our rental car and made our way to Point Reyes National Seashore for the day. I had zero expectations for this excursion. For once I didn’t overly plan ahead or do research. We saw Point Reyes on a map and off we went, quickly learning it’s one of the best options of day tours from San Francisco.
Our drive from the wedding venue took us right along the water of Tomales Bay, a body of water created by the a rift zone of the San Andreas Fault that separates the Point Reyes Peninsula from the mainland. As you swerve along the winding roads that hug the waterline, you’ll pass oyster houses and seafood restaurants on the water, where freshly-shucked oysters from the bay are the dish of choice. That’s my kind of meal!
Before you enter the confines of the national seashore, you’ll come upon Point Reyes Station, a small town of roughly 300 people, that is known as the gateway to Point Reyes National Park. The adorable main street has many cafes and restaurants to load up your belly for a full day of hiking. If you still need to grab essentials, the unincorporated town of Inverness is located within the national preserve, complete with a post office, restaurants, a general store, yacht club and…that’s about it. The general store in Inverness was a great pit stop before our adventure, allowing us to load up on bottles of water, power bars and slices of homemade banana bread that was baked that morning.
Point Reyes National Seashore is vast, with an expanse of over 71,000 acres. We were completely blown away by the sheer size of the park, something that we hadn’t really researched ahead of time. I highly recommend starting your day at the Bear Valley Visitor Center, near both Point Reyes Station and Inverness, in order to really understand the best spots to hit. This visitor center in particular is also right off the main road that winds through the park, making it the perfect spot to get your bearings for the day. You’ll notice that the official Point Reyes map is split between the northern half of the seashore and the southern half which is closer to the Golden Gate Bridge. We focused our day on exploring the Northern half which has more hiking trails and more rugged terrain. All of the Point Reyes best hikes I mention below were recommendations from the park ranger at the visitor center for hikes to fill up a day in the park.
Unique Things About Point Reyes
Point Reyes is an interesting spot. I’m so used to going to National Parks and there being no lodging or food options except for those that are officially affiliated with the Park. It’s all about protecting the land! Point Reyes is unique because so many people live on the peninsula within the confines of the National Seashore. Not only is there the town of Inverness that I mentioned above, but you’ll spot dairy farms and cattle ranchers all throughout. LITERALLY COWS EVERYWHERE! There was a point where dozens (which felt like hundreds) of cows were being herded across the road on which we were traveling. We had to wait to quickly drive through an opening in the steady-moving cow line to get past. These farms and ranches are privately owned and are allowed within the park to continue the historic legacy of ranching on Point Reyes.
Best Hikes in Point Reyes to Tackle in a Day
Tomales Point Trail
Our first order of business was to see the coastline and those unbeatable ocean views that California is famous for. We headed north up the main road past oodles of cows and along winding cliffside roads. The first hike we planned to tackle was the Tomales Point Trail, a varied length trail that takes you through the Tule Elk Nature Preserve. The shorter version of the hike, which we opted for, is a 2 mile walk to Windy Gap. Here and all along the way you’ll be able to spot elk of all ages. You’ll also quickly learn the unmistakable sound that elk make, which is similar to the squeaking of an old swing-set in a park playground. The extended version of the Tomales Point Hike (3.7 miles one way) stretches to the the most northern tip of the peninsula, rewarding people with stunning views of the ocean on all sides.
As you can see in my photos below, we encountered some intense fog on our trip. The weather in Point Reyes is strange and completely unpredictable. Our day started with clear blue skies and sun while we stopped at the visitor center. However, as we slowly made our way further north on the peninsula and began driving to higher elevations, we became completely enveloped in thick fog. There were times where we had to inch forward in our car because we couldn’t see the sharp turns in front of us. We were hoping for, (and honestly expecting) a beautifully sunny hike along Tomales Bay. However we ended up with the eerie blanket of mist and fog you see below which kind of looks like the scene of a horror movie.
Chimney Rock Trail
Heading south should be your next stop so that you have the chance to explore more of Point Reyes. In the middle of the park on the far west side along the ocean is another mass of the peninsula sticking out into the sea. This is where you’ll find the popular Lighthouse Visitor Center. The Point Reyes Lighthouse was first constructed in 1870 and made the list of National Historic Places in 1991. It’s definitely a common photo spot but is currently going through a major restoration.
Because of the construction we opted to skip the lighthouse and instead make our way to the nearby Chimney Rock Trail, a 1.6 mile round trip excursion along the edges of sheer cliffside that hang over the ocean. The terrain is fairly easy but wind and fog is common (yay for more fog!) so staying on the designated trail is crucial. As you reach the edge, you’ll have views of the Pacific Ocean on one side and Drake’s Bay on the other. You’ll also get a great view of some super cool rock formations in the water that are home to multiple species of birds. Whale watching is also common from this vantage point from January to May.
Partway along the Chimney Rock Trial, you’ll also pass the historic landmark of the Point Reyes Lifeboat Station. Built in 1927, it is one of the most preserved lifeboat stations left that launched boats by rails, a solution common in the region during that time period.
A word of warning that the drive to Chimney Rock includes roughly 2 miles of winding road that is one lane wide, but has traffic going both directions. There are plenty of spots to pull over if you need to let a car pass but be careful as you’re driving around turns and corners.
Elephant Seal Overlook Trail
Not only can you see elk, cows, and whales around Point Reyes, but you can also see Elephant Seals! Head down the paved road from the Chimney Rock Trail parking lot and make your way to the Elephant Seal Overlook. You’ll spot dozens of these guys chilling on the beach along Drake’s Bay. There are currently roughly 3,000 Elephant Seals that consider the beaches of Point Reyes to be their home.
Additional Day Hikes
There are countless hiking trails in the Northern half of Point Reyes, however many are multi-hour or multi-day trips, making them difficult to tackle during a 24 hour stint in the park. For quicker options, there are treks that will take you directly to the ocean, including North Beach and South Beach. The 1.2 mile Kehoe Beach Trail is also very popular with visitor’s looking for some relaxation in the sun (or maybe fog like our case lol). You may even spot a mountain lion or bobcat in the distance on your way.
Another hike that was recommended to us by a park ranger is the Abbot’s Lagoon Trail. This 2 mile hike will lead you to a small stream that feeds into multiple lagoons. The park ranger recommended it specifically for the likelihood of you seeing river otters swimming and playing in the water. Pretty cool! We didn’t have a chance to do this trail but we’d love to return and check it out.
Bonus Find: The Cypress Tree Tunnel
The Cyprus Tree Tunnel was something I stumbled upon while scrolling through Google Maps. This amazing photo-op isn’t on the official map for the park, so you’ll either have to follow your phone’s GPS (with limited service) or ask a park ranger for directions. The “tunnel” aspect in formed by Cyprus trees on either side of a road growing up and over to weave into one another. It’s a crazy magical experience, like something from Narnia. The Tree Tunnel is on the west side of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard just before you hit the road to North Beach.
Overall, we had a blast at the Point Reyes National Seashore. The best part about Point Reyes hiking was that it wasn’t overly crowded so we felt like we weren’t dealing with massive groups of tourists and cars…always a plus when you’re trying to get out and explore nature. I never expected Point Reyes to be so large and have so many unique experiences and historical landmarks. Plus we were able to see so many wild animals! If you’re looking for the best day tour from San Francisco that is also free (that’s correct, we didn’t even have to pay a park entry fee!!) then Point Reyes is perfect for you.
*I was not financially compensated for this post. I received a sample for review purposes. The opinions are completely my own based on my experience.