When you get the urge to head out of town, sometimes a short drive feels worlds away. Point Reyes National Seashore is less than two hours north of Los Altos, but somehow the stress of Silicon Valley life melts away by the time you pass the Golden Gate Bridge – assuming traffic isn't too congested on the way there.
Point Reyes is a rough triangle of open land jutting out from the Marin Headlands into the Pacific Ocean. Sir Francis Drake landed there in 1579, and many streets in the area are named for the explorer. A lesser-known Spanish adventurer, SebastiÃ¡n Vizcaino, landed at Point Reyes in 1603 and gave it its original name, Punto de los Reyes ("Point of the Kings").
The area is particularly treacherous for ships due to the weather – the National Park Service reports that Point Reyes is the "windiest place on the Pacific Coast and the second foggiest place on the North American continent." The Point Reyes Lighthouse was built in 1870 to warn mariners away from the rocky coastline.
The lighthouse, still standing, is open to the public Thursdays through Mondays. Touring the lighthouse involves a windy and often cold half-mile walk from the parking lot, followed by a descent of 308 stairs, but the pristine views are worth the trek.
If you're feeling a little less adventurous but still want to see the Pacific in all its glory, try one of the many small beaches, such as Limantour Beach. Winding roads wend through various levels of pine trees and scrub vegetation, and walking along the near-empty beaches next to the crashing waves is well worth the drive. Keep a lookout for elephant seals playing in the surf.
If calm bay waters are more your style, check out the beaches on Tomales Bay, the protected east side of the point. Warmer waters and the shelter of the cove at the popular Heart's Desire Beach make this a great place to spend a day with the whole family.
If you're more interested in land than sea, try any of the more than 140 miles of hiking trails on the point. Hikes range from the easy, paved 0.6-mile Earthquake Trail to the strenuous 12-mile Woodward Valley Loop. Rest assured that any hike you choose will be lovely, especially on a sunny day.
Tule elk, which live only in California, range throughout the point but are especially concentrated in the Tule Elk Reserve at Tomales Point. July through September is elk rutting season, and visitors may be lucky enough to witness bugling and other courtship behaviors. Volunteer docents are stationed at points along the trails in the Elk Reserve to inform visitors on elk mating habits and offer safety tips for staying out of the way of vigorous bull elk.
After you've worked up a sweat on your hike, visit one of the three oyster companies open to the public. While all offer incredibly fresh catches, the Tomales Bay Oyster Company is worth visiting for the fun and informal atmosphere. Buy your oysters, ask for a lesson in shucking them and throw them on the barbecues provided. Or pack a cooler and bring some home.
Before you leave, head to Cowgirl Creamery at Tomales Bay Foods, where Sue Conley and Peggy Smith make their award-winning cheeses. You can tour the creamery on Fridays, or sample cheeses and ask questions of the knowledgeable staff Wednesdays through Sundays. Be warned: it is nearly impossible to refrain from buying cheese after sampling it. The Red Hawk, a pungent and creamy washed-rind cheese, and the St. Pat, wrapped in stinging nettles, are pricey but worth every penny. The shop also includes locally made bread and crackers, as well as fresh organic fruit and vegetables from Golden Point Produce. Pick some up along with your cheese – while you may never want to leave Point Reyes, the tasty food will make the drive home a little more palatable.
For more information, visit www.pointreyes.org.