A solitary lunch on a solitary beach adjacent to the Historic Lifeboat Station at Chimney Rock. I’m enjoying my lunch of bread and cheese while absorbed in National Geographic. Intermittently I hear a soft, indistinct burbling sound. Look up, nothing there. Maybe it’s just the sound of the water splashing against the pier. Then I hear it again, closer. I look up and can’t believe my eyes.
Now is the time to visit the headlands of the Point Reyes Peninsula, perched 10 miles into the Pacific Ocean, and immerse yourself in wildlife. At the Point Reyes Lighthouse and nearby Chimney Rock you’ll become a voyeur to the complex life cycles of the behemoths of the sea, the California gray whale, northern elephant seal and California sea lion; and the jewels of the grassland, California’s palette-creating wildflowers.
At the end of California’s longest peninsula, at the most western point of the park stands a “California style” squat white lighthouse and Visitor Center. On the one-half mile walk f rom the parking lot get in the wildlife mode by checking the trees for resident raptors, the north cliff for a colony of common murres and the rocks below for those, any rock will do, sea lions.
It’s a cardio workout reaching the observation platform co veted for spotting the delicate heart-shaped plumes that signal the presence of the California gray whale. Three hundred steps equivalent to thirty stories down, and unfortunately, back up, lead to the lens room where a rotating beam has cast its light since 1870. Exhibit panels tell the history of the light and its keepers. Isolation and incessant fog were not kind to those who tended the three-ton lens of 1000 prisms. Keepers were plagued with “incidents of insanity, violence and alcoholism.” Keep this in mind and have a back-up plan if fog or strong winds threaten your day.
On a quest for food and the warm waters needed for reproduction, California gray whales spend one-third of their lives in migration from Alaska to Baja California and back. Their 1 0,000 mile round trip is the longest for any mammal. Life in the deep dark ocean proceeds far from human eyes, but during the months of January and March, we have an opportunity to catch a glimpse of their size and grace.
The Gulf of Farallones is a 20-m ile wide corridor through which the whales travel, at times close enough to hear the breathing of cow and her calf. I’ve always considered whale watching a Zen experience. You see a plume of spray out to sea. Is that a whale sounding? Spouting? Spyhopping? Whether I spot whales or not it’s enough to know that these natural treasures are out there, symbols of survival and tenacity, having come back from the brink of extinction.
A short walk or drive from the Lighthouse parking lot leads to the Sea Lion Ov erlook, another cardio workout. A steep 54-step staircase descends the side of the cliff, where you can enjoy the sights and sounds of the colony that calls this protected cove home year round. After swimming in 53-degree waters, the sand and rocks are ju st the place to haul out and bask. Spring brings an added delight—mothers and their pups.
My favorite spot on the Headlands is Chimney Rock, a one-stop haven for viewing whales, sea lions, elephant seals and wildflowers. A two-mile loop trail leads you a cross the headland toward the Pacific. From late February through March flowers blanket the ground with bright colors contrasting against the vibrant green of the grasses. Pick any color: pink cow clover; orange poppy; yellow mule ear sunflower, buttercup and bush lupine; white milkmaid and cow parsnip; blue-eyed grass. My favorites are the Douglas iris in shades from pale lavender to intense purple, so delicate but able to survive the harsh conditions along the coast.
After several days of heavy rains, I recently revisited Chimney Rock. Worm-dodging, I followed the main upper trail and smaller footpaths skirting the perimeter of the headlands and feasted on the dramatic views before me: cliffs falling in jagged edges to the open blue of the ocean below, red-rock walls topped by plateaus of shamrock-green, raptors hand-gliding, layers of leaden sky with towering clouds contrasting with bands of vibrant light giving view to the Farallon Islands twenty miles distant, immobile sea lions on white sand. The trail ends at a fenced cliff edge overlooking a sea stack named Chimney Rock, another great whale watching spot. I sat among the wildflowers with binoculars and a thermos marveling at the beauty surrounding me.
The lower trail leads to the Historic Lifeb oat Station and that solitary beach. If your visit corresponds with an extreme low tide, you can walk along the coastline and explore rich biodiverse tide pools and secluded coved beaches.
Another trail leads to the Elephant Seal Overlook, above the nort h end of Drake’s Beach. Since 1981, from December through March, breeding colonies of elephant seals have returned to Point Reyes. Another “survivor” species, they have made a remarkable recovery after being hunted nearly to extinction. At last count, the Drake’s Beach colony numbered 180, while the entire Point Reyes population stood between 1500 and 2000.
There’s never any doubt that you’ve spotted an elephant seal and the overlook is so close that binoculars aren’t necessary. Adult males of 5,000 pounds, females nursing their pups, “weaners” and juveniles—in assorted groups on the beach for a few months before beginning migrations that will take them over 11,000 miles and as far as one-mile deep in ocean waters.
They’re the highlight of my day and I easily heard the colony long before I reached the overlook, as far away as Chimney Rock. The symphony of distinctive vocalizations reminded me of a busy playground with high-pitched screechings, lower rumblings from mom and the deep throated trumpeting of the males above the din. By closing my eyes and just listening I could imagine the scene before me: territorial tension relieved by two males chest to chest and proboscis to proboscis; sunlight gleaming on undulations of muscles as individuals scooted forward then collapsed; lonely weaned pups, their mothers long gone and the comical sight of one juvenile relieving an itch by squirming upside down on the sand.
I was in no hurry to leave these odd yet distinguished mammals. My first close-up view was many years before while eating my lunch. Looking up I saw that large nose and gentle eyes watching me curiously while making those distinctive sounds. I’ve been a fan ever since.
Important decisions need to be made before you head out. A visit on a weeke nd or holiday requires using the shuttle bus system that originates at Drake’s Beach, the road being closed to private cars. The upside it that everyone gets to enjoy the view and there are docents available for questions at the lighthouse and the elephan t seal overlook. The downside is that this is a very popular weekend destination.
My recent visit was on a weekday. I had the road to myself and shared the headlands only with the wildlife. There were no docents but I felt like a queen in her domain.
Whatever your choice, starting early will afford you the most time for the most options—a picnic on the headlands or a homeward visit to Drake’s Beach. This long walkable expanse of white sand, gentle waves and neck craning sandstone cliffs is home to the Kenneth Patrick Visitor Center and the Drake’s Beach Café, where local ingredients and a rustic setting bring the seashore indoors.
Despite adversity, the whales and elephant seals have made a comeback. Despite encroachment, wilderness continues to exist and in some cases, expand. Point Reyes is home to over 45 percent of North America’s bird species and 18 percent of California’s plant species. For a few months every year, it’s also home to a large sea mammal that may, if you’re lucky, pay you a visit o n a solitary beach.
Getting there: from Highway 101 North take Sir Francis Drake Boulevard to Route 1 in Olema. Turn right, then left on Bear Valley Road. From Bear Valley Road, turn right onto Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and follow it past the town of Inverness to where it forks. Follow the fork left out to the lighthouse and the headlands.
For more information about Point Reyes National Seashore call (415) 464-5100, or see www.nps.gov/pore. Peak of northern whale migration is mid-March.
Point Reyes Lighthouse: 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. open Thursday through Monday. Closed when winds exceed 40 mph. (415) 669-1534
Kenneth Patrick Visitor Center: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. open weekends, holidays. (415) 669-1250.
Drakes Beach Café: open weekends, holidays.
Ranger led activities:
Journey of the Whales: 1:30 p.m., weekends through March
Experience Elephant Seals: weekends through March 15. Docents at overlook 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
Whales and Wildflowers: 1 p.m., weekends in March.