Point Reyes National Seashore ~ Marin County, CA

Rugged Point Reyes coastline

Point Reyes National Seashore is a peninsula of much – treacherous headlands, stunning coastline, impenetrable fog, howling winds, lush forests, wind-blown hillsides, historic dairy farms, mammals and birds galore, and a lighthouse, which to be seen up-close will certainly give your legs and lungs a workout.  It is the windiest place on the Pacific coast and the second foggiest place in North America.

We had been to Point Reyes before but not during the summer.  Our first visit, we recalled, was on a very blustery, foggy day and we seemed to be the only two around, with both visitor center and lighthouse locked up tight.  Thankfully the gods were smiling on us for our second visit, rewarding us with sunshine and mild breezes.

The peninsula’s land mass covers ~71,000 acres, with many hiking trails, three visitor centers and some funky little towns begging to be explored.   While we did spend some time in Point Reyes Station (more about that later), our focus was to get to the lighthouse while the sun was still shining.

Little cabin on Tomales Bay
Just add water.

This year marks the 50th anniversary  that Point Reyes National Seashore has been in the National  Park Service system.  Established relatively recently on September 13, 1962 by President John F. Kennedy, her history extends back thousands of years, with the first inhabitants being the Coast Miwok Indians roughly 5000 years ago.  Being hunter-gatherers, theirs was a good life here, with both land and sea offering up her bounties to this peaceful people for thousands of years.

Point Reyes map, compliments of Google maps

A long and rich maritime history is the story of Point Reyes.  Spanish explorers navigated these waters with their treasures from the Orient, while gold miners, lumbermen, and dairy farmers relied on the transport of their goods through these straits.  Historic dairy farms, still operating today, dot the roadside leading out to the lighthouse.

Point Reyes Lighthouse

Point Reyes Lighthouse had her debut on December 1, 1870, as a result of many shipwrecks in these coastal waters, the first in California history being that of the San Augustin, a Spanish galleon.  Her fate of a watery grave took place in 1595, off of Drakes Bay, but was only the first in a long line of such tragedies.  This lighthouse guided mariners for 105 years, until 1975, but unfortunately ships continued to have fateful endings despite all efforts.  All total, 50 ships have been lost at sea here, due to the treacherous cliffs, howling winds, and dense fog.  Even today, nearly every year a small vessel meets a tragic end on this rugged shoreline.  Jutting 10 miles out to sea, Point Reyes Headlands pose a serious threat to ships entering and leaving the San Francisco Bay.

Although the lighthouse itself is no longer working, a fog signal is still sounded and an automated light replaced the original “first order” Fresnel lens that still sits in the lighthouse.  The National Park Service is now responsible for the maintenance of the lighthouse and if you are lucky, as we were, an NPS employee may be there to give you some history on this magnificent light.

Much to our delight an immature gray whale spouted off the shoreline, highly unusual for this time of year.  They have normally made their migration south by this time.  Other great animal sightings, we are told, are the elephant seals to be seen just north of the point and the Tule elk, endemic only to California, at Tomales Bay.

Can you see me?

Time to migrate north, as in hoof it up the 300+ steps back to the roadway, as the fog is now settling  in for the night at Point Reyes National Seashore.

Salt pruning at its finest!

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Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore ~ #2

Advice from a Waterfall:  Go with the flow/Roar with excitement/Let your cares fall away/Create your own music/Immerse yourself in nature/Stay active/Make a splash!  ~(c) Ilan Shamir  http://www.yourtruenature.com

Another day of fun in the sun.  Well, not quite today, but it wasn’t raining and we did not have to don parkas so off we went to do some more exploring.  Unfortunately, overcast days don’t work so well for taking photos but I told Terry to give it his best shot.

We headed off to the east part of the park today and our first stop was down the beach about 1.5 miles from Au Sable Light Station.  There was a great path that wound through the woods but we opted instead to walk along the beach, which took us all the way out to the lighthouse.  It was much more picturesque, we thought, with the lake breeze in our face and the waves lapping up on shore.

This stretch of beach lines Au Sable Point (French for “with sand”), which as early as 1622 was recognized as a hazard for mariners.  When the lake traffic began to boom in the 19th century with the opening of the Soo Canal, Au Sable Point was particularly dangerous. Many vessels would become victim to its sandstone reef, which is one-half mile wide and stretches out from the shoreline for a mile, lying no more than six feet below the surface is some spots.  Besides the offshore sandstone reef, the region was infamous for its thick fog as well.  Many a ship went aground here and with the weight of the wooden boats and the small engines used at the time, there was no way for them to recover.

We saw evidence of three shipwrecks, all built in the late 1800’s, on this short stretch of beach.  The picture above is that of the Sitka, which went down about a mile offshore in heavy fog and high winds in October, 1904.  She was 272′ feet in length and her bones now lie on the shore at Au Sable Point.

Mariners felt that “in all navigation of Lake Superior, there is none more dreaded by the mariner than that from Whitefish Point to Grand Island”.  Congress took action in 1872, building a lighthouse on Au Sable Point, which was completed in August, 1874.  It is the most remote lighthouse in the Upper Peninsula.

Au Sable Lighthouse from the Beach

We were fortunate to make the decision to tour the lighthouse today as we learned that tomorrow is the last day of the season for doing so and busloads of tourists are brought out for the day.  We had the place almost to ourselves and, although the park ranger was not available to give a tour, Harold was kind enough to do so.  We learned later that the park ranger is Harold’s daughter and he has been volunteering at Au Sable for the past several years.  His daughter completed her thesis on the lighthouse and has gathered extensive data for the on-site museum.

Au Sable Lighthouse from Land

The beacon for the lighthouse projects 18 miles out to sea and is now powered by a photovoltaic system instead of the original Fresnel lens, which still resides at the lighthouse.  In 1968 the Au Sable Light Station was transferred to the National Park Service, although the Coast Guard continues to maintain the beacon and solar panel that charges the storage battery.

A few miles down the road is the Log Slide, part of the Grand Sable Dunes.  These dunes are believed to have developed during the melting of glacial ice about 9500 years ago.

The picture above is where the Log Slide was during the days of the white pine lumber era in the 1880’s.  Logs were hauled to this point by horse teams then slid down a dry log flume to Lake Superior.  They were loaded onto boats and taken to the Grand Marais sawmills.  Although this sandy hill looks more like a gentle slope, it is a 500′ drop to the bottom, with overhangs hidden at the bottom.  We did not venture far down the slope, given the warnings posted.

From here we took a short hike down to Sable Falls, a 75′ waterfall that tumbles over several cliffs until it reaches Lake Superior.

Sable Falls

We had wanted to take some pictures of the changing colors, as it seems the trees are changing color before our very eyes.  We have been waiting for a summer day and the sun peered out when we were heading back to the campground.  This is not the peak season yet but the trees are spectacular.  Enjoy the colors!