Shuttle Bus System Aids Whale And Seal Watchers At Point Reyes National Seashore

The historic lighthouse at Point Reyes is one of the prime spots for spotting both whales and seals. Photo by navin75 via flickr and Creative Commons

Winter's icy blasts have some residents of northern climes longing for warmer locales, and a dip in the warm, shallow lagoons of Baja California may sound pretty inviting to some of our readers right about now. Those warm waters are also the winter terminus of one of the longest migrations on the planet for any mammal, the annual round-trip by California gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) between the waters of Alaska and Mexico.

That trip is now underway—and one of the best places to observe these impressive animals is from the shores of Point Reyes National Seashore. The peak of their southbound trip usually occurs around mid-January, and the migration is a popular draw for lots of visitors to the park.

A second big draw for wildlife fans is a growing population of northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirotris.) From December through March a breeding colony of the seals can be observed from Elephant Seal Overlook near Chimney Rock, above Drakes Bay. This is one of the few places along the California coast you can see these seals, the largest in North America.

Elephant Seals Stage a Dramatic Comeback

The animals were absent from the area for more than 150 years, but began returning to the sandy Point Reyes Headlands in the early 1970s. The first breeding pair was discovered near Chimney Rock in 1981, and since that time, the population has grown steadily.

In 2013 a total of 1,737 elephant seals were counted at the park. The males are the first to arrive, in December, when they stake out a claim on the beach. The pregnant females follow, and each soon gives birth to a single pup.You'll find much more information about the elephant seal population in the park at this link.

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Recently weaned northern elephant seal pups. NPS photo by Sarah Codde.

There's a geographical reason the park offers some of the best whale and seal watching spots on the California coast—the headlands of the Point Reyes Peninsula jut 10 miles into the Pacific Ocean. The Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary is also located in this area, and provides a 20-mile wide nautical "highway" along which the whales cruise. Sometimes the whales travel in the close lane (nearer to shore), and sometimes they travel in the far lane (farther out to sea).

Dealing With the Popularity of Wildlife Watching

Among the best locations from the shore to observe the whales, and the recovering populations of northern elephant seals, are the Historic Lighthouse and Chimney Rock headlands in the park. By the late 1990s, however, the combination of increased traffic, narrow roads and limited parking at prime viewing areas were making life difficult for both visitors and park staff during the wildlife viewing season.

The solution to the traffic and parking crunch—a shuttle bus system on busy weekend and Monday federal holidays—is ready to begin its 16th year of operation at the park. The bus operations begin on Saturday, December 28, 2013, and will run through late March of 2014.

"Winter is a wonderful time not only to watch the annual Pacific gray whale migration from Alaska to Mexico but also to celebrate the recovering populations of northern elephant seals as they return to breed at Point Reyes," says Park Superintendent Cicely Muldoon.

Bus Service Operates on Weekends and Monday Holidays in Good Weather

The bus service runs only on weekends and federal Monday holidays in good weather. (There will not be any bus service on January 1, when the Lighthouse is closed). Ticket sales open at 9:30 a.m. at the Ken Patrick Visitor Center at Drakes Beach and close at 3 p.m. Children 16 and under are free; adult tickets are $5.00 per person, and Federal Senior and Access pass discounts apply to the purchase.

The last bus taking visitors to the headlands leaves at 3:30 p.m. and a park spokesperson has some tips for visitors: "Dress warmly and be sure you have everything you need for the next few hours. No food is available once the bus leaves the visitor center. There is a water fountain available at the Lighthouse Visitor Center and restrooms at the Lighthouse and Chimney Rock shuttle stops."

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Shuttle buses allow visitors to enjoy the wildlife and scenery without traffic and parking hassles. NPS photo.


Since the purpose of the shuttle system is to deal with crowding, the buses will not run during stormy or extremely wet weather. To find out if the shuttles are running on any specific day, just phone 415-464-5100, ext. 2 (then press 1) for a recorded update on the bus system.

Tips for Shuttle Riders

What do you need to know if you're considering a trip via the shuttle in hopes of spotting whales or seals, or just enjoying the view?

According to information from the park, at the first stop you'll disembark the bus and walk 0.4 miles to the Lighthouse Visitor Center. Just beyond the Visitor Center, you can watch for whales from the observation deck or descend the 300 steps to the Lighthouse.

Another popular wildlife viewing location in the vicinity of the lighthouse is known as Sea Lion Overlook, where a steep 54-step staircase runs down the side of a cliff, and allows visitors to look straight down at a good spot to see those mammals. If this is a key reason for your visit, be aware that the wooden staircase at the Sea Lion Overlook will be closed for repairs from January 6 through March 1, 2014.

When you've finished your stay at the lighthouse, return to the shuttle stop—a bus will come by every 15 to 20 minutes to take you to the second stop at Chimney Rock.

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The Chimney Rock area is home to a large seasonal colony of elephant seals. NPS photo.

"Whales, Seals and Wildflowers"

A park spokesperson says Chimney Rock, features "whales, seals, and wildflowers! Walk about 300 yards to the Elephant Seal Overlook, visit the Historic Lifeboat Station, or take the 1.6-mile round trip hike to Chimney Rock to watch for whales. Keep your eyes open for wildflowers (beginning in about February). Tidepool areas are closed while elephant seals are present." You'll find a map of the Chimney Rock area here.

At both stops, don't miss this key point: Keep an eye on the time, especially if you visit late in the day, and allow time to get back to the bus stop from the lighthouse or overlook. Busses run every 15 to 20 minutes, but the last bus leaves the Lighthouse shuttle stop by 5 p.m., and the Elephant Seal Overlook by 5:30 p.m.

On days when the busses are running, Sir Francis Drake Highway is closed to private vehicles at South Beach junction. The road closure begins at approximately at 9:30 a.m. and the road reopens at approximately at 5:15 pm. That traffic plan is necessary due to hazards that would occur with the combination of large buses and private vehicles on the narrow, winding roads. You'll find a map detailing the road closure area, along driving directions to the Kenneth Patrick Visitor Center (departure point for the buses) at this link.

Information for Weekday Visitors

During weekdays and hours the shuttle is not operating, you may be looking for directions to and information about key destinations in the park for whale and seal viewing and other activities. You'll find information for sites reached via Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, such as the Chimney Rock Trailhead, Elephant Seal Overlook and the Historic Chimney Rock Lifeboat Station, here.

The website for this park also includes links to maps of the park and immediate area, along with additional driving directions to the park from major cities in the vicinity. Point Reyes is located approximately 30 miles (50 km) north of San Francisco on Highway 1.

Need more information about the shuttle bus program? You can phone the Bear Valley Visitor Center at (415) 464-5100 x2 x5 or visit the park's Winter Shuttle Bus System page.