Essential Summer Guide '14: Spanish Galleons, Elephant Seals, And Great Birding At Point Reyes National Seashore
It's the stuff of legends, of treasure seekers. Somewhere, not far from land, lies buried treasure in the seabed of Drakes Bay. Within the remains of the 16th century Spanish galleon San Agustin there could be priceless heirlooms, or merely shards of porcelain dishes that the ship was carrying from the Philippines to Mexico. What is known is that the wreck of the San Agustin in 1595 in waters now within Point Reyes National Seashore is the first recorded shipwreck on the West Coast.
While archaeologists visit this patch of California coastline in hopes of locating the ship’s remains, most visitors to Point Reyes are looking for something else. They might be looking to kayak the seashore’s waters, hike its high bluffs that overlook the Pacific Ocean, or watch the annual year-end gathering of thousands of elephant seals that come to mate. Or, they might be birders, drawn to Point Reyes because of its location along the Pacific Flyway, which explains why more than half of the known bird species in North America have been tallied here.
Most visitors do not come to swim in the Pacific or catch rays while lying on the beaches. The waters are just too cold and rough; the mid-60s F air temps are too cool, and the fog is too thick in summer. But sea kayaking the 15-mile-long Tomales Bay is popular, as is hiking on the Bear Valley Trail. If you’re looking to avoid crowds, choose the Estero Trail or head to the end of Limantour Spit.
Head to the beaches—about 80 miles of shoreline—and you’ll be rewarded with tide pools, harbor seals peering at you from the water, and, if you know where to look, a waterfall. Alamere Falls can be reached from the Wildcat Campground by walking about a mile south on the beach (the usual Alamere Falls Trail has been closed due to storm damage.)
Backcountry travel (reservations via recreation.gov; permits must be obtained at the Bear Valley Visitor Center) in the seashore is highly popular, with destinations sought along Drakes Bay and within the hills and valleys of the Phillip Burton Wilderness. Boat campers have the west shore of Tomales Bay to explore.
If You Go
When the elephant seals hog the beaches from December through April, a great viewing spot is from the overlook near Chimney Rock. Interested in seeing the seashore’s Tule Elk? Head to Tomales Point any time of year.
Want to avoid summer crowds? Along with the suggestions above, plan to visit the historic Point Reyes Lighthouse some other time.
National seashore trivia: Point Reyes is the only national seashore on the West Coast.