7 Adventurous Things to Do in Point Reyes This Winter

One of many things to do in Point Reyes, a hike down to the Point Reyes Lighthouse involves TK steps.
One of many things to do in Point Reyes, a hike down to the Point Reyes Lighthouse involves TK steps.
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It's mostly separated from the mainland by the rift of one of the world's most notorious fault lines: the San Andreas. But the adventure-seekers who head to Point Reyes National Seashore don't seem at all deterred by the risk of potential danger at this 70,000-acre outdoor paradise teeming with wild beaches, rocky headlands, and forested hillsides.

Instead, they're all about digging into the myriad adventure-centric things to do in Point Reyes: hiking along sandstone cliffs and lush hillsides on the park's 150 miles of trails, exploring beaches and waterfalls, paddling the area's scenic waterways, and keeping an eye out for the dramatic wildlife in these parts, from tule elk to migrating whales. The cherry on top of all this outdoor goodness? It's all there for easy taking, as Point Reyes is just over an hour's drive north of San Francisco.

While it is definitely worth checking the weather before you hit the road (particularly this year, with El Niño in full force), it's never a bad time to visit this stunning landscape. Ready to plan an excursion? Here, seven recommended things to do in Point Reyes that are sure to delight any outdoor lover (and a great excuse for a getaway anytime).

Hikers on the Tomales Point Trail.
Hikers on the Tomales Point Trail. Miguel Viera

Families, casual day-hikers, endurance trail runners, and everyone in between will find a trail they love in Point Reyes and its 150 miles of hiking trails. Explore varied landscapes on a short walk or an all-day excursion, following trails through mossy forests, over grassy ridgelines, and never too far from expansive views of the mercurial Pacific.

One noteworthy excursion is the climb to Mt. Wittenberg, the tallest point on the Point Reyes peninsula. The trail to the peak is moderate, climbing gently through moss-covered trees to the 1,300-foot summit. Catch views of the ocean and the Olema Valley through the trees as you ascend. From the Bear Valley Visitor’s Center, connect several trails for a loop of about five miles containing the peak.

For more distance with less vertical, the Tomales Point Trail promises just over nine miles of relentlessly beautiful Point Reyes coastline. The trail meanders to the northernmost tip of the Point Reyes Peninsula, with views every step of the way. The narrow strip of Tomales Bay lies to the east; to the west, steep cliffs drop straight down to the Pacific. Along the the trail, picnic perches overlook sea stacks covered in cormorants and waves crashing on inaccessible beaches at the base of the cliffs.

A hike to Alamere Falls is another Point Reyes classic. Alamere Creek tumbles over sandstone cliffs directly on the beach just a few yards from the ocean, one of only two such waterfalls in the state (hint: the other is in Big Sur), making it one of the Bay Area’s finest falls. From the Palomarin Trailhead, follow the Coast Trail about 5 miles to Wildcat Camp and then hike another mile along the beach until you reach the base of the falls (note: the original Alamere Falls trail is closed indefinitely due to storm damage).

Sunsets like this are yours for the taking during overnight trips to Point Reyes.
Sunsets like this are yours for the taking during overnight trips to Point Reyes. chuck b.

Looking for a longer adventure than a day hike? Savor the a true back-to-nature vibe of camping in Point Reyes: No car camping is permitted within the boundaries of the national seashore, so well-maintained backcountry campsites are your only (and excellent) option. The gentle, well-marked trails and mild climate make Point Reyes a great backpacking option for beginners, and the most savvy backpackers will enjoy a peaceful weekend trip.

Coast Camp—the most easily accessible of four hike-in campsites—is a 1.8-mile meander to a small campground with basic facilities. A network of trails links these campgrounds and makes for an amazing multi-night trip. Sky and Glen Camps perch above the ocean on the Inverness Ridge, rewarding campers with coastal views. Like Coast Camp, Wildcat Camp offers beach access.

Picture yourself paddling across the calm waters of Tomales Bay towards a remote beach, accessible only by boat. Strapped to your kayak is a cooler stocked with your favorite beverages and ingredients for a deluxe dinner (no need for dehydrated food when boating), and you have nothing else planned except a campfire on the beach and a night paddle through the bioluminescent waters of Tomales Bay. The best part: This is something you can easily do! Several local outfitters rent kayaks for paddling to the boat-in campsites within Point Reyes.

Tule elk are just some of the wildlife in Point Reyes National Seashore.
Tule elk are just some of the wildlife in Point Reyes National Seashore. Frank Schulenburg

Tule elk are just some of the wildlife in Point Reyes National Seashore. Frank Schulenburg

Indulge your inner naturalist by planning trips to Point Reyes around unique wildlife viewing opportunities. With the peninsula jutting 10 miles out into the Pacific from the mainland, it's one of the best places in California to catch the gray whale migration. Southbound migration peaks in mid-January and northbound migration peaks in mid-March.

Visit Tomales Point from August to October (breeding season) to experience male tule elk bugling loudly to attract females. In addition to whales, many other marine mammals including elephant seals can be seen from the park. While sea urchins might not be as dramatic as a bugling tule elk and chitons might not take as exciting a photo as a breaching gray whale, the rocky beaches of Point Reyes showcase the dynamic life found in the intertidal zone. Perusing the rich life of the tide pools at Point Reyes is great way to spend a few hours.

McClures Beach is stunning and often empty.
McClures Beach is stunning and often empty. Charlotte Dohrn

If a beach day is what you are looking for, look no further than Point Reyes. With coastline along the Pacific, Tomales Bay, and Drakes Bay, the park has no shortage of amazing beaches to stroll along or station yourself for a day. Rugged McClure Beach, accessed by a short trail, is often empty and one of the area’s most striking. Point Reyes Beach, or Great Beach, offers an undeveloped, 10-mile stretch of pristine coastline, something that you would be hard pressed to find anywhere else in California. Sculptured Beach, along the Coast Trail, is another hidden gem.

Point Reyes National Seashore is full of wonders, both natural and manmade.
Point Reyes National Seashore is full of wonders, both natural and manmade. Orin Zebest

Perched on the windiest spot along California’s coast and the foggiest in North America, the Point Reyes lighthouse, which was built in 1870, protected the shoreline for more than 100 years. Now a museum, the lighthouse is open to visitors and accessible via a 0.4-mile trail and 308 steps from the parking lot. The observation deck is well worth a visit and is one of the best places from which to spot whales.

Alas, the lighthouse didn't protect all ships from disaster: According to the National Park Service, the craggy coastline of Point Reyes has claimed more than 50 ships. A living testament to that melancholy history is a grounded (rather than wrecked) ship on Tomales Bay, in the town of Inverness, known as the S.S. Point Reyes. How the ship got there is a mystery, but it's well worth a stop during a trip to Point Reyes, especially for shutterbugs.

Don't miss the cheese from Cowgirl Creamery.
Don't miss the cheese from Cowgirl Creamery.

Ok, so this one leans more toward culinary adventure than the outdoorsy kind. But whether you're headed into or out of Point Reyes, the quaint town of Point Reyes Station is a worthy stop. In fact, with facades that harken back to the railroad era lining Main Street, a small park for picnics, and amazing food and dining options, the town merits at least a half-day trip itself. Don’t miss the Bovine Bakery for morning baked goods, afternoon pizza, and other sweet treats. Just around the corner from the bakery, Cowgirl Creamery offers fresh cheese from the local cows: Their decadent triple cream is the stuff of dreams, rich enough to make a meal out of, along with some crackers and vino. The well-stocked grocery and hardware store can furnish your forgotten food and a few camping items, too.

The foodies in the bunch might also want to stop by Hog Island Oyster Company in Marshall to pick up a bag of live oysters: Shuck them yourself on a beach or grill them up at your campsite, an appropriate culinary adventure for any kind of outing in these parts.

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