Whether you’re a frazzled citygoer or a wannabe hippy, Northern California’s Point Reyes Peninsula offers the perfect antidote to the relentless pace of city life. Tucked in the green heart of Marin County north of San Francisco, Point Reyes feels off the beaten track even though it’s an easy hour’s drive from the city. So hop in your car (preferably a Cadillac – you are in California, after all), plug in your iPod, and set off on a day trip exploring one of the country’s most beautiful natural landscapes.
Start your day from San Francisco, driving north over the Golden Gate Bridge and onto Highway 1. Etched into the cliffs overlooking the moody Pacific Ocean beyond, the highway’s twists and turns are surely the stuff that inspired many a Californian road trip movie. After an hour, you’ll reach Point Reyes Station, a tiny hamlet that was originally built as a rail town during the gold rush of the late 1800s.
Today, many of the town’s original building facades still remain, giving it an historical and distinctly "Wild West frontier" feel.
Highway 1 runs through the town as its main street, so park your car and explore it on foot to soak up the small town atmosphere. On weekends, Point Reyes Station is a popular stop for ubiquitous Marin mountain bikers who take a break here from their long morning rides. Follow their lead and line up outside the Bovine Bakery on Main Street for a pastry – the intoxicating smell of freshly-baked bread will lead you in the right direction. If you’re pining for something more substantial, you’ll find a range of delicious all-day breakfast spreads at the Station House Café just a few steps away.
After breakfast, take time to browse the town’s slew of art galleries, curio stores and boutiques. Don’t miss Point Reyes Books, an independent bookstore featuring a range of new and used books including some first edition collectibles. As well as literature by Beat poets and writers like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, the store contains a photo gallery of West Marin landscapes taken by local photographers.
Before you leave town, make a last stop at Tomales Foods on Fourth Street. Housed in a restored barn, the store’s rustic interior hosts several local organic food companies. Among them is renowned artisan cheesemaker Cowgirl Creamery, whose specialty organic cheeses such as Mt. Tam, Red Hawk and Pierce Point will tempt even the most discerning cheese aficionado.
Next door at the Cowgirl deli counter, choose between a range of local and foreign wines, preserves, chocolate, homemade ice cream and cured meats. Also in the building, Golden Point Produce sells fresh organic fruit and vegetables.
Back in your car, drive over the green metal bridge just outside Point Reyes Station and turn right onto Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. Turn left at the first intersection and you’ll be on Bear Valley Road. Three miles down, you’ll reach the entrance to the Point Reyes National Seashore, a national park situated on a peninsula that juts out into the Pacific Ocean. Besides magnificent sea and cliff views (and wildflowers if you visit in summer months), the Seashore remains an excellent place to see California’s diverse plant and wildlife. If you’re an outdoor enthusiast, you’ll have your pick of over 140 miles of trails and beaches to explore on foot, bicycle, horseback or kayak. One of the most popular routes is the Tomales Trail, where you’ll have a good chance of spotting the indigenous Tule Elk.
Another popular choice is the Earthquake Trail, where you’ll walk along the San Andreas Fault line that was the epicenter of 1906’s devastating earthquake. However you choose to explore the park, stop in at the visitor center just beyond the Bear Valley Road entrance for maps and advice.
The park is fully accessible by car, so if you’re driving, continue back up Sir Francis Drake Boulevard to Drake’s Estero, an estuary that leads in from Drake’s Bay. On the estuary’s edge, stop at the Drake’s Bay Oyster Farm, where you can taste freshly caught oysters on the premises. After satisfying your oyster cravings, visit Luddy Farm next door, where you can buy grass-fed beef and organic vegetables from their on-site retail store.
If you’ve brought lunch, park trails such as Chimney Rock offer plenty of picnic spots with sweeping views of the dramatic Drake’s Bay cliffs. If you’re in more of a restaurant mood, continue south along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard until you reach Drake’s Beach Café. Sitting alone on the edge of Drake’s Beach, the restaurant is spectacularly located and serves only the freshest organic food currently in season. It’s no wonder, then, that this place is one of the Bay Area’s best-kept local secrets. Lunch is a casual walk-in affair with a basic menu of salads, sandwiches and fresher-than-fresh seafood.
At night, the venue morphs into a more romantic setting and offers a menu of fish, meat and veggie dishes that change weekly according to what’s seasonally available. If you plan to come here for dinner, be sure to make a reservation: you’ll be vying for a table with San Franciscans who have driven up here just for the evening.
No trip to Point Reyes is complete without a pilgrimage to the Point Reyes Lighthouse. Built in 1870, the lighthouse still stands proudly on the tip of the Peninsula, even though it’s no longer in service. The 300 steps to reach it from the parking lot may pose a challenge to some, but they’re well worth the effort for the amazing views that you’ll be afforded from the lighthouse’s viewing platform. This is also an excellent place from which to watch the gray whales that migrate up the coast from January through April. The lighthouse is usually closed on Thursdays and Fridays, as well as in case of bad weather, so call ahead to confirm that it’s open.
Leaving the lighthouse, drive back along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard until you meet the edge of the Tomales Bay. With its lush marshland vegetation, the Bay is an ideal habitat for birdlife, and the area attracts bird lovers from far and wide. After about three miles, you’ll pass through the town of Inverness, which was given its name by Scotsman James Shafter who first developed the area as a summer resort in the 1890s. The surrounding scenery is easily reminiscent of the bonny lochs of its Scottish namesake, although the climate is a lot less dramatic.
To round off the day, head back down past Point Reyes Station on Highway 1, and stop off in Olema for a drink at the cowboy bar inside the Point Reyes Seashore Lodge. The lodge is situated on lush grounds alongside the Olema Creek, and the cozy bar still feels like an old-time cowboy hangout with its tin ceilings, plank flooring and colorful stained glass windows.
It’s a shame to have to drive back to San Francisco after a day like this, so you may well consider prolonging the peace and quiet by staying the night in one of the lodge’s 22 comfortable rooms (rates start at $135 per night). If you’re on a tighter budget, Motel Inverness just south of Inverness offers clean and comfortable rooms starting at $89 per night. Lovingly decorated with a warm country feel, you won’t feel like you’re staying in a motel, especially if you take advantage of the communal den area, lookout deck and bird hide.
On the other end of the budget scale and perfect for an all out splurge is the Holly Tree Inn’s Sea Star Cottage. The cottage is a decadent romantic getaway built on stilts over the edge of Tomales Bay, and boasts uninterrupted views of the water and Mount Tamalpais in the distance. Rates start at $230 per weekday night for two people, and the cottage features a four poster bed, dining room, fully equipped kitchen and private indoor hot tub.
Even if you decide to head back to San Francisco rather than staying the night, a day in the Point Reyes area is more than enough to refresh and restore your soul. It’s a strange contradiction that so near to a city as large as San Francisco lies a place as understated as the Point Reyes Peninsula. For this fact, Californians – harassed San Franciscans especially – surely breathe a collective sigh of relief.
What & Where:
West Marin Chamber of Commerce (covering Point Reyes and Inverness; (70 2nd St, Point Reyes Station; 415-663-9232)
Bovine Bakery (11315 Highway 1, Point Reyes Station; 415-663-9420)
Station House Café (11180 State Route One, Pt. Reyes Station; 415-663-1515)
Point Reyes Books (11315 State Route 1, Point Reyes Station; 415-663-1542)
Point Reyes National Seashore (415-464-5100)
Drake’s Bay Oyster Farm and Luddy Farm (17171 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Inverness; 415-669-1149)
Drake’s Beach Café (1 Drakes Beach Rd, Inverness; 415-669-1297)
Point Reyes Lighthouse (27000 Sir Francis Drake Blvd, Inverness; 415-669-1534)
Point Reyes Seashore Lodge (10021 Coastal Highway 1, Olema; 415-663-9000)
Motel Inverness (12718 Sir Francis Drake Blvd, Inverness, 415-669-1081)
Sea Star Cottage (Holly Tree Inn and Cottages) (3 Silver Hills Rd, Point Reyes Station; 415-663-1554)
Catherine Parker is a South African freelance food and travel writer based in the Bay Area. She moved to San Francisco from London in 2006.