Exiting the hilly streets of San Francisco, we made our way to the Golden Gate Bridge, past the reddish art deco patterns of the famous iron structure, through the Robin Williams tunnel, turning right, we descended to sea level near Sausalito. Passing surf shops and busy streets we climbed the winding hills of the Panoramic Highway, past the entrance to Muir Woods National Monument and west over the hills before descending again to the coast. Here the thin sunlight of San Francisco became a soft enshrouding gray, as it so often does near the coastline. Along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and left into the Bear Valley Visitors Center we made our first stop of the day. Exiting the car we entered the visitor center, wandering around the exhibits of the various wildlife that inhabit the Point Reyes National Seashore, from foxes and rabbits to grey whales and elephant seals. As the rest of the team stopped to consult with a park ranger I wandered trough the diorama style exhibits, checking out the samples of flora and fauna, weather information and of particular interest at this spot, the ‘Earthquake Trail.’ Our next stop.
Visitors at this point should be warned. The ominous sounding Earthquake trail is a short gently meandering path that rolls past meadows and forested areas. There isn’t anything obviously dangerous here. About midway along the trail however, there appears a line of blue sticks in the ground about midway up a ridge line. These denote the path of the infamous San Andreas Fault that separates the North American and Pacific tectonic plates. It was along this very line that sudden movement resulted in the devastating 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, not to mention the more recent 1989 Bay Area quake. Walking past these innocuous posts it’s almost impossible to imagine the massive amounts of pent up energy resting underfoot, ready to snap at any time! Your imagination might be aided a little by a fence, split in two, and separated by several meters. Each portion of the fence now marking the extent of the earths displacement on that fateful day, turning one fence into two. That single display, once you comprehend its meaning surely makes the nearby interpretive signs more meaningful when they warn current Bay Area residents to be vigilant and prepared. This will happen again. That sobering thought hung in the air as we wandered back to the car park and departed for our next destination, the coastline, Chimney Rock and the Point Reyes Lighthouse.
One of the surprising things about following the route along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard to Point Reyes is that this twisting, and at times rough road, passes though several ranches with abundant cattle grazing in the nearly treeless, windswept fields along the route. Commercial ranching in an area administered by the National Park Service? Yes, this is one of the things that distinguishes Point Reyes National Seashore from a national park.
Finally we reach the turnoff to the Chimney Rock trail. This turns out to be a very narrow road that descends towards the coast. Parking is basic, really just a loop that quickly overcrowds on weekends. We had to turn around and park further back along the road, on the shoulder.
The trail to Chimney Rock is mainly flat and narrow with just one somewhat steep and rocky spot. Nothing challenging. When we arrived the meadows were filling with spring flowers which attracted numerous picture takers of varying seriousness. Sweeping off below us to the sea, the arc of the sandy coastline is the dominant feature. That, and the abandoned life boat station just below. Along the trail the steep sandy cliffs seem to be an irresistible attraction to hikers despite the many signs asking people to stick to designated trails. The sandy, compacted soil along the cliffs shows many indications of erosion and the collapsing of the cliff under the feet of some unsuspecting visitor is always a possibility.
Eventually the path plateaus and straightens, cutting a brown line thorough the green grass with tiny bursts of color from blooming flowers on each side. Following the line by foot, and with ours eyes, revealed an ever thinning route to the point at Chimney rock, with the narrow point of land becoming surrounded on three sides by the shifting waves of the grey-blue Pacific below. The most dominant feature once reaching the fence at the end of the path becomes the overwhelming presence of the ocean. On this day sea and sky stretched off into infinity as it became difficult to find the horizon line in the far distance. Just below, waves broke against rocks as pelicans lazily rode the winds shooting up from the cliffs. This place certainly has a ‘worlds end’ feeling about it which, undoubtedly, is one of its powerful attractions.
It also happens to make a nice picnic area. People spread out in the soft grass along the cliffs and take in the seascape and the gentle, continuous, roar of the ocean. After lingering here for some time we slowly drifted back along the path, past the parking loop and the short distance to our final stop, the path to the elephant seal observation area. This area has a cliffside spot which overlooks, from some distance, a beach used in the spring as a seal gathering place. Numerous giants and tiny pups are visible from here, provided you have binoculars or a long lens. Otherwise they look like small gray and sand colored blobs from this distance.
Returning to the car we headed for our next stop, the famous Point Reyes lighthouse….