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Exploring the Wilds of Point Reyes Peninsula

April 10, 1988|MICHAEL BALTER | Michael Balter is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

POINT REYES STATION, Calif. — At the western edge of Marin County, about a 1 1/2-hour drive northwest of San Francisco, the Point Reyes Peninsula forms a fragile attachment to the rest of the land.

You step off the mainland onto a wild and varied terrain of seaside cliffs and gentle inland valleys, thundering surf and peaceful estuaries, wind-swept promontories and placid bays.

Historian Arthur Quinn likens the shape of the peninsula to the head of a coyote. At the tip of the coyote's snout, jutting into the Pacific Ocean, is the point--a craggy headland that channels and amplifies the ocean winds. Gusts of more than 100 m.p.h. have been recorded here.

Treasures and Dangers

The coyote's long, sweeping brow forms Point Reyes Beach, where hammering surf and swirling riptides bring treasures to the beachcomber but almost certain death to the swimmer.

Tomales Point is the ear, pointing north into Bodega Bay, with Tomales Bay to the east. There, tule elk graze among the brush and scrub trees while herons, cormorants and gulls sail overhead. Drake's Estero, a huge, multifingered estuary, gives the coyote its grinning, gaping mouth, and Abbott's Lagoon will make do for an eye.

In 1962 Congress took most of the peninsula into the national park system by creating the 70,000-acre Point Reyes National Seashore.

Protected from development, Point Reyes is a perfect place to spend a long weekend. Much of it is accessible by car and more than 150 miles of hiking trails cross the inland terrain of pastures, chaparral-covered ridges, forests and meadows. The climate is temperate, but varied and unpredictable.

Vagaries of Weather

Spring and summer mornings and evenings are likely to be foggy on the ocean side, while on winter days sunshine alternates with rain.

But the vagaries of the weather also bring rewards. March through May the hills and valleys are carpeted with California poppies, daisies and other blossoms. Early fall is perfect for sunbathing at peaceful Drake's and Limantour beaches.

In late fall and again in spring Point Reyes welcomes its most graceful and majestic visitor, the California gray whale.

From December to May these huge mammals, up to 50 feet long, pass Point Reyes by the thousands as they shuttle between the Bering Sea and the Gulf of California, where their calves are born.

They come much closer to shore during their spring northward journey--so close that you can sometimes see the barnacles on their backs.

Marine Life to Watch

Whale watchers outfitted with binoculars and telephoto lenses flock to the peninsula during these months, hoping to catch a glimpse of a whale's shimmering gray back or the white vapor from its blowhole. Often they are lucky, but if not, there is consolation in the seals and the California murres, beautiful white birds with graceful black heads and necks.

The most popular whale-watching spot is the Point Reyes Lighthouse at the western tip of the point. The lighthouse's beam first shone in 1870, and it was none too soon. About 40 ships had crashed into Point Reyes over the previous 400 years.

Today the gleaming white lighthouse can be visited by anyone willing and able to climb the 307 steps from the lighthouse visitor center.

Although the wind and surf pound the point and the northern beaches--the coyote's snout and brow--just to the south lie the peaceful waters of Drake's Bay, which lap the easy curve of the beast's chin and neck.

The shore is lined with long sandy beaches and white cliffs streaked with the browns, grays and yellows of silt stone, mudstone and sandstone.

Drake Visited in 1579

In 1579 English navigator Sir Francis Drake and his crew, returning from the north after their failed attempt to find the fabled strait of Anian (which was thought to connect the northern Pacific with the northern Atlantic), put into these waters to rest and make repairs.

Struck by the resemblance of the harbor's cliffs to those of Dover, Drake named the surrounding land Nova Albion (New Britain) and claimed it for Queen Elizabeth.

You can drive to two of the bay's beaches, Drake's and Limantour. At Drake's Beach the visitor center is filled with exhibits, and there are showers to wash off the sand after swimming or picnicking.

Next door at Drake's Beach Cafe you can buy an avocado-and-shrimp sandwich and a cup of hot lemonade, sit at a wooden table outside and listen to the surf and watch as murres, petrels, puffins and gulls dance in the air. Or take a short stroll down the beach to the mouth of Drake's Estero, where historians believe Drake anchored his Golden Hind 400 years ago.

Johnson's Oyster Farm

The estuary reaches deep into the peninsula with four finger-like inlets. At the end of the largest one, Schooner Bay, is Charlie Johnson's oyster farm. Since the mid-1930s this has been the home of Ostrea gigas, a sweet, plump specimen that rivals the best offerings of the East Coast.

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