Imagine yourself out at sea on a small boat. Suddenly dark clouds gather on the horizon and the wind starts to whip your hair around your face. Moving too fast, the storm envelopes you and suddenly you aren’t sure which way is the shore. Then, a beam of light from the nearby lighthouse cuts through the storm giving you direction and guidance back to safety.
American lighthouses are iconic. From the sweeping coasts of New England, to the rocky shores of California, lighthouses have saved hundreds of lives as they’ve warned sailors of dangerous shores. Point Reyes is no exception. Jutting out on a peninsula just 10 miles from San Francisco Bay, Point Reyes is the windiest place on the Pacific Coast and the second foggiest on the North American continent. It is also my favorite lighthouse we’ve visited to date.
When we visited: March 2014
Ages of Kids: 8, 6, 3
Tips: The drive out to the lighthouse is not a short one (40 min to an hour depending on where you are staying), but is beautiful nearly any time of year. The road can be a little rough, though any standard passenger car should be able to make it, and certainly any tow vehicle. While there always seems to be an RV parked out there, I would advise against it. The weather can be rough as well. If the winds are strong enough, they close the stairway down to the lighthouse. Even when it’s open, it is worth bringing jackets to survive the weather.
Because there wasn’t a good location for a lighthouse on top of the bluff, engineers blasted a level spot 300 feet below the top of the cliff. This put the lighthouse below the level of the fog, making the light more effective as a warning system for ships. Supplies and materials for construction took 6 weeks to lower down from the top. Luckily, we didn’t have to be lowered by rope. Long ago, stairs were built into the side of the cliff, allowing visitors to travel down to see it.
Retired in 1975, the National Park Service maintains the historic building and surrounding area and even has a ranger on site (and inside) the main room. Andrew was insistent he wanted to go inside, only when we arrived the door was very visibly locked. As we wandered around, ate our snacks, and generally tried not to get blown out to see by the gusty wind we noticed just as we were about to leave that the door was open! Andrew raced excitedly raced ahead only to find a room crowded with people and a ranger given a “tour”. Much to his disappointment he had to be quiet and not step on anyone else in the room. Poor kid.
We loved hearing the ranger talk about the lonely and secluded life of the lighthouse keepers, the operation of the lighthouse, how the Fresnel (frey-nel) lens was made in France and then brought over, transferred ships, and then brought by ox cart overland. We learned that the lighthouse and all of its parts are original. Many retired lighthouses have been converted into museums, have replicated parts, or are now restaurants. This one is completely original which adds to the romanticism of it all.
Keeping up with safety and technology, the Coast Guard eventually automated the light, and then later decommissioned the lighthouse entirely and installed an LED light on top of the nearby generator shed. Yup, that’s it. That tiny thing poking up from the roof with the solar panels attached. For me, having lighthouses reduced to small blinking lights makes original lighthouses like this one a real treat! If you are a lighthouse person, you’ll love it. If you are not, you might just become one during your visit!
In addition to the lighthouse, the view out at Point Reyes is simply fantastic. After our climb back up the stairs, we took a small trail at the top to look out over the ocean and bluffs. Despite the wind and the cold it was a great day!