Highway 1 and Point Reyes National Seashore
Sunday, September 21, 1997
I was really looking forward to heading out of town but I dreaded having to drive the car again. The Sunday morning traffic was fortunately light, at least compared to Friday's fun. We drove to the north side of town and got on Route 101, which would take us to the Golden Gate Bridge. As we approached, a cold fog was trying to roll into the San Francisco Bay. A few wisps made it past the bridge, but it was doing an effective job of "guarding" the sunny weather of the bay. Tourists were so densely packed into the parking area that I had to drop Jen off to snap a picture while I kept driving. We didn't hang around for long, and hopped back on 101 headed north to catch the Pacific Coast Highway, California Highway 1.
The fog enveloped us as soon as we started climbing up Highway 1 into the coastal mountains, dropping the temperatures instantly. This didn't seem to deter any of the beach goers we saw at Muir Beach...the locals were in bathing suits and there wasn't a parking place to be found. We drove up the hill to Muir Point to have a look.
The goal of the day's trip, however, was Point Reyes National Seashore, further up Highway 1. Another half-hour of twisting and turning and we emerged from the fog into a busy beach town. The patrons of Stinson Beach had to be happier than those at fogbound Muir Beach. Here we ended up inside a group of a dozen vintage Corvettes heading in our general direction. The ugly white Toyota did not fit in. We continued through the beach town and made our way through the sun to the visitor's center of Point Reyes, 15 miles up the somewhat-straighter road.
The visitor center was pretty typical of what we've seen in other state and national parks...a nice nature setup with a bunch of stuffed wildlife representative of the area. One cool thing we saw here was a little display of grade-school student projects. I'm often impressed by the thought and initiative that some kids use to learn about things. One girl had used her family's fireplace to study how the forest fires would have affected animals that normally live in burrows and tunnels underground. Another student had set up a motion activated camera in the woods to study how bobcats fed. Sure, they both probably had help from their parents, but I'm impressed that they put the time and effort into these things instead of watching TV.
We moved on from the visitor center and hit the road again for the 30 roundabout miles to get to the Point Reyes Lighthouse. The National Seashore seems to have less restrictions than a National Park, because a lot more people live here. This part of California has been cattle raising country for a long time, and it still is. We passed several ranches on the road and there were all of the signs of livestock business...dirty roads, torn up and muddy fields, and of course you could smell it. There were also other establishments, a tiny smattering of stores, gas stations, and restaurants along the way.
As we got closer to the ocean, our sunny day was once again consumed by the fog. The road was basically lifeless (except for the nearby cows), but by the time we reached the lighthouse, it was packed. We ended up parking further away off the side of the road. The wind and fog had dropped the mercury at least 20 degrees, so we threw on jackets and headed down the path to the lighthouse.
Supposedly you can sometimes see whales from this area, but with the fog we were lucky to see the ocean at all, just a dark blue fluid washing the rocks at the foot of the cliff. When we arrived at the visitor's hut on the hill above the lighthouse, the rangers told us that the sky was crystal clear the day before. We missed out on the view but made up for it with the ambience of the fog. Point Reyes is said to be the foggiest place on the West Coast. Because of this, they built the lighthouse at a low elevation to try to get under some of the typical fog. So you have to walk down about three hundred steps from the visitor hut to the lighthouse itself. It's deceptively easy going down. You'll be glad you did, because it's a beautiful lighthouse. We went inside the house itself and found everything in good condition. A lot of brass went into the construction of the inside of the house, and we found a park ranger diligently polishing all of it.
The lighthouse's usefulness has been somewhat replaced by modern technology. There's still a light there, but it's mounted away from the lighthouse and it's completely automatic. The modern version of the foghorn doesn't sound anything like the one you'd expect, either.
After trudging up the long staircase and walking back to our car, we were definitely ready for something to eat. But I first had to ensure that Jen got to physically touch the Pacific Ocean at some point in our trip, and this seemed like as good of a time as any, so we took a detour and headed to a beach in the park. It was still cold and gloomy but the Great Pacific had an appealing, almost Caribbean blue glow to it, inviting and warm. That turned out to be a nice disguise, because Jen's first taste of this ocean was a surprise wave that came up and soaked her shoes. And it was cold.
We headed back the thirty miles toward the entrance to the park, but first made a stop at a quaint little town called Inverness. Here they have a pizza joint called The Gray Whale, all decked out in whale "memorabilia," if you can call it that. Californians have the most unique pizza combinations, and we decided to try the chicken and tomato pesto pizza.
A quick stop at the supermarket across the street provided us with the necessary supplies for a couple days of pseudo-camping. I call it that because when we normally camp, we bring a cooler full of food and a stove to prepare it with. All we brought on this trip was a collapsible cooler, so we ended up buying lots of Snapple, a loaf of bread, and a jar of combination peanut butter and jelly. We ran back to the Whale to swipe a plastic knife for making sandwiches.
The trip to P.R.N.S. had been so much fun that we almost forgot that we had to go back through San Francisco and the mountains south of there just to get to our camp site at Big Basin State Park. It was already getting late, so we just decided to take our time, since we've been through the pitch-a-tent-after-dark routine more than once before. As we drove back down Highway 1 toward San Francisco, we got a great view of what we missed earlier that day; the fog had lifted and the sky was completely clear. It didn't make Jen feel any better to actually be able to see over the steep cliffs that were hiding earlier. We pulled off onto a dirt parking space on the side of the highway and made our way down some of the rocks to take some pictures. It was wonderful to see the great expanse of the ocean for the first time, and the sinking sun helped light up the rocks with warm golden shades.
We knew getting to our campsite would take a while, but we had no idea. First, the southbound traffic was backed up crossing the Golden Gate. Then, after several miles through a less charming part of San Francisco, we reached the interstate. It was wonderful to get back up to 70 m.p.h. for the first time in a couple days, but it lasted about ten minutes before we exited onto yet another twisty mountain road. Now, instead of the fog, it was just darkness. It was nice to see the urban environment disappear so quickly, and the mountain road took us up until we had a nice view of the Bay Area, all lit up. But soon we were twisting and winding our way through densely wooded hills, slowly making our way up the mountains.
Driving the mountain roads in California really taught me to rethink distance. Back in Ohio, it's easy to say that a sixty mile trip will take about an hour. Here, that trip could take at least two hours if you have to drive these roads. I was glad that we were never really in any hurry. This was a vacation, after all. We finally pulled into Big Basin around 11 PM. The main office was closed, so we drove off to hunt down our own campsite. We found a nice wooded site and left the headlights on while we pitched our tent. After a quick PB&J, I hid all of our food in the trunk to keep the bears from finding it. Then we promptly went to bed.