A ramble through 65,000 acres of beaches, forests, and rustic towns on the Point Reyes Peninsula, barely 40 miles from San Francisco

By Richard Alleman
October 27, 2011

It is a glorious morning, and Vivaldi is blasting from my car radio as I cross the Golden Gate Bridge. Not only is this oxblood-red span an architectural wonder, but it leads to some of my favorite places: the pastoral wine country of Sonoma County, the thousand-year-old redwoods of Muir Woods, the hiking trails of Mount Tamalpais, and the rugged, cliff-backed Pacific coast.

I've driven over the Golden Gate countless times, and I always seem to find something new on the other side. Today I'm bound for the Point Reyes Peninsula and its National Seashore, a 65,000-acre preserve of beaches, forests, and parklands that has been protected since the early 1960's. For years I've heard about Point Reyes and its rustic-chic hotel, Manka's Inverness Lodge, but somehow I've never managed to get there-even though it's barely 40 miles from San Francisco.

I turn onto California's legendary Highway 1, with its hair-raising coastal curves and eucalyptus- and pine-scented air, and have the road virtually to myself. After only a few miles I spot a discreet sign for the Green Gulch Farm. Intrigued, I leave the highway and drive down a long, bumpy road to a seaside enclave of wooden buildings and tidy green fields. It turns out to be an outpost of San Francisco's Zen Center. I stroll around the grounds, visit the Japanese teahouse, and stop by the small office to pick up some brochures describing the programs that this peaceful place offers. There are introductory sessions in sitting meditation (zazen) and walking meditation (kinhin) and workshops in "the way of tea", vegetarian cooking, and herb gardening.

Back on the highway, I manage to go only a few more miles when, enticed by a scenic overlook, I again pull off the road. A narrow boardwalk leads from the parking lot across a barren cliff top to a deck that looks down on Muir Beach. It's a scene straight out of Hitchcock's Vertigo: the beach is cloaked in mist and the cold ocean hidden by fog. According to a plaque, however, this cliff was once the site of a base end station, one of many coastal outposts used by the military in World War II when watching for enemy ships.

Returning to the car, I look at my watch and realize that, despite the proximity of Point Reyes, I must curtail my sightseeing impulses if I'm ever going to get there. So I impose a moratorium on scenic overlooks and even bypass Stinson Beach's three-mile stretch of white sand. But I can't resist Bolinas, the infamous backwater beach community of 1,500 residents, many of them die-hard refugees of the 1960's counterculture. Part of the town's mystique comes from the fact that no road sign marks the turnoff from Highway 1 (it's just beyond Stinson Beach). Supposedly as soon as a sign goes up, Bolinas vigilantes remove it.

A quick left has me edging the whitecapped, cobalt waters of the Bolinas Lagoon. Before long I'm devouring a veggie burger on the sunny back porch of the Bolinas Bay Bakery & Café, billed as "Marin's only organic flour bakery."Across a driveway, the People's Store sells natural foods and flies a banner proclaiming: comrades for 20 years. Recycled-clothing stores are big here, as are tie-dyed fashions, yoga, and trapeze lessons for pre-schoolers. Despite their reputed hostility toward outsiders, the locals seem laid-back, if not overly friendly, as I poke around this little time-warped town checking out its handful of crafts and souvenir shops. At the end of Wharf Road, the lagoon is alive with gulls and herons; a vast, windy beach lies round a bend. If I lived here, I'd probably be tearing down road signs, too.

"In order to refresh the lodge and ourselves, the lodge is closed each day from noon until four. Check-in time from four on."

Welcome to Point Reyes: it's three o'clock, and Manka's Inverness Lodge is locked up tight. I go around to the side entrance, only to be greeted by another warning: "Our chefs are very talented and temperamental. DO Not even imagine disturbing them for any reason except scheduled deliveries. The front door will be flung open at four."

Rather than risk God only knows what fate, I get in my car and set out on a reconnaissance run along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. At first, Point Reyes's main road twists through a forest of tall, skinny pines, but then everything changes and I find myself in a landscape of wide-open plains, which have been home to cattle ranches and dairy farms since the 1850's.

The sunny weather is holding as I approach Drakes Beach, a seven-mile crescent that is supposedly where the British explorer Sir Francis Drake dropped anchor for 36 days during his circumnavigation of the globe in 1579. Drake claimed the area for Queen Elizabeth I and named it Nova Albion, Latin for New England, because the white cliffs reminded him of Dover's.

But nothing I've ever seen comes close to the grandeur of this broad beach, with dunes like great sand mountains. It's like Egypt's Abu Simbel without the statues. The sea dazzles in the late-afternoon sun, and the clouds paint shadows on the beige sand as brigades of gulls skirmish with the surf. Few people swim here, since the water is bitterly cold and has dangerous riptides. The best thing to do at Drakes Beach is walk, which I do for the better part of an hour, passing occasional picnickers, sand-castle builders, and surfers in wet suits.

It's almost five o'clock, and I assume that Manka's door has been "flung open", but I decide to take advantage of the remaining sunlight to visit another Point Reyes landmark: the lighthouse. Built in 1875 on a 300-foot sea cliff at the extreme western edge of the peninsula, the Point Reyes Lighthouse is said to be at the windiest spot on the West Coast. As I make my way along the narrow half-mile path to the lighthouse, the gusts are no problem, but the temperature drops a good 20 degrees when the sun dips behind a wall of fog.

I mount the observation platform, which overlooks the lighthouse. Peering out at the ocean, I hear only the wind and distant foghorns. On the horizon I make out a solitary tanker, but if I had been here between December and April, I would have seen something much more dramatic: California gray whales, which can weigh 45 tons. On a spit of land that juts some 10 miles into the Pacific, the Point Reyes Lighthouse is considered California's prime spot for watching these mammals migrate from their feeding grounds in Alaska to their breeding grounds in Mexico. In peak whale-watching season, you can spot as many as 30 at once.

When I finally arrive at Manka's, my "room" is ready, but it turns out to be an enormous apartment in something called the Boathouse, about a quarter- mile from the main lodge, on Tomales Bay. Used for overflow guests, it is almost too big, with its art-gallery living room, full kitchen, and library. The bedroom is small and cozy, however, and the deck outside the enormous French windows is a great place to admire the sunrise and sunset. Admittedly I booked at the last minute, but the best places to stay are the two cabins directly behind the main lodge and the four rooms with a deck or an outdoor shower on the lodge's second floor. Almost all the rooms, even the four budget units in a rear annex, have been decorated in haute Adirondacks style: log beds, Arts and Crafts chairs and dressers, stone fireplaces, buffalo-hide rugs, and linens and plaid blankets by Ralph Lauren and Pendleton. The pièce de résistance is a rose- and vine-covered cottage called the Chicken Ranch. Built in the 1850's, this two-bedroom dream house on Tomales Bay has been restored and furnished with all the right antiques, including some original Stickley pieces.

Manka's is the creation of a neuropsychologist from Berkeley named Margaret Grade (pronounced "grah-day"). Looking for a weekend retreat in Point Reyes seven years ago, she wound up buying a dilapidated roadhouse that served warmed-over Czechoslovakian food. The 1917 former hunting lodge brought to mind her family's summer house in Wisconsin. In addition, her brother Ben, a chef, was looking for a restaurant to run.

"The lodge was a wreck", Grade says, "but it had great spirit."Although still a work in progress, Manka's has become Point Reyes's most luxurious retreat and the setting of the area's best restaurant. It takes up two austere California Craftsman-style spaces-a refreshing change from northern California's rampant neo-Victoriana-and is known for game dishes grilled in the main lodge's parlor fireplace. "We started cooking in the fireplace", Grade remarks with a laugh, "because the stove had only four burners, and at the time we had no money to upgrade it."

At dinner I begin with a marvelous assemblage of yellow and red beets, white beans, toasted almonds, and olives. For a main course I try the fireplace-grilled ahi tuna, served with a sensational tempura of carrots, squashes, asparagus, and bell peppers. The wine list offers strictly West Coast vintages, including a number of excellent half bottles such as Talbott's '94 Chardonnay Sleepy Hollow and Calera Mills' '92 Pinot Noir Mount Harlan. Desserts here are beyond divine: Who could pass up the mousse-light pumpkin crème brûlée topped with toasted pumpkin seeds?Certainly not I.

"Kayaking is not about adrenaline: this is a gentle sport." It is 9 a.m. and I am standing by Tomales Bay with a small group of first-time kayakers. We're all decked out in wet suits and life vests, listening to a young woman named Mary give a crash course in how to handle the little boats we've just rented for the next two hours. It sounds easy, but once on the bay I find myself going in circles for the first few minutes until I get my rhythm.

As I glide over the clear waters of Tomales Bay, I encounter jellyfish shimmering like fat jewels in some mammoth bowl of aspic. Above me, seabirds hang in suspended formation. All is quiet as I pass beaches, spindly piers, and rickety boathouses. I'm on the water for close to an hour before I encounter a single motorboat.

The bay offers a lesson in Point Reyes geography. Some 15 miles long, this narrow body of water separates the Point Reyes Peninsula from the California mainland. Its western shores are backed by pine forests and dotted with coves and caves, whereas the eastern banks are fronted by smooth, dry hills. Not only do these two sides of the bay look totally different; they don't have the same soil and rocks. The reason?The entire Point Reyes Peninsula was once located some 250 miles to the south. For the last few million years it has been gradually forced up the coast as the volatile Pacific plate rotates under the North American plate. It is the constant shifting of these plates that causes California's earthquakes. Tomales Bay, as well as much of Point Reyes, it turns out, lies directly above the San Andreas Fault.

YOU ARE STANDING WHERE THE 1906 EARTHQUAKE BEGAN reads one of the plaques punctuating the Earthquake Trail at Point Reyes's Bear Valley Visitors Center. Other stops have equally sensationalist headlines, such as PT. REYES MOVED 20 FEET IN 1906! and THE FAULT DOESN'T OPEN WIDE ENOUGH TO SWALLOW CITIES, BUT IT MIGHT HAVE OPENED WIDE ENOUGH TO SWALLOW A COW! Photos accompany many of the markers: one shows a locomotive overturned by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. More dramatic than any photo is an old split-rail fence that stands on the trail. Pulled apart by the same quake, it now has a 16-foot gap separating the two sections.

On a mellow northern California afternoon, it's hard to contemplate the potentially destructive forces lurking beneath this magnificent land. The sun is warm and comforting, and the air is sweet with the aroma of bay laurel. Over in Point Reyes Station, the area's three-block-long metropolis, the all-organic farmers' market is just winding down outside Toby's Feed Barn, a local institution that deals in hay, farm feed, souvenirs, T-shirts, and various New Age cosmetics, lotions, and potions. A few doors down, gentle people are lunching in the sunny garden of the Station House Café. In front of Earl's Barber Shop, an old-fashioned red-and-white pole twirls inside a glass canister. The little town is so motion-picture-perfect that I almost expect Andy Hardy to emerge from Earl's and meet up with some of his buddies for ice cream.

But Point Reyes Station is no movie set. It is a very real and very special community. "My friends told me I'd moved into one of my paintings", says landscapist Martha Borge, who relocated to Point Reyes with her family 27 years ago. They had been living in Oakland, California, and life in the city had lost its luster. Today Martha and her husband, Ralph, reside in the same white 1903 Queen Anne she fell in love with when they first went house hunting. Downstairs they have opened a gallery that showcases both Martha's and Ralph's stark paintings of West Marin County.

Several years ago one of Martha Borge's Point Reyes canvases won the top prize in a contest co-sponsored by the National Parks Foundation for the best painting of a U.S. national park. At the time, she had numerous offers to show in big-city galleries. But she turned them all down because, as she says, "My husband and I are trying to preserve a way of life here. We want to keep our lives simple and yet productive."

Behind the house stands a storybook clapboard cottage that Martha Borge rents to travelers for $95 a night. Called the Gallery Cottage, it's neither large nor fancy, but basically a one-room affair with a queen-size bed, a kitchenette and dining area, and a tiny patio in a garden of nasturtiums, geraniums, rosemary, and lavender. "At first I served breakfast", Borge says, "but I felt as if it was invading the guests' privacy. So a few years ago I took ten dollars off the price and just stocked the cottage with fresh-ground coffee. The Bovine Bakery is a block away. So far, nobody has complained."

Artists are doubling as innkeepers all over Point Reyes these days. On the edge of town, painter Karen Gray's Jasmine Cottage is another one-room hideaway in a sweet setting amid flower and herb gardens and fruit trees; the low price includes a big breakfast.

My favorite spot is out on Tomales Bay, not far from Manka's: Marsh Cottage, so close to the water that sitting on its tiny front deck feels like being on a private houseboat. It's simply furnished by artist Wendy Schwartz, whose house and studio are next door, and whose pastoral paintings of cows and Point Reyes ranches hang inside. Marsh Cottage is the kind of place you'd love to rent for a couple of months so that you could finish-or start-your novel.

Schwartz and her reporter husband left San Francisco for Point Reyes 14 years ago. "Before I moved out here, I never understood how attached you can get to a place," she says. "This peninsula is very powerful."

You don't have to be a local to appreciate the power of Point Reyes. After only a few days here, I share Schwartz's reverence for this stretch of northern California. Back home in New York, I find that I have only to close my eyes and I am again combing Drakes Beach or floating on Tomales Bay or dining at Manka's. Occasionally I see myself on the deck at Marsh Cottage, working on that novel.

Five Ways To See Point Reyes

Hike the 12-mile loop from the Bear Valley Visitors Center. The magical trail takes in the best of Point Reyes: forests of fir and bay laurel, wildflower-filled meadows, dramatic beaches.

Cycle the Point Reyes-Petaluma Road, for pastoral scenery and challenging hills. Recharge at the Marin French Cheese Company.

Paddle a sea kayak in the early morning on Tomales Bay, with Blue Waters Kayak Tours.

Take Five Brooks Ranch's six-hour horseback Wildcat Beach Ride. Gallop over mountains, along beaches, and under waterfalls.

Picnic on Drakes Beach, with fixings-perhaps a niçoise sandwich or an oyster loaf-from Tomales Bay Foods in Point Reyes Station.

The Facts

West Marin County's pristine Point Reyes Peninsula is a year-round destination. Summer is great for outdoor activities, including swimming in Tomales Bay, but expect foggy mornings and many fellow travelers. Fall brings sunny days, crisp nights, and fewer crowds. Winter is the wettest time-especially January and February-but it's ideal for whale-watching. In spring, the peninsula explodes with buds and blossoms.

Gallery Cottage Point Reyes Station; 415/663-1419; double $95.

Green Gulch Farm 1601 Shoreline Hwy., Sausalito; 415/383-3134; doubles from $90, including three meals. This retreat offers rustic accommodations in addition to Zen workshops.

Jasmine Cottage 11559 Hwy. 1, Point Reyes Station; 415/663-1166; $145 per night.

Manka's Inverness Lodge Inverness; 415/669-1034; doubles from $115, dinner for two $80.

Marsh Cottage Point Reyes Station; 415/669-7168; $100 per night.

Point Reyes Seashore Lodge 10021 Hwy. 1, Olema; 415/663-9000; doubles from $85. Many of this property's 21 rooms come with fireplaces.

Ten Inverness Way 10 Inverness Way, Inverness; 415/669-1648; doubles from $125. A five-room California Craftsman-style inn "for hikers and readers."

Bolinas Bay Bakery & Café 20 Wharf Rd., Bolinas; 415/868-0211; dinner for two $20. An all-natural counterculture landmark.

Bovine Bakery Main St., Point Reyes Station; 415/ 663-8368; dinner for two $25. Try the pizza and pastries at this local hangout.

Café Reyes 11101 Hwy. 1, Point Reyes Station; 415/663-9493; dinner for two $40. A restaurant/microbrewery/library (only in Point Reyes).

Marin French Cheese Company 7500 Red Hill Rd., Petaluma; 707/762-6001; lunch for two $15. A well-known Point Reyes-Petaluma Road pit stop.

Olema Inn 10000 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Olema; 415/663-9559; dinner for two $45. Perfect combination: mussels on the deck overlooking gardens.

Station House Café Main St., Point Reyes Station; 415/663-1515; dinner for two $45. Stake out the patio at this breakfast, lunch, and dinner spot.

Tomales Bay Foods 80 Fourth St., Point Reyes Station; 415/663-9335; dinner for two $20. A new delicatessen that purveys the best from West Marin County's farms, ranches, small dairies, and wineries.

Bear Valley Visitors Center Bear Valley Rd., Point Reyes Station; 415/663-1092. Maps and tours.

Cycle Analysis Fourth and Main Sts., Point Reyes Station; 415/663-9164. Bike rentals, including helmets, from $10 an hour.

Blue Waters Kayak Tours 12938 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Inverness; 415/669-2600. Two-hour kayak rentals from $25, including wet suits and instruction.

Five Brooks Ranch 8001 Hwy. 1, Olema; 415/663-1570. Guided one- to six-hour trail rides, from $20 per hour.

Best Books
Hidden San Francisco & Northern California by Ray Riegert (Ulysses Press)-A fine guide to an eclectic assortment of unsuspected pleasures.

Northern California Coast Best Places by Matthew R. Poole (Sasquatch Books)-Hotels and restaurants for travelers on all budgets.

California Lighthouses by Bruce Roberts and Ray Jones (Globe Pequot Press)-Profiles of lighthouses; directions to accessible ones.
—Martin Rapp

On the Web
Point Reyes Light-This on-line version of a Pulitzer Prize-winning weekly gives the scoop on local happenings.

Point Reyes National Seashore -National Park Service site covering flora, fauna, and geology, plus information for hikers and campers.
—Nicole Whitsett