Pt. Reyes Lighthouse

Distance:  40 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 1620 ft

(Note 3/21: Huzzah!  The road to the lighthouse has been repaved and is now glass, according to Tom B. below!  This news elevates this ride from merely very good to great.  jr)

Point Reyes gets in your blood.  The first time I went there, it seemed barren, cold, featureless, and generally uninviting.  Now I love it with an abiding passion.  It isn’t obviously dramatic.  It’s not Yosemite.  It’s open, gently rolling wild grassland, and it’s often windy and frigid.  But give it time.  It will work its magic.

This ride comes with a bevy of caveats.  First, I’d try to do it in winter or a shoulder season, but not in summer, and I wouldn’t go anywhere near it on a summer weekend—the traffic is like two-for-one day at Walmart.  Second, the weather can be windy, cold, and damp on any day of the year.  Don’t judge by the weather in Point Reyes Station, don’t trust the weather report, and don’t assume summer means warm.  Pack at least one layer more than you think you’ll need.  The last time I did this ride, on what began as a warm, sunny day, everyone packed one extra layer, and we were all one layer short.  Third, the road surface is often bad, sometimes comically so, sometimes dangerously so.  My local friend Ben says it’s the worst road surface in the greater Bay Area.  Take your biggest tires and be cautious on the downhills, which tend to bottom out onto the worst of the broken pavement, cow poop, and/or treacherous cattle guards.  The surface is worst in the 3 miles closest to the lighthouse, so if it gets to be too much you can turn around.



(To see an interactive version of the map/elevation profile, click on the ride name, upper left, wait for the new map to load, then click on the “full screen” icon, upper right.)

Ride south on Hwy 1 from Pt. Reyes Station, whose virtues (and food choices) are sung in the Bakeries Ride description (if you don’t care about food, you can start in Inverness).   A stone’s throw down the road, go R onto Sir Francis Drake Blvd. and stay on it to the lighthouse at the end of the road.   This first stretch of road, which hugs the shore of Tomales Bay, is narrow and goes through two quaint, quirky little communities, Inverness Park and Inverness.   The hectic traffic in and around both places, combined with the lack of shoulder, makes the riding sketchy and stressful.

Typical terrain, and typical summer traffic

Typical terrain, and typical summer traffic: eight cars in view

Once the road leaves Tomales Bay there are at least sightlines so cars can pass safely.   Climb a noticeable hill to a saddle, go down the other side, and roll up and down ceaselessly to the lighthouse.  Check out the Visitor’s Center.  Learn why they built the lighthouse halfway down the cliff face.  Ask about lighthouse keeper suicide rates.  Hike down to the lighthouse if you’ve got the legs.   Gaze out to sea in hopes of glimpsing passing whales.  Ride back.  Watch for wildflowers, cows, elk (the elk are mostly on the north road, but you might get lucky), raptors.  Let all the crap that we accumulate in our lives melt away.

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Returning from the lighthouse in late afternoon

By the way, the terrain looks basically flat from a distance, but the road is never flat—my computer recorded over twice Mapmyride’s elevation total.  I once started to count the substantial rollers one way and gave up after twenty.  And many of them, while generally short, are fairly steep.

There are bathrooms and water at the lighthouse complex, but nothing between Inverness and there.

Shortening the ride: Starting in Inverness will save you a few miles.  I’m not sure that parking on the shoulder is allowed Point Reyes National Seashore land.

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Heading for the lighthouse in weekday conditions—nobody around

Adding miles: All other pavement in the Regional Seashore is more of the same good riding.  The north road, to McClure Beach, is especially isolated, so ride it if the light traffic on Sir Francis Drake disturbs your tranquility or you want to see the elk herds that populate the hillsides.   Pt. Reyes Station is on our Bakeries Ride route, so all the riding discussed there is available to you.  If you have big tires you could ride the smooth dirt of Bear Valley Trail from the Bear Valley Visitor Center to Arch Rock, a wonderful trail with a postcard coastal arch at its end.   Bring walking shoes—the last leg of the trail is closed to bikes, but you can ride the bulk of it, lock your bike to the bike rack thoughtfully provided, and walk the remainder.

North shore of Pt. Reyes, seen from near the lighthouse, on a "crowded" summer Saturday—not a human in sight

Pt. Reyes Beach on a busy summer Saturday—not a human in sight

I know this is a bike site, but off the bike there is a vast amount of hiking and on-foot exploring to do in this area, so you might want to bring some walking shoes, a lock, and a backpack.   First among equals is the hike to Chimney Rock, which takes you to a dramatic rock formation amid coastal cliffs—do it at the right time in the spring and the wildflowers are world-famous.   Native plant enthusiasts come long distances to see them, and the Rangers give free wildflower tours.   Second is the Bear Valley Trail (see above).   While you’re there don’t miss the Bear Valley Visitor Center, which is extensive and state-of-the-art.  The outhouse across the parking lot from the main building must have cost more than my house.  I’m also particularly fond of the hiking in Tomales Bay State Park, which lies within Pt. Reyes National Seashore.

7 thoughts on “Pt. Reyes Lighthouse

  1. Johnny

    I did this ride today with a Surly LHT and was grateful for the steel frame and wide tires for those couple of instances when the pavement got dicey. Thanks for all of your insight and commentary. I’m new to Marin and this has been a great resource. Cheers!

    Reply
  2. Mara Yetter

    Along the California coast, we have decomposed granite, constantly crumbling [the American tectonic plate]. The look-out point for Arch Rock fell into the sea a couple of years ago,tumbling two tourists, one of whom was buried in the rubble, while the other was air-lifted to safety. So don’t go to the very edge of the cliffs to see the view, even when the trail map, sign posts, and the picnic crowd all indicate safety. Instead, look down at the ground, and if the sandy packed dirt is full of holes and cracks, maybe your wisdom will resist your curiosity.

    Reply
  3. mojo

    This is one of the windiest and foggiest spots on the entire West coast! I have done this ride in thick fog the whole way. Yes the pavement is atrocious, but it’s a wonderful ride nonetheless. A nice climb before the light house is Mt Vision—7 miles long, often above the fog, some tough grades but the views are spectacular.

    Reply
    1. Jack Rawlins Post author

      Mt. Vision Road takes off from Sir Frances Drake to the L shortly after the Pierce Point Rd. fork. I haven’t done it but it looks to be a very narrow paved road through scrub and turning to dirt at pavement’s end.

      Reply
  4. Casey Taylor

    As always, great recap! Rode this today and it was sunny and lovely. The elevation (as you noted) is more than what’s reflected above. Round trip from Inverness was just over 30 miles and 3,000 feet. As of 5/23: There were still a number of cars on the road (and one washed out bridge crossing on foot), but far fewer cars than normal and the road was closed to cars 5 miles from the lighthouse. Thanks for the recon—glad to have done it while a bit quieter!

    Reply
  5. Tom B

    The road to the lighthouse has been paved recently and it is glass from Pierce Point Rd turnoff all the way to the end. I went on a Thursday in late February, 2021. Going during the shoulder season is good advice– had the place almost to myself. Once I turned off of Sir Francis Drake, I saw maybe 5 cars on the way in and 10 or so on the way out, and another 6 cyclists during the out and back. My Garmin clocked me at 42.3 miles and 3478 feet of elevation gain, which included the short spur off to the Chimney Rock trailhead and back to the main road. I was able to ride along the gravel path to the elephant seal overlook and saw and heard the seal harems in full mating glory. As pointed out, weather in town of Pt Reyes Station is 8-10 degrees warmer than the lighthouse. For post-ride meal, the Bovine Bakery was enclosed with a massive tent for fumigation, but Brickmaiden Breads did not disappoint, and I’ll be coming back some day for another pork belly BLT from Side Street Kitchen which is conveniently across the street from Brickmaiden. Thanks for another great ride, Jay!

    Reply
  6. MB

    What a beautiful ride — endlessly varying views and contour. I’m happy to confirm that the 2021 repaving is as glorious as advertised, and there doesn’t seem to be any ongoing work shutting down the road (despite the NPS website still referring to “managed access”). In early April the scenery is also exceptional —- green hills, many wildflowers. Great views of birds of prey on the hunt, including a bald eagle.

    Two notes: First, I found it rode substantially harder headed west than east. What seemed to be the two most serious climbs — out of Inverness and up to the top of the final spine at the coast — were both westbound; nothing on the return compared. Wind probably also played a factor here, but that last climb after the turn-off to the lighthouse is just brutally steep, though short; it felt kind of like hitting the wall at the top of Diablo, perhaps because I didn’t expect it. And second: traffic on a weekday in April was not exactly light, and there’s usually no shoulder. The drivers weren’t aggressive, but I don’t think we ever went more than a minute or two without cars in our lane, and the wind meant that they often weren’t easy to hear until they were quite close. I was looking over my shoulder a lot. Still, a fabulous ride. Thanks, Jay!

    Reply

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