Pt. Reyes Lighthouse

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

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.


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.


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 huge amount of hiking and 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.

5 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!

  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.

  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.

    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.

  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!


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