Point Reyes National Seashore, California - My Family Travels

Whale-watching, black raspberry-picking, hiking, good eating, arts n' crafts, and elk-tracking are a few of the quiet family pleasures to be found in California's most popular park preserve. Whale-watching, black raspberry-picking, hiking, good eating, arts n' crafts, and elk-tracking are a few of the quiet family pleasures to be found in California's most popular park preserve.

What are elk antlers made of?  Cartilage, bone, horn, or wood?* (If you can't answer this –see last page — you need a vacation!)

If you choose the destination carefully, just a weekend away can feel like a real vacation. That's why we chose Point Reyes National Seashore (415/464-5100), a park that's open daily sunrise to sunset, located about 1½ hours north of San Francisco.

As a student, I had seen the area and was taken by its pastoral charms. Leery of returning to find golf courses and condominiums, I was happy to discover that this scenic area, dotted with cattle ranches and dairy farms, had become a federal preserve. In an innovative approach to land management, the Department of the Interior and land owners had agreed to freeze development and restore the region's natural order. Although San Francisco offers a cornucopia of weekend choices, Pt. Reyes turned out to be as delightful as I remembered, and equally delectable for families as for single travelers. 

The official boundary of the National Seashore starts just above the charming town of Bolinas, off the famous Highway 1, and runs north to the mouth of Tomales Bay. It includes miles of hiking trails through landscapes ranging from woods to rocky shore to open fields bristling with wild irises. The better-known towns bordering the park include Pt. Reyes Station, an efficient, quiet village where we stayed; Inverness, a secluded hamlet in the woods; Tomales, a quaint little fishing community; and Bolinas, a bustling town that attracts hordes of weekenders from the Bay Area to its Victorian house-lined streets.

Pt. Reyes is a Hiking Paradise

Choice activities are outdoors. The hiking is superb and almost every trail leads to the pounding Pacific. Easy-to-follow paths crisscross gently sloping hills, some under aspen-shaded canopies, some across rocky hillsides with herds of elk trumpeting their presence. My wife and I packed our toddler in a kid-carrier and chose easy 4-5 mile walks each day.

Our first hiking day was spent on the 4.1 mile trail to Arch Rock. One of the park's most popular, it follows a wooded path, winding down to the dramatic coast. The trail gets a little rugged on the final descent to the beach, but it's still a scenic, easy trail for beginners and is heavily trafficked on weekends. 

Our other favorite walk starts at the northern terminus of the park road, at the historic Pierce Point Ranch above McClures Beach, and continues north for 2-3 miles through the Tule Elk Reserve on a trail above the sea, to Tomales Point. You might be lucky enough to spot some elk or at least hear their high thin trumpeting. There are side trails down to stunningly beautiful, isolated rocky coves for a waterside picnic.

Whale Watching at Pt. Reyes

There are myriad other choices. Pick up a park map at the Bear Valley Park Headquarters (415/464-5100; open Mon.-Fri. from 9am-5pm and Sat.-Sun. from 8am-5pm), talk to the Rangers about your interests, and be sure to check on the weather forecast (415/663-9029); there's often unexpected heavy fog in this area. Although you're so close to the beach, the ocean is too rough, cold, and unpredictable for swimming stops. Polar bears might take exception, but we say it's plain dangerous! 

Those who come between January and April enjoy the added thrill of whale watching. Contact the Lighthouse Visitors Center (415/669-1534; open Thurs-Mon 10am-4:30pm) regarding shuttle service from nearby parking lots to the preserve's westernmost point. Here, you can watch the regal mammals migrate past the steps of the Pt. Reyes Lighthouse. 

Touring the Hippie Haunts of northern California

Other weekend pleasures in the area include horseback riding, blackberry picking along the roads, and early morning walks to the local Pt. Reyes bakery. The drive on Highway 1 south offers scenic vistas over Bolinas Bay and its sunbathing sea lions. A few miles off the coastal highway, colorful Bolinas is certainly worthy of an afternoon's stroll. The drive north parallels Tomales Bay and the rugged park land beyond. Tomales is a charming town, with a few tie-dye and woodworking shops and whole food cafes.

North of Tomales is Bodega Bay, a fishing village famous as the film location for Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. If you're traveling with a family's best friends, be sure to visit Dillon Beach and take the pooch and kids for a walk along the pounding surf.

Pt. Reyes Bed & Board

Accommodations in the area tend toward small motels, Victorian B&Bs, or homes-to-rent, with rates depending on season and location. Book your rooms as far in advance as possible, and ask your innkeepers if they might babysit — many do!  e lucked into a wonderful, country-French style cottage called Gray's Retreat (415/663-1166) in Pt. Reyes Station. It's got several units on lushly landscaped property with a communal hot tub. That tub was well used after the baby went to sleep at night! 

For other choices, contact the West Marin Chamber of Commerce ( 415/663-9232), the Cottages of Point Reyes Bed and Breakfast (415/663-9445), Coastal Lodging of West Marin (415/663-1351), or your travel agent. The area's best value is in one of the park's prettiest areas, eight miles southwest of the Bear Valley Visitors Center.

Hostelling International-Point Reyes (415/663-8811) has 44 beds, plus a communal kitchen and bathrooms. Early planners can book the one private family room (for adults traveling with children 5-years and under) by phone with a credit card. 

Dining competes with scenery as one of northern California's true pleasures. Day breaks could be spent in the take-out line at the Bovine Bakery (415/663-9420) in Pt. Reyes Station, justly famed for its air-light croissants. The Tomales Bay Food (415/663-9335) has a cheese factory, homemade ice cream, local produce and bread on sale. 

The Station House Cafe (415/663-1515 11180 State Route One Point Reyes, CA 94956) in Pt. Reyes Station has such an excellent reputation amongst gourmands that evening reservations are a must. They are open daily from 8am-9pm daily and until 10pm on Fridays. It's a cozy space with lots of room for kids to roam, serving a wide range of California-style (if there is one essential style) dishes, such as luscious crabcakes, exotic pastas, and steamed miniature vegetables.

Serious diners shouldn't miss a meal at Manka's Restaurant (415/669-1034; 30 Callender Way, Inverness, CA 94937). Is it the stuffed elk head above the fireplace, the cozy banquette seating, or the many tiny sitting rooms that make this place so comfortable? Known for its game, Manka's excels at venison and rabbit and local fish. When our son took his own tour of the dining rooms and the parlors, no one (even those spending $58 for a gourmet blow-out) turned around. The wine selection at both places, as you might expect, is California superb. Manka's also has charming sleeping rooms upstairs, and a separate boathouse with two suites overlooking Tomales Bay. 

For additional hotel suggestions, see Point Reyes National Seashore Hotels.

* By the way, the correct answer to the opening question is bone.

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