On the Marin County coast, you'll often find better weather in the winter than during the foggy summer, so this time of year is a great time to head out to the beach. One family favorite in Marin is Limantour Beach at the Point Reyes National Seashore. Limantour boasts gentle surf, stunning views, and miles of sandy beach.
Named after a French merchant shipwrecked here in the 1840s, Limantour Beach is located along Drake's Bay, and is close to Point Reyes Station and the Point Reyes National Seashore park headquarters on Bear Valley Road. As you drive over Inverness Ridge, you'll see evidence of the 1995 Mt. Vision fire in the form of the young fir and pine trees that line the roadway.
Along the way, you'll see trailheads and parking areas for several popular trails, including Sky and Muddy Hollow trails, as well as a youth hostel and the Clem Miller Environmental Education Center. There are also several scenic overlooks that afford stunning vistas of Tomales Bay and the Limantour Estero.
Late December always heralds the start of whale-watching season on Northern California's coast. Reports have come in of California Gray Whales (eschrichtius robustus) passing by the coast on their annual southern migration, so start planning your winter trip out to Point Reyes National Seashore to do some whale watching! We will probably still continue our tradition of never actually spotting one (although everyone around us seems to be seeing them), but that won't stop us from dusting off the binoculars and giving it another shot.
You're also just about guaranteed to see Point Reyes' colony of Northen Elephant Seals, too. While not as majestic as gray whales, these large and vocal pinnipeds are nonetheless a pretty amazing sight that's well worth checking out while you're in the area.
One of our favorite places for a hike with the family is Bear Valley Trail. Located at the Point Reyes National Seashore's Bear Valley Visitor Center near Olema, this trail is for many reasons one of the most popular in Marin, and a great spot for novice hikers and children. It's flat, wide, and sheltered from the wind and sun. While there's a slight uphill on sections both ways, it's not too challenging.
Starting at the end of the parking lot, Bear Valley Trail follows Bear Valley Creek all the way to the Pacific Ocean, if you're willing to go that far—it's approximately 8.2 miles round trip. A more manageable destination for those hiking with children is Divide Meadow, which lies at a little over a mile and a half into the trail. There you'll find a wide meadow ringed by Douglas firs. There are benches cut out of fallen logs to sit on, and it's a great place to stop for a picnic. You can usually count on seeing some wildlife here, mostly deer, but on at least one occasion we've seen a bobcat. The trip to Divide Meadow and back is 3.2 miles total.
In the spring, lovers of wildlife and wildflowers head to the Point Reyes National Seashore to experience the area's abundance of both. One of our go-to spots for an outdoors outing in Point Reyes is Chimney Rock, where you can see both amazing widlflowers and massive Northern Elephant Seals lounging on the beach below the cliffs.
Also worth visiting here is the historic Chimney Rock Lifeboat Station, where Coast Guard crews set out to rescue victims of the many shipwrecks off the coast of Point Reyes. We visited over Spring Break, and wildflowers are starting to appear all over—in coming weeks it should be pretty amazing, especially after our recent rains.
If you visit Chimney Rock in the late winter or spring, your first destination upon arrival should be the Elephant Seal Overlook. It's a short hike on a well maintained gravel trail overlooking Drakes Bay, about 1/2 mile round trip between the parking area and the overlook. The overlook at the end of the trail gives you an unsurpassed view of the Elephant Seal colony on the beach below.
Point Reyes Station isn't West Marin's biggest town, but it certainly is its busiest. While the railroad that gave this small town its name is long gone, Point Reyes Station has become something of a tourist mecca in recent years, with a focus on sustainable agriculture, locally produced artisanal and organic foods, and art. On weekends, the main street of this quaint and charming gateway to the magnificent Point Reyes National Seashore bustles with West Marin locals, Bay Area day trippers, bicyclists, motorcyclists, hikers, and visitors from around the world.
Even though many of Point Reyes Station's attractions are geared toward adults, there's plenty for families to do here, making it an attractive day trip destination in and of itself, or a worthwhile stop on the way to or from the beaches and hiking trails of the Point Reyes National Seashore. Most of Point Reyes Station's businesses are clustered around Highway One, AKA A Street, Main Street, and Shoreline Highway. A walk down Main Street's sidewalks takes you by art galleries, boutiques, and gourmet restaurants, as well as businesses more traditionally associated with small rural towns, like a feed store, hardware store, garage, and saloon.
Here are a few of our favorite places to visit when we find ourselves in Point Reyes Station with children in tow.
Over the past few years the little West Marin town of Point Reyes Station has become a hot spot for tourists and Bay Area day-trippers. With its bucolic rural setting, charming downtown, nearby Point Reyes National Seashore, and emphasis on local sustainable foods and agriculture, it's no wonder why it's become such a popular place. For visiting families, however, Point Reyes Station can pose something of a challenge, especially when you're hungry and need something to eat. Offerings in town tend to be either expensive or extremely busy, especially on weekends and holidays. That's why we love Cafe Reyes.
Located on Highway One just around the corner from downtown Point Reyes Station, this rustic and charming restaurant is inexpensive, usually uncrowded (it's more of a hangout for locals rather than a tourist destination), and offers up some of the best and most authentic Neapolitan style pizza we've found anywhere. Cafe Reyes has been around for years, serving up Mexican-inspired fare for many years until they decided to switch gears a few years ago and install a massive wood-fired pizza oven, which you can see—or feel, owing to the amount of heat it gives off—when you walk in the front door.
When the weather gets warm, it's time to think about going to the beach. Good, safe swimming beaches with warm weather can be hard to come by in Marin and Northern California, but they're out there if you know where to look. Some of them are hidden gems known only to locals and other insiders. Chicken Ranch Beach, located on Tomales Bay just outside the West Marin town of Inverness, is one of those well kept secrets. (So don't tell anyone about it, OK?)
Like Heart's Desire Beach up the road a bit in Tomales Bay State Park, Chicken Ranch Beach sits on the shallow, relatively warm waters of Tomales Bay. It's a popular place for families, with a gentle, sandy beach and no surf to speak of, only ripples that lap gently on the shore. Kids can wade, swim, play in the sand, and run to their hearts' content. Chicken Ranch Beach is a fabulous place to raise your beach umbrella, spread out a blanket or two, and spend the day relaxing in the sun. Since it's on the opposite side of Inverness Ridge from the ocean, the summer fog often burns back for a pleasant sunny day tempered by cool breezes from the mouth of Tomales Bay a few miles away. The West Marin vistas from the beach are spectacular, too. Unlike the beaches at Tomales Bay State Park, there's no entry fee here—it's free, if you can find it.
When the temperature rises this summer and you need to get away from the inland heat, heading out to the beach is always a popular idea. Unfortunately, the beach experience in Northern California, even on a nice day, can be something of a challenge, and usually involves donning multiple layers of clothing to stave off the cold ocean wind. Swimming at beaches here often involves putting your life at risk, too, with icy water temperatures, pounding surf, and deadly rip currents posing a hazard to even the strongest swimmers.
Let's face it: most Marin beaches are beautiful and dramatic, but you're pretty much limited to walking and playing in the sand.
Fortunately, there are some great local alternatives, if you know where to look. One of our favorite places to hang out at on a sunny day is Heart's Desire Beach at Tomales Bay State Park. On the opposite side of Inverness Ridge from the chillier ocean beaches of Point Reyes, Heart’s Desire is a white stretch of sand running along a calm, sheltered stretch of Tomales Bay. There’s no surf to speak of, and the shallow water is warm and perfect for wading, swimming, and just having fun. The swimming area is surrounded by buoys to keep boat traffic away (except for kayaks and canoes; it's a popular launching and put-in place for those), and there's often an anchored raft to swim out to.
Our go-to spot for family hikes and outdoor excurisions in Marin is the Bear Valley Visitor Center at Point Reyes National Seashore. Home to the park's main visitor center and headquarters, it's a wonderful place for kids and adults alike to learn about nature and local history and explore the outdoors. It has so much to offer: picnics, hikes, views, and wildlife.
The visitor center itself is usually our first stop. With interesting dioramas and displays about the wildlife around Point Reyes, free audio-visual programs, and an information desk manned by helpful rangers and volunteers, the visitor center is a great place to learn about Point Reyes and its amazing natural history. You can also learn about the human history of the area, too, through exhibits on the Miwok Indians who once inhabited Point Reyes, the probalble visit of English seafarer Sir Francis Drake in ath 16th century (look for the cool cutaway model of Drake's ship The Golden Hinde in the center's auditorium), and the Point Reyes Lighthouse. Kids love the touching table where they can handle a variety of natural history specimens, including bones, antlers, rocks, shells, and more. The visitor center has a small book store and gift shop, too, where you can shop for t-shirts, hats, natural history books, posters, and other souvenirs.