The New Year always heralds the start of whale-watching season on Northern California's coast. This is the time of year when California Gray Whales (eschrichtius robustus) pass 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 now. Dust off those binoculars and your telephoto lens and head out to the Point Reyes Lighthouse!
While we've had mixed results in our own whale-watching outings, we've usually seen at least a whale or two, and on one visit we saw at least a dozen pass by the lighthouse! It's an amazing experience that you'll never forget, and it's definitely worth the time it takes getting out to the lighthouse.
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 always 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 visit of English seafarer Sir Francis Drake in the 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.
Point Reyes Station is the social and cultural hub of West Marin, and a fantastic destination for a day out with the family. 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, outdoor activities, and art. On weekends, the main street of this quaint and charming gateway to Point Reyes National Seashore bustles with West Marin locals, Bay Area day trippers, bicyclists, motorcyclists, hikers, and visitors from around the world.
When we're in the mood for an easy hike in West Marin with the kids, we love to head to Tomales Bay Trailhead, off Highway 1 just north of the town of Point Reyes Station. This hike is perfect for families with children of all ages, and passes through the gently rolling hills at the southern end of Tomales Bay. Be prepared to take in some sweeping views, watch for local wildlife, and meet some friendly cows wandering the meadows.
Tomales Bay Trailhead has the added benefit of being close to Point Reyes Station—it's only a few minutes north of town off of Highway 1. It's a great place to take in a hike when you don't feel like driving out all the way into Point Reyes National Seashore, and it's beautiful in its own right. The Tomales Bay Trails winds along hills and run through grassy meadows from the highway down to Tomales Bay itself.
During the summer, one surefire way to cool off in Marin is 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 and is a great place to visit at any time of year.
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 devastating 1995 Mt. Vision fire that swept through this area in the form of the young fir and pine trees that line the roadway.
When the weather warms up (even if it's in the middle of winter!), it's time to take advantage of it and head to the beach. Good, safe swimming beaches with warm weather can be hard to come by in Marin County and the Bay Area, but they're 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 do us a favor and don't tell anyone about it, OK?)
Explore a piece of Marin's past at Kule Loklo, a reconstruction of a Coast Miwok village located near the Point Reyes National Seashore visitor center in Bear Valley. It's just a short .3-mile hike from the parking area, but it feels like you're travelling a world away, back to a time before European settlement in California.
Kule Loklo, which means "Bear Valley", was created back in the 1970s to give visitors to Point Reyes an idea of what life was like for Native Americans in the area. The village is not built on the site of any existing Miwok settlement, but is in a place where one definitely could have been, with a nearby creek and plenty of oak trees and wildlife.
The trail to Kule Loklo is easy to manage for everyone, and perfect for an off-road stroller. On the way, you'll get a nice view of the Morgan Horse farm and other facilities at Bear Valley. Follow the trail to the right, pass a stand of tall eucalyptus trees, and you'll find yourself at Kule Loklo.
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.
One of our favorite West Marin dining spots is the Station House Café in Point Reyes Station. We don't always get to dine there, though, because it's a busy place—you usually have to wait for a table on weekends. We recently got a chance to swing by during the week for lunch, and it was a real treat.
The Station House Cafe is located on Point Reyes Station's main street, so you can't miss it. It serves up comfort food classics made from fresh, local, and organic ingredients for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It's a great place to stop off for a hearty breakfast before you hit the hiking trails or the beach, or to unwind over lunch or dinner after a day at Point Reyes National Seashore. Their pretty comprehensive kids' menu offers selections like fish and chips ($6.50), noodles with butter ($5), grilled cheese ($5.50), a Niman Ranch frank and fries ($6.95), and a kid's cobb salad ($6.95).