Wildflowers and Elephant Seals at Point Reyes's Chimney Rock

April 14, 2012

Chimney Rock elephant sealsIn 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.

While mid-April is considered the end of the Elephant Seal season in Point Reyes, there were still hundreds of the enormous pinnipeds (mostly juveniles) on the beach and in the water. It's quite a sight, so make sure you bring your binoculars. Docents are on hand at the overlook with binoculars and spotting scopes from 11 am to 4 pm on weekends and holidays late December through April.

Path to the elephant seal overlook at Chimney RockChimney Rock elephant seals

Chimney Rock is also considered one of the prime wildflower viewing areas in the Bay Area, and it doesn't disappoint. You'll find more different species of wildflower here than in any other place in California Look for magnificent Douglas Irises, California Poppies, Checkerbloom, Indian Paintbrush, yellow and blue lupines, wild cucumber, and more. The short trail to the Elephant Seal Overlook is a great place to see Chimney Rock's springtime display, and more flowers can be seen as you head out on the Chimney Rock Trail.

The Chimney Rock Trail is .7 miles in length with gentle inclines, making it ideal for a family hike. Along the way you'll pass a house used as a residence for park staff. (You may recognize the house as one of the locations for John Carpenter's 1995 remake of Village of the Damned, which was shot entirely in West Marin.) At the trailhead, there's a handy informational sign showing the variety of wildflowers that you'll see along Chimney Rock's trails.

Douglas iris at Chimney RockPoint Reyes Meadowfoam at Chimney Rock

If you go

Chimney Rock elephant sealsAt the parking area and trailhead area, you'll find drinking water, clean pit toilets, and a small shelter that's a perfect place for eating lunch or a snack. The weather in Point Reyes National Seashore is notoriously unpredictable, so come prepared with layered clothing and jackets just in case. There's not a lot of shade on Chimney Rock's trails, so hats and sunblock are a must as well. Make sure you bring your own snacks and food, too. The only dining option in the area is Drake's Beach Café, located a few miles down the road at Drakes Beach (you'll pass the turn off on your way to Chimney Rock). It's open Friday and Monday from 11 am to 3 pm and weekends 11 am to 5 pm, and it's a good place to warm up with a cup of hot chocolate or a bowl of clam chowder.

Chimney Rock is approximately a half-hour's drive from Point Reyes Station. Head west on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard through Inverness and follow it until you get to the Chimney Rock turn off, just after the historic "A" Ranch. (The road gets pretty twisty and windy after you pass Drakes Beach.) Follow Chimney Rock Road about a mile to the parking area; it's a one-lane road, so you may have to move over to let other vehicles pass. You're also on farmland here, so there are plenty of cows wandering around, too.

From late December through mid-April, during prime whale- and seal-watching season, Sir Francis Drake Boulevard west of South Beach is closed to vehicular traffic on weekends and holidays. To get to Chimney Rock, you'll have to take the park's shuttle bus ($5 per person, free for children 16 and under), which leaves every 20 minutes from the Drakes Beach parking lot. The bus makes a round trip from Drakes Beach to the Point Reyes Lighthouse and Chimney Rock and runs from 9:30 am to 3:30 pm. You can buy tickets at the Kenneth C. Patrick Visitor Center at Drakes Beach from 9 am to 3 pm. This season's shuttle bus program runs through Saturday, April 17, 2011.

For more information on Point Reyes National Seashore and Chimney Rock, visit the park's website at www.nps.gov/pore or call (415) 464-5100.