If you have never been to the Point Reyes National Seashore before, then you will quickly learn of its massive size once you arrive. In fact, it's quite overwhelming at first. With so many options and places to see, it's a challenge to know where to begin or what to do.
The 71,000 acre National Seashore has three visitor’s centers to help educate and guide the 2.5 million annual visitors. However, it’s the Bear Valley Visitor Center that’s considered the park’s headquarters and is my suggestion for the best place to start your Point Reyes National Seashore adventure.
Located a half mile west of Olema, this visitor center is the gateway to the Seashore’s history, cultures, plant and animal life, diverse habitats and many of the park’s popular trails. In fact, most of the Seashore’s South District can be accessed from Bear Valley Visitor Center.
The center is opened year round with various hours depending on the day and the season. As of now, the center is opened:
- Weekdays from 10 am to 4:30pm
- Weekends from 9am to 4:30pm
Contact info: 415-464-5100 or go to the official website
Inside the Building
The building is a hub for everything Point Reyes. It starts out as a great pit stop for visitors to use the restrooms and freshen up. Additionally, across the parking lot is the Bear Valley Picnic Area where visitors can eat and relax in the shade.
Moving beyond the restrooms is the gift shop. Buy a souvenir for a loved one or for yourself. Another wonderful feature is the informational “booth” where there are several park rangers assisting visitors with their travel plans. There’s also a video room where you can view a display of what Drake’s boat may have looked like.
After visiting all of these areas, head over to the small museum inside this Visitor Center and take a stroll through Point Reyes’ diverse ecosystems, wildlife and history.
Once you leave the building, you are more educated and better prepared for what the National Seashore has to offer. The next step is to head over to the nearby attractions.
Across the parking lot from the Bear Valley Visitor Center is the Earthquake Trail. It begins right next to the Bear Valley Picnic Area and is about a 1/2 mile long. The trail is paved the entire way and is a great introduction into the San Andreas Fault Zone. This trail is kid friendly.
Morgan Horse Ranch
The ranch is home to America’s first horse breed – the Morgan horse. Park Rangers use these horses on some of the park’s trails. The ranch is positioned on top of a knoll next to the Visitor’s Center. Some of the structures are open to visitors. Additionally, the horses are available for kids to pet under the supervision of a Park Ranger. It’s quite possibly the most fun part of this area for the kiddos.
Kule Loklo Trail
Before the Europeans, Mexicans and Americans “settled” California, the Coastal Miwok were inhabitants of Marin county. The Point Reyes National Seashore pays tribute to their history and culture with a replica Miwok village. The trail is a 0.8 mile loop that takes you along pastures, through the trees, and to the village. There are interpretive signs at the village that describe the Coastal Miwok history and culture.
This 0.7 mile loop is located next to Morgan’s Ranch and travels through a small region of forest and meadows. Visitors can also take this trail to the Morgan Ranch Trail. There are interpretive signs explaining the plant and animal life in this region.
Bear Valley Trailhead
The Bear Valley Trailhead is arguably the most popular trailhead in the entire National Seashore. It leads to numerous must-see destinations in the South District. Here’s a list of popular destinations starting at this trailhead. The distances are one way:
- Divide Meadow – 1.6 miles
- Mt. Wittenberg Loop – 2.5 miles
- Sky Camp – 2.7 miles
- Arch Rock – 4.1 miles
- Glen Camp – 4.6 miles
- Sky/Bear Valley Loop – 5.25 miles
- Coast Camp – 5.8 miles
- Wildcat Camp – 6.3 miles
- Woodward Valley Loop – 6.5 miles
- Palomarin – 11.8 miles
From Sacramento – Take Highway 80 to Vallejo and exit on Highway 37 toward Novato. After 19 miles, take the Black Point/Atherton Ave exit and head for roughly 4 miles until you turn right onto Novato Blvd. Travel 6 miles and then make a left onto Point Reyes-Petaluma Road. Turn left onto Highway 1 and enter the town of Point Reyes Station. Stay on Highway 1 for 2.5 miles and then make a right onto Bear Valley Road. Look for a red barn on the left side and turn left into the Bear Valley Visitor’s Center.
From San Francisco – Take Highway 101 North and exit onto Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. Take this for 21 miles before turning right onto Highway 1 near the town of Olema. Then make the first left onto Bear Valley Road. Look for the big red barn and turn left.
When my kids and I first arrived to Point Reyes National Seashore, we were awestruck with the size of it. I had done a great deal of research in preparation for the trip but words on a website and pictures do not fully prepare you for this peninsula.
The first day, we visited the Point Reyes Lighthouse, Point Reyes Shipwreck and Nicasio Reservoir. It was on the 2nd day, a Saturday, that we went to the Bear Valley Visitor Center to explore the area and then head to Limantour Beach.
Once there, it’s easy to see why this center is the headquarters to the park. It prepares you for your Point Reyes experience unlike anywhere else in the National Seashore. The Visitor Center is next to other wonderful activities that can be enjoyed by families like the Morgan Horse Ranch and the Kule Loklo Village. Additionally, the Picnic Area is a great way to spend a nice spring afternoon. While we were there, we saw a few birthday parties and a giant BBQ.
We only got to spend three days in this National Park. Not nearly enough time to see everything. I also wasn’t able to hike the longer trails due to my seven year old insisting his feet were “falling off” from the smaller hikes. But, overall, the trip was a big success as we all enjoyed our time there.
The Bear Valley Visitor Center makes it easier to navigate and to enjoy the natural wonders of this massive National Seashore.