I spent my youthful summers in West Marin and on the Point Reyes National Seashore, two adjoining rural areas of Marin County, approximately 45 miles north of San Francisco. This area is where I learned to swim, kayak, and body surf. It is where I had my first jobs (dairy ranch hand by day and restaurant dishwasher by night). It is where I met my first girlfriend, as a young teen. I have returned time and again over the ensuing decades and have never been disappointed. My adult travels back to this lovely place are for the views, vistas, hikes, restaurants, lodging, and memories. I know West Marin well and hope to share with you how and where to spend one terrific day there on a day trip from San Francisco.
Assuming a mid-morning start from San Francisco, there are several routes that one could take after crossing the Golden Gate Bridge on U.S. 101. The most common two are up California Highway 1 and along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard (SFDB). Highway 1 is more scenic but has a reputation for inducing nausea due to many tight twists and turns. SFDB is a bit quicker, cutting through several towns in central Marin before heading out into the country. If taking the SFDB route, plan on about 45 minutes to the small village of Olema, a somewhat arbitrary southern boundary of West Marin. Highway 1 might take 15–30 minutes longer to arrive in Olema, but the views of the Pacific Ocean and coastline on this winding road are something to behold.
First Stop: Point Reyes Station
Several miles beyond Olema is the town of Point Reyes Station, small but still the largest town in West Marin. Its agricultural roots show, but the town now has more of a hippie-artisanal scene. Great stop to stretch your legs and get a snack. I recommend the Bovine Bakery or Cow Girl Creamy Barn Stop and Cantina. Walk around town a bit. It won’t take long.
Next Up: Point Reyes Lighthouse
Backtrack a half mile or so to Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, then drive north along the riparian areas of Lagunitas Creek and wetlands of southern Tomales Bay. This is a 20-mile (40-minute) drive. Notice the difference between the tree-covered Point Reyes Peninsula and the land on the east side of Tomales Bay. They are on separate tectonic plates: Point Reyes sits on the Pacific plate while land on the far side of the bay is part of the North American plate. The dividing line is the San Andreas Fault Zone, which runs under Tomales Bay. Different geology, different soil, different natural history. Refer to this article (PDF) by the United States Geological Survey for an exceptional description and details on the geology of the Point Reyes Peninsula.
The drive to the lighthouse is bucolic. SFDB hugs Tomales Bay for the first 7–8 miles, passing through the villages of Inverness Park and Inverness, so named by early Scottish settlers who were reminded of home around Inverness, Scotland. The road tucks west and climbs uphill just beyond Chicken Ranch Beach. This beach is great for swimming, sunning, and picnics. The remaining 10–12 miles on this narrow two-lane road will flatten out but continue with a few too many bends and curves. Most of this land is occupied by dairy farms (including one I worked for as a teenager) despite the fact that the Point Reyes National Seashore now owns all of this part of the peninsula. The Pacific Ocean can be seen intermittently to the west as the road leads toward the lighthouse. There are several turnoffs to rugged ocean beaches if you wish to stop and indulge. Pressing on, the land grows wilder as the road grows smaller and more desolate.
I always develop a sense of anticipation approaching the end of the road and eventually the parking lot about 0.65 miles from the lighthouse. From there it is an easy, slightly inclined walk to the visitor center. (Accessible parking is about a quarter mile further up the road, through an unlocked gate.)
This land has a mysterious quality. Exhilarating! In a poetic nod, some have called it “an island in time.” Frequently, the weather is cruel, quite windy, foggy, and cold. And that provides one type of marvelous experience. Another experience, and one that makes for my favorite day in West Marin, is to visit on a crisp, clear, sunny day, found most often during the winter months. A moderate to strong wind is often blowing in both fair weather and foul. But in fair weather, it feels better: brisk and refreshing. And the air is clean and alive. The views are extraordinary: land, sky, and sea.
This part of the peninsula, called a promontory or headland, juts 10 miles out into the ocean. Hence the need for a lighthouse! I kid that on a clear day, from the observation deck at the visitor center, I can see as far south as LA and as far north as Seattle. And Hawaii to the west! The land projects so far out from the mainland and one is nearly surrounded by water it feels as if one is almost at sea. I sailed the Pacific Ocean for two years on a U.S. Coast Guard cutter. My sense standing at lands-end above the lighthouse on Point Reyes is similar to being in the middle of the Pacific.
With luck, you will see grey whales passing by, often close in. Peak winter migration is in January. Fun to see. And the birds are myriad. Most are far below, closer to the sea than the observation deck, so the usual perspective is different, to say the least. One could spend hours here watching the ocean and surrounding environment, but there is more to see, more to do on this great day in West Marin.
This resource from the National Park Service provides details for planning and enjoying a trip to Point Reyes Lighthouse
On To Lunch: Tomales Bay
There are a number of restaurants in West Marin. Most are good. Several are excellent. One, The Marshall Store, was listed in The New York Times as one of the top 50 in America in October 2021. I have never been there, but the menu is awesome if you appreciate oysters, seafood, outdoor sitting, bayside ambiance, and very reasonable prices.
There is another restaurant, in particular, that I favor: Nick’s Cove. It is 33 miles from the lighthouse (a drive of nearly an hour) and located on the northern end of the east side of Tomales Bay. The drive passes within feet of most other restaurants in the area, but the extra time taken to get to Nick’s Cove is worth it. (FYI: The Marshall Store is only 5 minutes away from Nick’s Cove, if it suits you better.)
The drive is slow, twisty, and exceptionally beautiful. Backtrack through Inverness and Point Reyes Station and head north on California 1 alongside Tomales Bay. The road parallels the bay for the most part. Notice how the lands of the North American Plate are very different than those of the Pacific Plate. I love the contrast and anticipate with relish the drive north each time.
Nick’s Cove is an honest, hard-working place. It is located on the bay with a pier on which you may walk with a drink to sip and savor the sights while waiting for your meal. Indoor and outdoor dining. Lodging is available here, too, if this is where you wish to end your day. The cottages sitting on pilings over the bay are my favorite. About 100 feet south of the restaurant. The lilt and lap of water on the pilings at high tide are lyrical, soothing, and relaxing. Sleeping there is lovely.
And the food. Simple. Consistent. Delicious. Oysters, cioppino, chowder, lobster poutine, fish tacos, grass-fed burgers, and on and on. Good stuff. Full bar. Something for everyone.
The Drive Back
One option is to return back down Highway 1 to SFDB into central Marin, then San Francisco. I’d take another path. About 3 miles south of Nick’s Cove, a road takes off east (left) up a hill: Marshall-Petaluma Road. About 23 miles long. This is one of the prettiest country roads I have ever traveled. Go slow. The road is a favorite route for bicyclists. You will be rewarded for this choice. It struck me as a Brigadoon moment: soft, undulating hills, green meadows and fields, serenity: a “peaceful easy feeling!” Run with this until Petaluma, then negotiate a way to Highway 101 South and back to San Francisco.
There are many fine day trips from San Francisco and many fine ways to spend a day in West Marin and the Point Reyes National Seashore, such as sailing, swimming, kayaking, hiking, and kicking back with a good book and glass of wine (or lemonade). But this one is my favorite.