“The richness of this place here is not just the natural resources and wildlife, but the human history here is just as spectacular,” said Former Chief of Interpretation & Resource Education of Point Reyes National Seashore John A. Dell’Osso, who recently retired after 30 years with the Park Service. He is referring to the Coast Miwok Indians, who have enjoyed thousands of years in the captivating beauty of what is now Marin County, California.
Point Reyes, the westernmost area of Marin, has been attracting visitors to its dramatic landscape for hundreds of years. Sir Francis Drake marked the territory for Queen Elizabeth in 1579, beginning a period of European exploration and trade. The Gold Rush of the 1800s brought a wave of pioneers who found the area ideal for logging and ranching. Ranchers and dairy farmers have remained in the pastoral zone of Point Reyes to this day.
To thwart the danger posed by the steep cliffs of the Point Reyes coastline to seafarers, in 1870 the U.S. Lighthouse Service built the Point Reyes Lighthouse. It contained a first order Fresnel lens—the largest size lens designed by French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel, the same name behind old Hollywood spotlights and lighthouses the world over, including Long Island’s Fire Island Lighthouse.
The lighthouse is currently undergoing a $5-million restoration project. “Once you start to tear apart a structure that’s 150 years old and lives in salt water, you find all kinds of problems with it,” Dell’Osso said, not to mention the 1,032 pieces of crystal that make up the lens that has been disassembled.
The National Park Service expects the lighthouse to be reconstructed and open to the public this summer.
“All of the exhibit panels and the education has been redesigned and it’s going to be universally accessible,” Dell’Osso explained. The outdoor panels will include tactile models and braille, as well as digital components.
It’s great news for visitors who typically flock to the lighthouse as a main point of interest, not only for the historical value and epic panoramas, but because it is a prime location for whale watching. The California gray whale migrates approximately 10,000 miles along the Pacific Coast each year, frequently passing by Point Reyes on their journey.
Bird watchers love Point Reyes, too.
“We’ve seen over half of the species of birds in all of North American right here on this tiny peninsula,” Dell’Osso said.
In January, Point Reyes’ Drakes Beach had an invasion of elephant seals. A big storm coupled with king tides displaced a number of the creatures that can reach 20 feet long and weigh up to four tons and deposited them directly into the visitor center parking lot. Approximately 50 females gave birth and nursed the pups for about a month and a half.
“We ended up opening up the road on the weekends,” Dell’Osso said. “We had docents and rangers down there so we were still giving people tours. At ground level you could see them, hear them…smell them,” he added with a laugh.
The public went “gaga crazy” over the invasion, as did the national news media which latched onto what seemed like the only positive national parks story to occur during the government shutdown. Dell’Osso enjoyed his 15 minutes of fame giving about 75 interviews to various outlets worldwide, including a live chat with Anderson Cooper.
Point Reyes National Seashore sees about 2.5 million visitors every year. Like most national parks, once you’re in it, you’re in a pretty remote area. But it’s different from, say, Yellowstone, which is quite far from anyplace that could be considered a big city.
“We’re an hour from 8 million people,” Dell’Osso said. “People call up from the South Bay or East Bay and ask ‘what’s the weather like? Oh, that’s better than where I am’ and it’s a 40-minute or an hour drive.”
In his 30 years with the park, Dell’Osso found that one of the most popular draws for tourists was the earthquake trail located behind the Bear Valley Visitor Center. This self-guided loop trail is dotted with interpretive panels with information about the San Andreas fault and the 1906 earthquake that abruptly moved the entire Point Reyes peninsula about 16 feet northwest. Over the past 30 million years, seismic activity has moved the peninsula about 350 miles north from Southern California to where it now rests.
“The trail has a lot of historic photos and explains how the earth is continually shifting, how to prepare for earthquakes, and there’s a replicated fence that is broken apart 16 feet,” Dell’Osso said. “A lot of people come just for that.” He recalls visitors from New Zealand, Paraguay and Germany.
Other tourists are interested in the more advanced hiking trails and camp grounds amid the overall beauty of the area.
“The green is so spectacular [in the spring] because of the rainy season,” he said. “Come back in July and August and we’re called the Golden State for a reason. These grasses die back and there’s this brownish golden hue all over. We have a lot of trees around here too so a lot of that green that stays year round.”
Interestingly, the fog that hangs around in the summer months helps shield the trees from the harsh sun and keep them so green, it reminds Irish travelers of home.