Getting to the Point

I have a very definite purpose for visiting Point Reyes, and timing is everything. The Point Reyes Lighthouse is only open for visitation Friday through Monday. Though visiting on the weekend is the worst possible time as far as crowds, the weather seems perfect. If I wait until Monday, the last open day while I am here, I could risk being denied the opportunity to visit if the weather turns. The lighthouse sits prominently perched along the steep rocky shoreline known as the windiest point along the Pacific. If the wind gets high enough, they shut down the 300 stairs leading down to the lighthouse.

But never fear, because it’s a glorious Sunday morning in the Olema Campground. Not a cloud in the sky, and already the sun is baking down on my bare limbs as I pack the Tracker for my day trip. There are several hiking trails out near the lighthouse that I want to explore while I am out on the point, so I pack a picnic lunch. Typically, my “hikers lunch” is a peanut butter sandwich….with jam if I want to splurge. But yesterday was the Point Reyes Farmers Market, and I bought myself some special treats. Homemade whole-wheat bread laced with apricots and pecans, triple cream brie from Cowgirl Creamery, and figs soaked in Port wine as a garnish. I even bring along a split of Sauvignon Blanc, knowing a hike will be sufficient in walking it off before my drive back.

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Although it’s only 20 miles from Olema Campground to the Point Reyes Lighthouse, the park brochure says to “allow an hour.” The road is extremely curvy, narrow, and traverses over some rough stretches worn down by the many herds of dairy cattle crossing the road.

There are fields of this Coastal Lupine growing all over the hills.

There are fields of this Coastal Lupine growing all over the hills.

The fragrance is faint, but sweet if you can get close without sniffing a bee!

The fragrance is faint, but sweet if you can get close without sniffing a bee!

It’s a lovely drive until I crest a hill about three quarters of the way there and I am met with a gust which just about blows the Little Tracker backwards. Then comes the fog. Rolling, billowing fog, blowing across the road like a Sahara sandstorm. By the time I reach the turnoff for the lighthouse, I can barely see the road, and the field grasses and coastal lupine are bent at a 90 degree angle. I’ve gone from summer to winter in just a few short miles.

Trust me, it's much worse than it looks!

Trust me, it’s much worse than it looks!

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The 300 stairs leading down to the lighthouse. Some kind of red lichen or algae is growing all over these rocks.

The 300 stairs leading down to the lighthouse. Some kind of red lichen or algae is growing all over these rocks.

It is still a half mile walk from the lighthouse parking lot to the stairs above the lighthouse. It is FREEZING, and I am wearing shorts! I wrap a bandana around my head to try to stay warm and keep my hair from whipping me in the face. I look around the Tracker to see if by some miracle there is something in there I can use for cover…a plastic table cloth and a life jacket. I have a chuckle thinking perhaps the life vest would be the better choice in case I blow off the stairs!

My first glimpse. Ain't she a beaute?

My first glimpse. Ain’t she a beaute?

The smell of the salty sea air is intoxicating!

The smell of the salty sea air is intoxicating!

Showing a bit of rust on her iron tower, but it only adds to her character.

Showing a bit of rust on her iron tower, but it only adds to her character.

As I am walking the half mile from the parking lot, I meet a man coming in the opposite direction, so I ask, “Are the stairs still open?” He says “Yes, but the Ranger just clocked the wind at 39mph, and they close the stairs when it reaches 40. So you’d better hurry!” I take off as fast as I can walk, hoping to also warm up as I go.

I reach the top of the long winding staircase that leads down to the lighthouse, positioned at the bottom of the cliff to be visible below the fog layer. There is not another person in sight, so I take off down the stairs quickly before they have a chance to turn me back. 😉

I wouldn't want the job of painting on the cliff of the windiest point in the USA.

I wouldn’t want the job of painting on the cliff of the windiest point in the USA.

Inside, the original light keepers desk contains passages from the log telling tales of alcoholism and mental illness due to near intolerable conditions. Understandable if you could hear the screaming wind!

Inside, the original light keepers desk contains passages from the log telling tales of alcoholism and mental illness due to near intolerable conditions. Understandable if you could hear the screaming wind!

The aroma of the salty sea permeates the air making me want to inhale, though the biting, brutal wind makes it difficult. I take shelter in the equipment room, all alone as I stand at the antique desk while listening to the wind screaming through the 140 year old paned windows. I read entries from the 1875 log telling accounts of light keepers gone mad, “Oh, solitude, where are the charms that sages have such in thy face? Better to dwell in the midst of alarms than reign in this horrible place.” ~September 21, 1885. It’s cold, it’s bleak and it’s damp, and I think “if I can’t be here on a sunny day, then I am glad it is in the worst of theatrical conditions!” The sound effects of the wind. The visuals of the rolling fog. It’s a wild and wonderful place!

In spite of the conditions outside, inside the lens room, the 6,000 Fresnel lens is in phenomenal shape!

In spite of the conditions outside, inside the lens room, the 6,000 Fresnel lens is in phenomenal shape!

The First Order lens (largest made) was in service from 1870 to 1975.

The First Order lens (largest made) was in service from 1870 to 1975.

Counterweight clockwork rotated the lens to give a one-second flash every five seconds that could be seen for 24 nautical miles.

Counterweight clockwork rotated the lens to give a one-second flash every five seconds that could be seen for 24 nautical miles.

Made of iron and literally bolted to the cliff, this war horse of a lighthouse has withstood winds up to 133 mph. I step outside to brave the wind and photograph the light structure with a death grip on my camera, when a Ranger steps out from behind and scares me as if I had seen a ghost. I thought I was all alone. The lens room doesn’t open for another 4 hours, so I didn’t expect to see her there.

Point Reyes Lighthouse sits at the tip of a "spit" that looks like an upside down "T." At the opposite end is Chimney Rock hike and Elephant Seal viewing area.

Point Reyes Lighthouse sits at the tip of a “spit” that looks like an upside down “T.” At the opposite end is Chimney Rock hike and Elephant Seal viewing area.

What looks like logs on the beach is actually elephant seals.

What looks like logs on the beach is actually elephant seals.

You can hear them "barking" long before you can see them. There are many out cavorting in the water.

You can hear them “barking” long before you can see them. There are many out cavorting in the water.

Since we are the only two on the grounds, she unlocks the door and lets me get a glimpse of the First Order Fresnel Lens. Sometimes, they are merely spectacular, and then there are times when they are downright enchanting. I am certain I gasped as she opened the door. Fillirg the entire doorway were 1,032 sections of hand cut crystal held together in the shape of a beehive by gleaming mirror-like brass. The clockworks were in Bristol condition, as was the fire-engine red pedestal and shiny brass nameplate showing date and location of manufacture, “Paris, 1867.” Although the light was replaced in 1975 by an automated beacon, I love that they left this 6,000 lb Fresnel, a work of art, in its original position rather than relocate it to a museum as some lighthouses have done.

It's a gorgeous ridge-line hike out to Chimney Rock.

It’s a gorgeous ridge-line hike out to Chimney Rock.

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The "stack" on the right is the namesake for the hike.

The “stack” on the right is the namesake for the hike.

These docks are serving as cormorant runways.

These docks are serving as cormorant runways.

After the blustery climb back up the 300 stairs and half mile walk back to the Tracker, I head to the Chimney Rock trail and elephant seal viewing area. However, my plans for a picnic are still laughable, as the cold wind and fog prevail. But where better to enjoy my “ploughman’s lunch” than from the drivers seat of my black and white car camouflaged amidst the dairy farms dotted with black and white cows!

The hills are alive with the smell of dairy cows.

The hills are alive with the smell of dairy cows.

This "Mt Tam" cheese from Cowgirl Creamery is heavenly!

This “Mt Tam” cheese from Cowgirl Creamery is heavenly!

Especially on crusty bread with a port-soaked fig on top!

Especially on crusty bread with a port-soaked fig on top!

....till the cows come home.

I could sit here….till the cows come home.

23 thoughts on “Getting to the Point

  1. Oh so amazing. I know Nina writes of these historic lighthouses often, but I have never experienced the Fresnel lenses quite the way you showed it. Loved the photos and the detail! I definitely will have to make the trip to Point Reyes and try to see the lighthouse. And the lunch?! Wow…fit for a queen, as you are, the queen of amazing travel stuff. Loved this story, Suzanne, but then again I love almost all your stories.

  2. I loved this post Suzanne. So glad you got to see the lighthouse. We had the pleasure of watching whales from the lighthouse when we visited. Your lunch looks divine! Love that last photo and caption. :)

  3. I think visiting on such a blustery day was actually great. More dynamic and dramatic. Looks like a perfect windswept spot for a lonely lighthouse. Too bad about the folks who had trouble with the isolation and the wind though, I bet that wind could get hard to take after a while!

  4. Suzanne, you’re simply the best. With your photos and their spot-on composition. With your words and all they evoke. Not to mention your food and beverage choices. All I can say is “thank you” for the privilege to travel along with you.

  5. Beautiful photos, Suzanne – I am beginning to appreciate lighthouses and the Fresnel lenses. New to me. I just enjoyed the look of lighthouses from the outside and, of course, the scenery around them. Like the cow photos and you lunch looks divine. Thank you for sharing

  6. Great coastal scenery and I like the way the trees are bent by the winds. That’s a good shot of the bent tree and the hut. Ummm cheese and port soaked figs….it can only be bettered by just having the port to accompany it.

  7. The wind was much the same when Bobbie and I visited. It stuck in my mind how rural it was going out that curvy road, and not all that far from San Fran. I remember feeling sorry for the cows, having to live in such wind. The beached boat photo made me gasp!
    Box Canyon Mark

  8. On our trip to Point Reyes a few years back, the stairs were closed. Yes, it was cold and windy and coming from Sacramento we had worn summer clothes. I’m glad you were able to see it all and thanks for sharing it with us!

    • Rene, the Ranger at the lighthouse gave me an interesting tip. Since their webcam was broken, she said a good way to know if the weather was bad at the lighthouse was to check the weather in Sacramento. If it was hot there, then Point Reyes was likely socked in with cold fog. I found that interesting…

  9. Great story! You had me on the edge of my seat. Will she make it/won’t she? So glad she did. Braving those conditions really does give you a real feel for what the keepers’ lives were like. Your photographs of the lens are spectacular. I too really wish they’d leave the lenses in the lighthouses rather than put them in museums. But I am a lighthouse lover. I’d like to nominate you as chef of all my future lunches please. Your sandwich picture made my mouth water.

  10. Yet another wonderful light house to notch your belt. And a very lovely one at that. You certainly have been exercising the persistence gene! By the way I am now the proud owner of a recipe for pickled raisins that you love….

  11. The first photo of the listing dory is a composition masterpiece. It would look beautiful framed and on someone’s wall.

    Chris

  12. Guess those “flag” trees tell a leaning story about the coastal winds there. How very cool that you got a private tour. Photos of the Fresnel lenses is awesome.

    • Thanks for the suggestion, Lisa. I did the hike to the Dungeness Lighthouse in 2014. It was a beautiful spot. Unfortunately, not many of those places take singles, as they don’t want one person taking up space that would typically have “four hands” instead of two. But yes, it would be fun!

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