Point Reyes Lighthouse is a bucket list experience, not only for its maritime history but the beautiful, natural scenery in Point Reyes National Seashore on the drive there. This 1.4-mile roundtrip hike has outstanding coastal views, whale-watching, bird-watching, and, of course, the chance to slay the moderately grueling 313 steps down to the lighthouse. Pair the hike with stops along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard like Cypress Tree Lane, South Beach, and Sea Lion Overlook, to enhance your trip.
The Riddle of the Hours – When is the Point Reyes Lighthouse Open?
It can feel like a puzzle trying to piece together the different hours for different features in the lighthouse complex. The main hours to be aware of for your hike are the lighthouse complex hours and the stairway hours. See the summary below for a full list.
The complex area west of the visitor parking lot opens daily at 6:00 a.m. and closes at 10:00 p.m. As of this writing, the stairs leading down to the lighthouse are open Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and holiday Mondays from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. The stairs close for safety if winds are higher than 40 mph, so check the weather and wind speed before you go.
Parking at the Point Reyes Lighthouse
The Lighthouse Visitor Parking Lot has 38 spaces. It is small, free, and popular! Try visiting on a Friday or holiday Monday for fewer crowds. If the weekend is your only option, arrive early—even 10:00 a.m. versus 11:00 a.m. can make a difference. If the lot is full, you can park off-road on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard if your tires are completely off the pavement. Please observe no-parking signs.
There is also an ADA-accessible parking lot 0.4 miles west of the Lighthouse Visitor Parking Lot. To reach it, pull up to the heavy chain gate next to the visitor’s lot. Unclip the chain, drive through, and reclip it. Please take care driving to the accessible parking lot as the paved road is the main pedestrian path visitors take to the lighthouse.
History of the Point Reyes Lighthouse
The Point Reyes Lighthouse was built in 1870 to help ships navigate around the Point Reyes Headlands in dangerous foggy and windy conditions and to create situational awareness for mariners along the coast through the lighthouse’s unique flash pattern.
Lighthouses became increasingly important in the mid-1800s due to an increase in sea traffic from the California Gold Rush. During that time, leading up to the lighthouse’s construction, nearly one million dollars in losses accumulated from shipwrecks around Point Reyes.
Inside the lighthouse is a first-order Fresnel lens manufactured in 1867 in Paris, France. Beginning December 1, 1870, it shone for 105 years until it was decommissioned in 1975. The light was then automated, and today it flashes from a beacon next to the lighthouse.
In 2018 and 2019 the lighthouse complex underwent a $5.7 million rehabilitation. The park restored the lighthouse’s prisms and clockworks, added concrete walkways and fencing, and painted several buildings. Five extra steps were added to the lighthouse stairway, bringing the total to 313.
Point Reyes Beach Overlook
Begin at the Lighthouse Visitor Parking Lot, crossing Sir Francis Drake Boulevard to a breathtaking overlook. Point Reyes Beach stretches over 11 miles north, with endless white foamy waves and cliff-like sand dunes. The northern tip of the peninsula in the distance is Tomales Point.
When ready, hop onto the adjacent paved road, stepping around a chain gate for ADA-accessible parking. The hiking route to the Observation Deck, the Lighthouse Visitor Center, and restrooms at the green garages are all ADA-accessible.
Hike west on the paved road, gently climbing uphill. A grassy ridge rises to the south, and ocean vistas stretch to the north. Alongside the trail, yellow bush lupine grows low to the ground. Cypress trees bend at a harsh angle above, seemingly frozen from brutal winds. Among the plant life, migrating birds rest and refuel on their fall and spring migrations along the Pacific Flyway. Down below, in the rocky headlands, birds like Common Murres and Brown Pelicans hunt for fish.
Green Garages and Lighthouse Visitor Center
At the end of the service road, the trail transitions to a flat walkway. To your left are green garages with restrooms and a water bottle refill station. This is your last chance to use a restroom before the lighthouse; it does not have any facilities. The green apartments across from the garages are private residences for park employees and volunteers.
A short stroll beyond the garages, reach the Lighthouse Visitor Center. It is generally open when the lighthouse stairway is open: Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and holiday Mondays from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Inside are exhibits about the lighthouse, ocean, and wildlife as well as books and pamphlets.
Just around the corner are the Observation Deck and stairway. The lighthouse is visible 240 feet below. On a clear day, you may see Bodega Head to the north, the Farallon Islands to the south, and Mount Tamalpais to the southeast.
The deck is also a good spot for whale-watching. Mid-January is the peak time of year to spot gray whales migrating south to their breeding and calving grounds in Baja California. Sightings peak again in mid-March as they migrate northwards with their calves to their Alaskan feeding grounds.
Next to the Observation Deck, descend 313 concrete steps to the lighthouse. The 2-foot wide stairway is enveloped in the grassy and rocky headlands, made up of Point Reyes Conglomerate and granite. Three benches are staggered alongside the stairway for rest breaks. At the bottom, a sloped walkway leads through the equipment building to the lighthouse.
Point Reyes Lighthouse
Past the equipment building, arrive at the lighthouse. The white, sixteen-sided structure stretches 35 feet tall with a red roof. Its cylindrical shape is divided into three levels. The top level is an enormous lantern with the lighthouse’s original first-order Fresnel lens, and the second level contains the lighthouse’s original clockworks.
Today the lighthouse is non-operational. To the right, however, an automated beacon maintains the lighthouse’s signature flash pattern—one flash every five seconds—from over 150 years ago. An automated fog horn sounds every 30 seconds.
Fresnel Lens and Clockworks
The first-order Fresnel lens is nine feet, seven inches tall, and six feet wide. It is divided into 24 panels and each panel has 43 prisms, adding up to 1,032 prisms. In its operating days, the lens concentrated beams of light nearly 24 miles out to sea.
The second-level chamber houses the lighthouse’s original clockworks. When the chamber is open, typically Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 1:30 p.m. – 3:30 p.m., you can see the clockworks up close and catch a glimpse of the Fresnel lens. Outside, a second-level gallery hugs the lighthouse’s edge, offering the chance to experience views as keepers once did.
When ready, retrace your steps to the parking lot.
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Summary of Hours
- The lighthouse complex area west of the Lighthouse Visitor Parking Lot is open 6:00 a.m. -10:00 p.m. daily.
- The Lighthouse Visitor Parking Lot is open 6:00 a.m. – 12:00 a.m. daily.
- The Observation Deck opens daily at 6:00 a.m. and closes at about 9:45 p.m. to allow time to get back to your vehicle before the complex closes at 10:00 p.m.
- The lighthouse stairway and the Lighthouse Visitor Center are open Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and holiday Mondays 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m., depending on staff availability. The stairway closes if winds are higher than 40 mph.
- The lighthouse’s clockwork chamber is usually open Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays 1:30 p.m. – 3:30 p.m. depending on staff availability.
Tags: coast hike, lighthouse, Marin County, maritime history, northern california, Pacific Ocean, Point Reyes National Seashore, whales