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Length 33 miles
Time 4.5 hours*
Total Climb 3300 feet
Fun Rating
Scenic Rating
Aerobic Difficulty
Technical Difficulty 
* On a road bike

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Point Reyes (road ride)

Point Reyes features no road loop opportunities worth speaking of, so if you'd like to explore this large and very scenic chunk of mostly untouched nature on a road bike, all the reasonable options will look a lot like the ride you see on this page. This ride covers almost all of the "main road" through Point Reyes, Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, while visiting a couple of the main points of interest in the area.

This particular route starts from a roadside parking area near Inverness. This stretch near a beach that Google labels as "Chicken Ranch Beach" (for which this parking area seems to be used mainly) has space for at most 15 or so cars. However, there are a number of other such roadside pockets further south along Sir Francis Drake in Inverness and none of them had any signs prohibiting or limiting parking.

It could be argued that a "more complete" road ride at Point Reyes would start from the Bear Valley Visitor Center. There's more parking available there, as well as the opportunity to see the visitor center in order to satisfy any curiosity about Point Reyes, to say nothing of the fact that this would also allow you to pedal past the cute settlement of Inverness and its quaint shops and eateries. Doing that would add about 13 miles to the ride described on this page, but more importantly, it would add to your ride what I find to be the busiest stretch of road in Point Reyes (not counting Highway 1). That segment of Sir Francis Drake doesn't exactly have very generous shoulder space either, so my main aim in starting the ride from a point past Inverness was to avoid that relatively busy (and arguably less scenic) stretch as well as keeping the ride length well below the half-century mark, which might sound subjectively intimidating to some cyclists (though the stretch between Inverness and the Bear Valley Visitor Center is essentially flat).

Other than one or two communication and US Coast Guard installations, and not counting an oyster farm or two, the land at Point Reyes is used mainly for dairy ranching. This route passes by a few of these ranches, and even right through a couple of them. This does provide a "challenging olfactory experience" once in a while, but it's not frequent enough to hurt your enjoyment of the ride. Meanwhile, the number of dairy ranches isn't enough to make the overall area feel like farmland. Your general impression will still be one of "open space" instead.

The moderate tree cover available over the first mile of the ride tapers off as soon as you crest the ridge and the amount of tree cover is nil over the rest of the route, at least until you return to that same stretch in the last mile of the ride. There aren't even too many bushes to be found across much of the area, and these grassy expanses mean that sight lines are long (at least when the fog allows it; see below). This is, therefore, a very scenic ride. You can feel a good amount of solitude on these bare coastal slopes, especially if you do the ride on a weekday when there will be even fewer cars. It's not hard to imagine yourself in some distant, stark, wind-swept land such as the coast of Scotland as you do the ride, and the fog and wind that can be so common at Point Reyes may occasionally make that sensation very authentic indeed. Interestingly, for a ride that traverses so much coastal scrubland, you don't get incessant views of the ocean as you might expect. Nominally, the ride parallels about six miles of the endless Point Reyes Beach (though from a distance), but you only get limited views of the beach down a few shallow gullies toward the coast and the occasional distant glimpse of the sea from a handful of high spots. Your intake of pretty coastal scenery will be limited mainly to the side trip to Drakes Beach and to the part of the ride in the relatively higher elevations near the lighthouse.

The entire ride takes place on two-lane roads that are wide enough to have a dividing line down the center but not wide enough to have marked shoulder space. With the exception of Drakes Beach Road, which is extra-wide for some reason, I'd say the width of the road ranges from reasonably wide to somewhat narrow. This is still enough for me to qualify the road as being moderately safe for cyclists, especially because you don't see too many drivers speeding through Point Reyes. The road is usually fairly twisty, most people come here for sightseeing, and there's usually a lot of scenery to look at as you drive.

Weather is one important detail to which you must pay attention when planning to ride at Point Reyes. Much like the rest of the Pacific coast in this area, Point Reyes can be frequently foggy and overcast, especially so over the warmest months of the year. If anything, Point Reyes is likelier than any other nearby stretch of coast to be foggy, possibly owing to its position jutting out farther into the sea. Not only that, but the parts of this peninsula that are exposed to the ocean can get seriously windy. I remember seeing signs near the lighthouse that warn visitors of gusts that can frequently reach 40 MPH. Similarly, you'll find the temperatures here to be probably the lowest of anywhere in California other than the high elevations of the Sierra Nevada range. Expect this ride route to feature temperatures 10 to 20 degrees cooler than anywhere else in the Bay Area on the same day. The difference from the temperatures of inland areas can easily be even more than that. Of course, this automatically makes this a very good ride option for a hot day. In fact, if you were to ask my advice for catching a day at Point Reyes with the highest likelihood of freedom from clouds and fog, my suggestion would be to wait for the one or two weekends we get every summer that fall on a particularly intense heat wave.

The ride takes place on terrain that is relatively flat, but never completely so. Therefore, the total elevation gain of the ride adds up to a respectable figure. Much of that arises from crossing Inverness Ridge (twice), the climb toward the slightly raised Point Reyes itself at the tip of the peninsula, and the side trip down to sea level at Drakes Beach. At least, those are the three main parts of the ride that stick out in my memory as "climbs". The climb up Inverness Ridge in the very first mile of the ride is a more significant climb than what you have to do over the same ridge on your way back at the end of the ride. You gain just under 300 feet in just over half a mile in this climb, averaging out to a grade of about 9.5%. On the way back, the climb is much longer and much gentler, barely reaching 5% in its "steepest" quarter mile, while not exceeding 4% by much the rest of the time. Toward Point Reyes, immediately after the road splits between Chimney Rock and the lighthouse, there is a quarter-mile climb whose steepest 250 yards or so averages 12% if not slightly more. You will certainly notice that one. The only other time you'll have to endure a climb like that on this ride is on your way back from Drakes Beach, when the grade actually exceeds 13% for a brief stretch, but the worst of it is over in a quarter mile. Other than these, the grade rarely reaches 10% on this ride, and when it does, it's only momentary.

While it doesn't apply to bicycles, it might be worth adding that roughly the last five miles of the route to the lighthouse is subject to seasonal closure. The closed portion begins at the junction with the road to Point Reyes Beach South, which is just half a mile past the junction with Drakes Beach Road. The dates seem to be "from late December to mid-April", and the closure is only between 9:00 AM to 5:30 PM, though I'm not sure if the implication is accurate that you can still drive your car to the lighthouse outside of those hours during the closure. In any case, you can use the road even during the closure if you're on a bike or on foot, but I just think it's worth keeping this in mind in case your ride plan may involve meeting with other people there who are to drive in. By the way, it appears that the lighthouse is still accessible to non-bikers during the closure via a shuttle from the Kenneth C. Patrick Visitor Center at Drakes Beach.

There are a few tidbits on this ride that will occupy your intellect a little, in addition to the workout that your senses and your pedaling muscles will be getting. The first of these is the radiotelephone station of the AT&T High Seas Service that you'll encounter around the 5-mile mark on the ride. This installation, built in 1929, could communicate with ships (amazingly) across the entire Pacific Ocean, apparently. And, surprisingly, it seems to have stayed in service until 1999, well into the era of satellite phones. Visually, it's not very interesting, looking like little more than a sparse cluster of wooden poles with some wires drawn from them, though there is an informative interpretive panel available by the road and the small cluster of art-deco buildings of the adjoining historic "North District Operations Center" of RCA is reached by a very picturesque tunnel of Monterey cypress trees.

The second such point of interest is Drakes Beach. This very scenic beach is the spot where you'll find a small plaque commemorating Sir Francis Drake's landing at Point Reyes in 1579 during his circumnavigation of the globe. It's not like this beach is the precise spot where he's known to have set foot on land. Actually, the fact that where he landed was Point Reyes at all is deduced only indirectly and is not entirely free of dispute. But it seems to be generally accepted that Point Reyes is the most likely area at which he described landing, and that the actual spot was somewhere in Drakes Bay. You'll also find the Kenneth C. Patrick Visitor Center at this beach, where your curiosity about this history as well as about all things Point Reyes could be satisfied. The listed hours of operation for the visitor center seem to be from 9:30 AM to 4:30 PM, and only on weekends. Note, however, that this visitor center is scheduled to be closed through most of 2014, though it will be open on weekends from June through August. (See the link for the latest information.) Meanwhile, anyone who might consider the route as it's currently shown on this page a little too physically challenging could save themselves some time and about 350 feet of climbing (and, more importantly, one of the memorably steep stretches of the ride) by skipping this side trip.

The last major highlight of the ride is, naturally, the lighthouse and the "point" of Point Reyes itself. Other than the lighthouse, you'll find a visitor center and numerous interpretive panels here to educate yourself about the lighthouse, life and work at the lighthouse, its (current and historic) fog horn, etc. For instance, one interesting bit of lighthouse trivia is about its low position very close to sea level, rather than being placed near the highest spot on the point as many might expect. Apparently, this is to improve the visibility of its light by keeping it below the typical altitude of the fog bank that so commonly covers this area. You'll also find plenty of photo ops here due to the steep and commanding geography of the point. If your ride plan will include visiting the lighthouse, you'll want to know that it is closed on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, as of this writing, and that its visiting hours are 10:00 AM to 4:30 PM.

If you look for ways of extending this ride, a few options easily come to mind. One obvious option, as I've already mentioned, would be to start and end the ride at the Bear Valley visitor center instead, at least if you're not averse to riding in busier traffic. An easy and modest addition to the ride would be to visit Chimney Rock while you're at the tip of the peninsula, in addition to the lighthouse. If you're doing the ride on a road bike, you can get as far as the historic lifeboat station there, where you might also be able to take an up-close look at some elephant seals. Reaching the very tip of that spit of land would force you to hit some dirt trails, though. If you liked riding across the coastal grazing lands on your way to the lighthouse and would like to add more of the same, one good option would be to add a third prong to this ride route by following Pierce Point Road north. You can follow this road all the way to Pierce Point Ranch, adding 18 miles to your round trip. Note, however, that this will also add a hefty 2500 feet or so to the total climb of the ride. On the positive side, though, this also means you'll be catching more wide-open views from the higher spots on this road, including some views of Tomales Bay, which the ride on this page doesn't provide. These northern parts of Point Reyes also happen to be where most of the tule elk living in this park are likely to be found, though I think you may need to leave pavement behind and continue even further north on trails in order to have any real chance of seeing them. Of course, since this route can be easily connected to Highway 1 and from there to many other Marin County backroads as well, anyone looking for serious mileage should have no difficulty in putting together a road ride of any length they may desire.

For some rest and refreshments after your ride, the options closest at hand will be in Inverness. There are a few lovely restaurants and cafes here, as well as at least one deli. Your next tier of choices will be available in the nearby Point Reyes Station. This is a cute small town that grew out of a railroad stop, as its name suggests. Today, it's a charming destination for a weekend trip and provides ample opportunities for food, drinks, window shopping, and some rest, not to mention the fact that it also features a decent bike shop. My favorite spot for espresso-based drinks here is Toby's Coffee Bar (a tiny stand tucked into Toby's Feed Barn). For a meal, the Station House Cafe is hard to fault, and they have plenty of outdoor seating. Another option I like is the Cowgirl Creamery deli in the Tomales Bay Foods building on 4th Street just off the main drag.

© Ergin Guney


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