Point Reyes National Seashore – A tame adventure on a wild coast

Earlier this May I made a much anticipated, and much overdue, trip to Point Reyes National Seashore.  Point Reyes was the second stop of a ten day trip combining family visits and outdoor adventure.  Back in 2015 I had a permit to stay at Glen Camp, but due to personal commitments and other factors, it went unused.  This time work wasn’t going to get in the way and the long wet winter and spring was, for the most part, over.

Months earlier I was able to secure a permit at the much sought after Wildcat Camp for my first night.  Before I left the city of Davis the morning of the trip I checked the weather forecast, it called for showers in the afternoon, but when I checked in at the Bear Valley Visitor Center, the main hub for trips to the Point Reyes backcountry, the weather board didn’t mention rain, though the skies were overcast.  My strategy: plan on rain and hope for sun.

It was late morning when I started on the trail from the Bear Valley Visitor Center towards Wildcat Camp.  According to the park service brochure, it is 6.3 miles to camp.  There is also a little less than a thousand feet of elevation gain, both heading to and leaving, due to going over a ridge.  The camp itself sits close to the coast.

On the trail from the Bear Valley Visitor Center you soon pass a sign which says you are entering the Phillip Burton Wilderness; however, this wasn’t like any ‘wilderness’ I was used to.

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The path was quite wide and Park Service trucks used it (I had a truck pass me), and bikes were allowed for the first three plus miles.  Bikes and trucks in the wilderness???

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A bike rack at the end of the Bear Valley Trail.

On the hike to Wildcat Camp from Bear Valley, all but a mile and a half was on road and every trail junction is well marked.  In retrospect, I should have known this, since there are toilets and potable water at each of the backcountry camps, but I never made the mental connection.

It was a pleasant walk to Wildcat Camp. Tall trees, lush vegetation, creeks, quite peaceful, and, being mid-week, not heavily populated.  My pack was on the light side, under 20 lbs. including food and water, and it was less than a three hour backpack to camp.  You don’t see the ocean until you’re about a mile from camp and, due to the topography, it’s a just a small section of the coast.

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Looking down on Wildcat Camp

Camp was quickly made, though finding my site (each group is assigned a specific site) was a challenge due to the overgrown vegetation.  I finishing setting everything up just as it started to drizzle.  Time to head for cover.  The drizzle turned to light rain so I took the opportunity to take a nice nap.

The rain stopped, and though the clouds still looked threatening.  I decided to make the mile hike down the coast to see Alamere Falls.  There aren’t too many places where you can see water cascading over a cliff into the ocean, McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is the only other one I know of in California.  The walk down the coast from Wildcat Camp to Alamere Falls was wild: wind, surf, threatening skies; at one point part of a cliff collapsed while I was walking by it.

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You can still see the dust from the rock fall.

It was this time on the coast, going to and from Alamere Falls, where I felt I was in ‘raw’ nature.  The stroll into Wildcat Camp, and Wildcat Camp itself, seemed rather tame.

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By chance I picked a time where the tide was low enough to get to the falls.  (Better to be lucky than good.)  I didn’t see another person from the time I left camp until my return. The coast, the falls, I was happily alone.  The falls were spectacular.  The sound of cascading water and pounding surf, the sun finding small gaps to show itself through the clouds, a boat a mile or so off shore.  It is moments like these which feed the soul of the adventurer.  They justify the time away from home and any expense.  Collect experiences, not things.

The tide was coming in and the sun going down, time to head back to camp.

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This path from Wildcat Camp to Alamere Falls is blocked at high tide.

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Back in camp, dinner was prepared. (i.e. Water was boiled and poured it into a bag of dehydrated food.)  After being on the wild coast I really noticed the distance between my campsite (each site has a table, grill, and food locker) and my ‘neighbors’ was small.  If two people were using the grills, they could hand things to each other.  No privacy here.

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Campsite #4 and #8.  Notice how close the grills are together.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the need to balance impact and experience, but here, and the next night at Sky Camp, I felt whoever planned this failed.  Still, if there wasn’t piped in water, people would have to get water from elsewhere or carry it in.  Without the bathrooms, the backcountry would be a mess. It’s a balancing act and it will never be perfect.  It’s just that ‘managed wilderness’ seems like an oxymoron.  Yet the wild coast beckons not too far away.

Sleep came easily that night and the next morning I was up early, packing up, and hiking out.  There was still a lot more to see and do.  More than I could possibly do with the one day and night left on this trip so instead of ‘just’ backpacking to Sky Camp, I hiked out to my car at Bear Valley, drove into Point Reyes Station for lunch (the Bovine Bakery has delicious goodies), visited Point Reyes Lighthouse, dried out all my gear, backpacked to Sky Camp, and climbed the park’s high point: Mt. Wittenberg.

Point Reyes Lighthouse

All too soon it was time to head south for the next part of my journey, but I will be returning to Point Reyes, armed with knowledge gained from this trip.  Point Reyes is a unique landscape and rich in history, and it is still embroiled in controversy on how best to manage it.  A good book on this subject is “The Paradox of Preservation: Wilderness and Working Landscapes at Point Reyes National Seashore” by Laura Alice Watt.  Be warned, this is not a quick read.  It is a very detailed, thoughtful, and thoroughly researched book.

(Special thanks to Sarah Gale Koenen for the Bovine Bakery recommendation.)