Discovering Point Reyes Lighthouse

By Sunny Lockwood

An hour’s drive north of San Francisco spreads the 71,068-acre triangle of wild coastline, forests and grasslands known as Point Reyes National Seashore. On its windy, rugged headlands stands the Point Reyes Lighthouse, beckoning visitors who don’t mind a little strenuous exercise.

Copyright 2009 by Merikay McLeod All rights reserved First electronic printing, September 2009

August, the month of unrelenting late-summer heat in the Gold Rush foothills of central California. When I climb into my car at 6:30 a.m. the temperature is already in the low 80s. Miserable is the only word for it. Our rolling foothills and meadows are mustard yellow, buff and various shades of brown after a summer of scorching sun. Even the green oak leaves are dusty and brittle from the constant heat. So, in an attempt to escape, Sweetheart Al and I took off for the northern California coast. We drove our 18-foot travel trailer to the tiny town of Olema, on the edge of Point Reyes National Seashore. Our trailer is stocked with books and writing material for me, film and camera equipment for him, and all our favorite foods – our little dream home on wheels! We eagerly traded the scorched yellows and browns of the foothills for the thick, gray, chilly fog of the Marin County coast. For a few days we explored Point Reyes National Seashore, from the lighthouse (at the farthest point west) to Bolinas (full of aging hippies and motorcycles) at the farthest point south to the Pierce Ranch at the farthest point north. The 71,068-acre park was green and moist and refreshing. We had to wear sweaters to keep warm and that was wonderful! My most memorable experience was at the lighthouse. Visiting it turned out to be a real endurance test. It took about 45 minutes to drive to the lighthouse parking lot from Bear Valley Visitor Center just west of Olema. The narrow, paved road dipped and climbed and wound through numerous ranches with their herds of dairy and beef cattle. When we finally got to the lighthouse parking lot, it

was packed. And there was a line of cars waiting for someone to pull out. We waited about 15 minutes. From the parking lot, it was about a half-mile walk up to the lighthouse visitor center and gift shop. The walk was cold, windy and very foggy. I doubt we could see more than 50 feet ahead. The wind gusted so that at times I felt like it might blow me over. According to park information, the winds are commonly about 40 miles per hour, but gales of 75 – 100 miles per hour are not rare. When they were building the place back in 1870, the wind blew many workers’ tools off the cliffs. Today, when wind speeds exceed 40 mph, the park closes the stairway to the lighthouse. Despite the wind and fog, we made it to the gift shop at the top of the cliff. Because Al’s knee was recovering from surgery, he stayed at the shop while I made the lighthouse trek. The “trek” is 308 steps down, plus some stretches with no steps, just slanting cement. It’s a strenuous endeavor -- the equivalent of walking down (and climbing back up) a 30-story building. According to the National Park Service, they built the lighthouse 30 stories below the top of the cliff, so that its light was beneath the high heavy fog. This is the windiest place on the Pacific Coast and the second foggiest place on the North American Continent. So I walked down the steps, taking photos, and listening to the sea lions, calling loudly and constantly from the nearby rocks. One thing that amazed me was, despite the fog and wind and ocean, the air smelled strongly of cow manure.

Rugged, craggy cliffs dropped starkly into the roiling sea, where wild waves smashed enthusiastically against everything. The heavy fog painted the world in a muted, monochromatic (and moist) gray. This Point Reyes Lighthouse served mariners for 105 years (from 1870 to 1975). One of the most interesting facts I learned is that the lighthouse endured the April 18, 1906, earthquake, during which the Point Reyes Peninsula and the lighthouse moved north 18 feet in less than a minute. And the only damage to the lighthouse during that quake was that the lens slipped off its track. And the guys got it back on track quickly. After wandering around and taking photos, I started back up the 308 steps. Although I’m in fairly good shape, that stairway was quite a climb! I didn’t stop to rest. I just kept placing one foot in front of the other, and breathing in time with my walking, but, man, it was a slog! By the time I reached the top, I was spent! I had to sit and let the fog cool me off for at least five minutes. Al teased me about my face being all red. (Well, so was everyone else’s as they struggled, huffing and puffing, up the stairs. Everyone except for the cute little kidlets who loved running up and down the steps, a few at a time!) After the lighthouse, we walked along two nearly vacant beaches, and watched and listened to the huge, long, high waves boom and sizzle on the hard-packed sand. Back at Olema, after a light supper, I was so tired I told Al I had to go to bed. “You can’t go to bed now, it’s only 6:30,” he said. I couldn’t believe it was that early. I felt exhausted. But, I couldn’t go to bed at 6:30p.m., so I read a little and struggled to keep my eyes open for as long as I could. But, I was way too tired! By 7 p.m. I just couldn’t stay

awake. I climbed into bed, with Al laughing in the background, and conked out immediately. When I next opened my eyes, it was 7:30 in the morning. I couldn’t believe I slept so soundly for 12 long, wonderful, luxurious hours! I’m pretty sure we’ll go to Point Reyes National Seashore again next year to escape the August heat. But I doubt I’ll do the lighthouse endurance test again. Once was great. And once was enough.

Heading back up into the fog after exploring the Point Reyes Lighthouse.

The Point Reyes Lighthouse is a 37-foot high, 16-sided iron structure built in 1870. Its lens and mechanism were constructed in France in 1867. The 6,000 pound lens is a “first order” (meaning, largest size) Fresnel lens. Before August Fresnel (pronounced Fray-nal) developed his lens, lighthouses used mirrors to reflect light out to sea. The Fresnel lens intensifies the light by bending and magnifying it through crystal prisms into concentrated beams. The Point Reyes lens is divided into 24 vertical patterns that direct the light into 24 individual beams. The jewel like lens, mounted in a brass framework, stands 7-feet, 11-inches high and 6-feet, 1-inch wide. Using mirrors, the most effective lighthouses could only be seen 8-12 miles away. The Fresnel Lens enabled the Point Reyes light to be seen all the way to the horizon – about 24 nautical miles. The Fresnel lens was first lit Dec. 1, 1870. In the beginning, refined lard oil was used to fire the lamp’s four wicks. Later mineral oil was used. Electricity came to the lighthouse in 1938. The Point Reyes Lighthouse served mariners until 1975 when operations were automated.

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