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 Point Reyes, CA    
A hike of some distance required.Interior open or museum on site.Lighthouse appeared in movie.
Description: Considered one of the foggiest and windiest stations in the U.S., Point Reyes inspired Lightkeeper Edwin G. Chamberlain to record the following prose in the station’s logbook:
Point Reyes Lighthouse

Solitude, where are thy charms
that sages have seen in thy face?
Better dwell in the midst of alarms
than reign in this horrible place.

So city, friendship, and love
Divinely bestowed upon man,
O’had I the wings of a dove,
How I would taste you again.

In 1595, the Spanish galleon San Agustin sought shelter from a storm. Thinking Point Reyes was an island rising from the sea, the captain ran his ship aground in Drakes Bay, becoming the first recorded shipwreck on the west coast. Despite many subsequent shipwrecks, the point would remain unmarked for 275 years.

Point Reyes was named by Sebastian Vizcaino, who sailed along the California coast in 1603. On January 6, the twelfth day of Christmas, Vizcaino passed the peninsula and called it "Punto de los Reyes," for the Feast of Three Kings.

A lighthouse was assigned to Point Reyes in 1855, but construction was delayed for fifteen years while the Lighthouse Board wrangled with landowners over a fair price for the land. Fourteen shipwrecks occurred in the years the price was under dispute.

The original plan for the Point Reyes Lighthouse was a two-story dwelling with an integral tower, much like those built at Point Pinos and Old Point Loma, which would be located on top of the bluff at Point Reyes. However, a lesson was learned from Point Bonita that fog could obscure an elevated light, and the plan was revamped to place the light 275 feet lower. Two terraces were carved out of the cliffs: one at 100 feet above the sea for the fog signal building and a second one 150 feet higher for the light tower. A 300-step wooden stairway was built into the cliff to reach the tower from the top of the bluff, and 338 more steps were required to reach the fog building.

Point Reyes Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy Library of Congress
The lighthouse is a sixteen-sided, 37-foot, iron tower, a twin of Cape Mendocino, and was anchored to the cliff with large bolts. It still shelters the first-order Fresnel lens manufactured by Barbier and Fenestre that was first lit on December 1, 1870. The lens consists of twenty-four bull’s-eye panels held in place by a brass frame, and when revolved at the rate of one revolution every two minutes, it produced a white flash for mariners once every five seconds.

A two-story, spacious dwelling was built for the keepers on top of the bluff where the present park service housing is located. Nearby, a huge cistern and associated concrete rain catchment basin were constructed to provide water for the keepers and the thirsty steam fog signal. The collected rainwater was not always sufficient for the station’s needs, and one year a local rancher had to haul over twenty thousand gallons to the station to help mother nature fill the cistern.

Point Reyes was not an envied lightkeeper assignment. 40 mph winds are common, and gusts have been reported as high as 133 mph. Fog is also a frequent guest. It is not unusual to have over 2,100 hours of fog annually. One time, the keepers recorded 176 hours of continuous fog (7 days, eight hours). 24,640 lbs of coal were used in that week alone to keep the fog signal blowing. Over a thirty-one-year period, Point Reyes had the highest annual average hours of fog on the west coast at 1,337 hours, or fifteen percent of the time. In 1887, the San Francisco Chronicle reported, "When the storms are their worst, spray dashes up two hundred feet… [the keeper's] only safety is in crawling on hands and knees up and down … the stairs."

The incredible weather at Point Reyes attracted the presence of two other governmental entities as well. In 1901, the Weather Bureau built a station at the head of the stairs leading to the lighthouse. Storm warning flags were flown from the summit of the point to alert mariners of approaching foul weather. The Life-saving Service opened a station on Point Reyes Beach, just two and one-half miles north of the lighthouse, in 1890. This station was in operation until the Coast Guard opened a lifeboat station on Drake’s Bay in 1927. That same year, modern communications eliminated the need for the weather station at Point Reyes, and the building was subsequently used as a dwelling by the lightkeepers.

In 1927, Keeper Fred Kreth attempted to save three fishermen whose boat had hit the rocks at the point and left them stranded at the bottom of the cliff. Kreth rappelled 200 feet down the cliff, and when he could go no further, he untied the rope around his waist, braced himself on a thin ledge, then threw the rope down 50 more yards and somehow pulled all three to safety. The Coast Guard had also responded to the incident, but the surf proved too high for a sea rescue. Frustrated, the Coast Guardsmen returned to their station and tried to reach the stranded fishermen by land. One Coast Guardsman descended down the rocky face to the beach where the fishermen were stranded only to find it deserted. The three missing fishermen were soon found at the lighthouse receiving care from Keeper Kreth.

Point Reyes Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
Numerous keepers served at the Point Reyes Lighthouse since it was typically staffed by a head keeper and three assistants. The first head keeper was John C. Bull, and the last keeper serving under the Lighthouse Service was Gustav Zetterquist, who arrived in 1930 as an assistant keeper and remained until 1951. This wasn’t the longest tenure at the station as Paulus Nilsson signed on as first assistant in 1897, became head keeper in 1909, and served until he suffered a fall on February 18, 1921 and died three days later. Tom Smith was the last officer-in-charge for the Coast Guard at Point Reyes.

By 1934, the fog signal had been relocated from the lower terrace to a new structure built just below the lighthouse. Electricity came to the lighthouse in 1938, and concrete steps were built into the cliff in 1939. The original keeper’s dwelling was razed in 1960, and a four-unit apartment was built in its place. The station was automated on June 12, 1975, but the beacon tower, clockwork mechanism, and original Fresnel lens were left intact. All of the station's eighty-two acres save the tower and keepers' residence were turned over to the National Park Service to become part of the Point Reyes National Seashore. The park service opened the station to the public on August 15, 1977.

In 2003, major renovation work was done at the station. Costing $1.2 million and taking six months to complete, the project included repairing the existing buildings and replacing the 300+ steps leading to the tower.

Point Reyes is maintained by the National Park Service and is part of the Point Reyes National Seashore. Spring finds Point Reyes wrapped in a beautiful green Scottish landscape. If you come between January and April, chances are you'll see a few grey whales spouting away in their annual Alaska-Mexico migration.

Head Keepers: John C. Bull (1870 – 1875), William Wadsworth (1875 – 1876), J. Middleton (1876), J. B. Parker (1876 - 1877), William James Edward Hobbose (1877 – 1880), R. H. Pooles (1880 – 1882), Edwin G. Chamberlin (1882 – 1887), John C. Ryan (1887 – 1889), George A. Hussey (1889 – 1891), Thomas J. Brown (1891 – 1901), James Anderson (1901 – 1909), Paulus Nilsson (1909 – 1921), William H. Hicks (1921 - ), Emory Vradenburg (at least 1930), Herman J. Pfleghaar (at least 1938 - at least 1940), Gustav Zetterquist ( - 1951).

Photo Gallery: 1 2 3 4 5

References

  1. Lighthouses and Lifeboats on the Redwood Coast, Ralph Shanks, 1978.
  2. Umbrella Guide to California Lighthouses, Sharlene and Ted Nelson, 1999.

Location: Point Reyes National Seashore is located roughly 22 miles north of San Francisco off Highway 1.
Latitude: 37.9955
Longitude: -123.02325

For a larger map of Point Reyes Lighthouse, click the lighthouse in the above map or get a map from: Mapquest.


Travel Instructions: From San Francisco, take Highway 101 north to the Mill Valley/Highway 1 turn off just after Sausalito. Take Highway 1 north for 27.8 miles, passing through Stinson Beach and Olema. After Olema, but before Point Reyes Station, turn left on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and follow it approximately 20 miles until it terminates at the lighthouse parking area. Sir Franics Drake Boulevard will become Lighthouse Road about 1.5 miles before the parking area. It is roughly a half-mile, up-hill walk to the lighthouse visitor's center, and then a steep descent down over 300 stairs to the actual lighthouse. Access down the stairs to the Point Reyes Lighthouse is restricted when wind speeds exceed 40 miles per hour. The lens room is open as weather and staffing permits.

The visitor center at the top of the stairs and the lighthouse are open all year, Thursday through Monday from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Special, evening illuminations of the lens occur on the first and third Saturdays of each month, mid-April through December. Reservations are required for these tours and can be made by calling (415) 669-1534.

The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard but managed by the National Park Service as part of the Point Reyes National Seashore. Grounds open, tower open.

Find the closest hotels to Point Reyes Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Kraig writes:
This really is one of the windiest places. During multiple visits to this lighthouse, the wind speed was right around 40 mph, and they had to restrict access down the steps to the lighthouse. The highest wind speed ever recorded at Point Reyes is an amazing 133 mph. When you add rain to the high wind, it can make for a rather unpleasant but memorable experience.

Point Reyes Lighthouse can be seen in the 1980 movie "The Fog," wherein it is used as the home of radio station KAB 1340. Stevie Wayne broadcasts a "Night Light" program each evening from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. and helps the townspeople try to avoid the fog when it descends on Antonio Bay.

Marilyn writes:
There is a sign at the top of the stairs informing you that climbing the stairs to the lighthouse requires a strenuous effort and is equivalent to a 30-story building. Don't be discouraged by the notice, as there are three fenced-in resting places along the journey where you can catch your breath and enjoy the remarkable views.
Joanne writes:
As you transit the Point Reyes Peninsula en route to the lighthouse, you will pass through several "historic ranches," named with a single letter of the alphabet, that date back to about the same time the lighthouse was built. A parcel of land from Ranch G was acquired for use as a ship-to-shore radio station. You can still see the tall antennas, and a pullout along the road provides more information about the station. Another fun diversion on the peninsula is a drive to its northern tip, where there is a wild herd of Tule elk.

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Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.