California: Point Reyes National Seashore

Member of the Point Reyes Life-Saving Service
Member of the Point Reyes Life-Saving Service

Courtesy of National Park Service

Located just north of California’s San Francisco Bay, Point Reyes National Seashore encompasses over 100 square miles (just over 71,000 acres) of coastal wilderness area. The park preserves the natural ecosystems, native species and cultural heritage found along the diminishing undeveloped western coastline of the United States. Vast windswept beaches, scrub grasslands, salt and freshwater marshes, coniferous forests and striking granite headlands characterize the peninsula, which is home to over 1,000 species of plants and animals. In addition to the area’s incredible natural beauty, Point Reyes is home to a unique set of cultural resources, which highlight the many layers of human history present in the region.

The park contains twelve historic cultural landscapes and many buildings and structures listed in the National Register of Historic Places, from farmhouses, barns and creameries to a lighthouse and radio station. The park truly exemplifies centuries of cultural connection to the land and sea along the central California coastline. Visitors today have an opportunity to experience how the coastal peninsula has been shaped by many converging traditions, life ways, economies and technologies, brought to the region from great distances or established along its shores.

Coastal Miwok at Point Reyes

The earliest known human inhabitants of what is now the National Seashore were the Miwok American Indians, indigenous people who thrived within the fertile and biologically dynamic region. The Miwok lived along the central Californian coast for thousands of years before European contact, building small communities and developing rich economies based on gathering, fishing and hunting. They were prolific farmers and craftspeople who used native grasses, gray willow, hazel, lupine and tule to create thatched roofs, mats and baskets. Polished and carved abalone and clam shells were used to craft beaded decorations and make currency.

Sir Francis Drake is believed to have been the first European to make contact with the Miwok, when in 1579, he stopped along the craggy coast during his circumnavigation of the globe. After camping along the beach, which today bears his name, he claimed the land for Queen Elizabeth before returning to sea. Meanwhile the Spanish had also been sending ships along the Pacific Coast for many years and conducting overland exploratory missions, heading northwest from Mexico. In 1603, explorer Sebastian Vizcaino first sighted the rocky headlands along the Miwok-inhabited coast. He named the impressive cliffs “la Punta de los Reyes” (Point of the Kings) after the three wise men of the Catholic faith. Contact between the two cultures increased over the next decades, and trade of Spanish metal goods for fine Miwok baskets continued through the next century.

By the mid-1700s, however, the traditional Miwok population along the Pacific coast was waning due to increased disease and displacement brought about by increased Spanish settlement. Several Catholic missions established in the Point Reyes region introduced Christianity to the Miwok people and often forcibly removed them from their land. Spanish settlers and immigrants overtook and transformed what had once been strictly Miwok territory by the early 1800s.

Today the Miwok still live in the Point Reyes area with roughly 500 members registered as members of the federally recognized tribe. The National Seashore showcases their traditions with pride at Kule Loklo, a replica of a historic, Coastal Miwok village featuring various construction methods. The park offers ranger-guided interpreted tours of the village weekly and offers free, curriculum-based youth programming.

Partner programs through the Miwok Archeological Preserve of Marin (MAPOM) provide California Indian skills classes at Kule Loklo and special festivals and events. Visitors interested in learning more about the Miwok and other American Indian tribes of the region can check out the nearby Marin Museum of the American Indian in Novato, CA.


Ranching Heritage at Point Reyes

Major European ownership of Point Reyes began in the early 1800s through Mexican land grants. The Miwok people carefully tended the peninsula’s land for thousands of years through systems of controlled burning, pruning and harvesting. By the time early Spanish and American settlers arrived, they found a lush and fertile landscape. The 1849 California Gold Rush brought an influx of merchants, professional practitioners, laborers, and agriculturists, seeking wealth along the shores of San Francisco Bay. Many possessed dairying skills and traditions from their native homes, and the treeless coastal plain beckoned with potential for pasturing cattle.

In 1866, the law firm, Shafter, Shafter, Park and Heydenfeldt purchased the entire peninsula resolving disputes over land grants. The firm sold the northernmost part to an old friend of the Shafters, Solomon Pierce, who eventually built a small town around his dairy business including a schoolhouse, blacksmith shop, milking barn, and creamery. The Pierce Point Ranch, with its historic buildings and structures that date from c. 1869, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The ranch is a popular park attraction for visitors interested in the ranching heritage of Point Reyes who wish to take self-guided tours.

South of Pierce Point, the peninsula was divided into a series of tenant parcels labeled from A to Z, today referred to as the “Alphabet Ranches.” Shafter recruited European dairymen as superintendents to construct new facilities, recruit immigrant ranch hands, and aid in selection of the tenant ranchers. The ranches eventually became home to Irish, Swedish, Italian-speaking Swiss, and Azore Islands-Portuguese families as well as surviving Coast Miwok displaced by the Spanish missions. Later, Chinese, Canadian, Filipino, Mexican and German immigrants all found their chance to get started in America dairying at Point Reyes.

Throughout the late 19th century, the Point Reyes ranches produced record amounts of high quality butter and cheese. With up to 250 cows per tenant, the enterprise was one of the largest operations in the State of California at the time. Their products were so well known, nationwide, that other dairymen often forged the Point Reyes “PR” brand stamp. By the mid-20th century, major ranching at Point Reyes ended. A combination of factors contributed to the industry’s demise including damage caused by the 1906 earthquake, the Great Depression, and the absence of Miwok traditional agricultural methods that kept the land fertile.

Today visitors can still find many vestiges of the dairy history at Point Reyes within the park. For example, the Olema Lime Kilns, a National-Register-listed property dating from 1850, has two arched fireboxes that still stand as reminders of the early working landscape at Point Reyes. The former “W,” or Bear Valley, Ranch is now the National Seashore’s main headquarters. Visitors to the Bear Valley Visitor Center pass through the former ranch core, adaptively reused for park administration and support services. The Marin Agricultural Land Trust offers guided tours of selected West Marin ranches, as well as educational programming for children.

Maritime Heritage at Point Reyes

The Pacific Ocean has always been important to settlers at Point Reyes. Although the natural bay and protected estero provide the potential for docking and maritime commerce, the dangers of Point Reyes have consistently outweighed its appeal. Point Reyes is the windiest place on the Pacific Coast and the second foggiest place on the North American continent. Weeks of fog, especially during the summer months, frequently reduced visibility to hundreds of feet. The craggy shoreline, sheer granite headlands, and turbulent waters plagued early boat captains off the central California coast, and through the late 1800s, shipwrecks along Point Reyes’ shores were a common occurrence.

In 1871, the United States government established an official maritime lifesaving agency. The United States Life-Saving Service (USLSS), which would eventually evolve into the United States Coast Guard, established a lifeboat station for the eight-man crew of rescuers at Point Reyes in 1890. Despite the frigid waters and pounding surf, the Life-Saving Service made countless rescues via simple, oar-paddled surfboats. By 1927, larger, motorized boats made the original lifeboat station obsolete necessitating changes to it. Advanced coastguard technology, including helicopter rescue, eventually led to the station's closure in 1969. Today the Point Reyes Life-Saving Station compound is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and is a National Historic Landmark. The building is visible from the Chimney Rock Trail and is sometimes open to the public on weekends from January to mid-March. For more information, please call the National Seashore at 415-464-5100.

In addition to the life-saving service, Point Reyes is famous for its historic lighthouse. First lit in 1870, the lighthouse stands over 600 feet above sea level on a ledge blasted out of the rock with dynamite. The lighthouse parts were made in France in 1867 and shipped to Point Reyes via steamer, around the tip of South America. After 105 years of service, the Coast Guard installed an automated light and formally retired the lighthouse in 1975. The lighthouse still stands on the western most point of the Point Reyes headlands. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and can be found on the National Maritime Initiative’s Inventory of Historic Light Stations. The Lighthouse Visitor Center is open from 10:00am to 4:30pm, Thursday through Monday. Visitors can view historic photographs and purchase books and maps at the center’s bookstore.

Guests interested in later maritime history may also enjoy stopping by the RCA / Marconi Wireless Stations. In 1913, Guglielmo Marconi established a wireless communication facility at Point Reyes with a telegraphy transmitting station in Bolinas and a receiving station in Marshall. They formed the foundation for the most successful and powerful ship to shore and land station (known as "KPH") on the Pacific Rim. An Art Deco style building replaced the smaller Marshall receiving station in 1929, and both sites retain their still-functional World War II-era radio equipment. The structures are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. More information about KHP and the stations can be found with the Maritime Radio Historical Society, which runs a commemorative broadcast out of the stations each year on July 12.

For more information, stop by one of the three visitor centers located at Bear Valley, Drakes Beach, or the lighthouse. Staff can also assist with the abundant recreational opportunities at Point Reyes including 240 kilometers (150 miles) of hiking trailsbackcountry campgroundsbeach combingkayakingbikinghiking, and wildlife viewing. All visitor centers are open throughout the year, but may be closed for holidays. Call 415-464-5100 for specific hours of operation.

Ranger-guided programs give visitors the opportunity to explore the wonders of Point Reyes with a park ranger. Programs are offered each weekend on both Saturdays and Sundays throughout the year, and are often offered weekdays during summer, winter, and spring breaks. The park museum and archives are home to hundreds of thousands of natural specimens, archeological objects, photographs, correspondence and other artifacts relating to all aspects of the cultural history discussed above. They are open to the public by appointment – please call 415-464-5218 for more information.

Point Reyes National Seashore, a unit of the National Park System, is located approximately 30 miles (50 km) north of San Francisco on Highway 1 along the west coast of California.  Visitors can also reach the park via Sir Francis Drake Blvd. or the Point Reyes/Petaluma Rd.  Maps of the area can be found here.  For more information, visit the National Park Service Point Reyes National Seashore website or call 415-464-5100. For a list of additional NPS-recommended nearby attractions, follow this link.


For more information about the National Register properties discussed above, explore the following:

• Pierce Point Ranch: National Register of Historic Places File: Text and Photos
• Olema Lime Kilns: National Register of Historic Places File: Text and Photos; California Historical Landmark listing (no. 222)
• Point Reyes Lifeboat Rescue Station: National Historic Landmark; National Register of Historic Places File: Text and Photos
• Point Reyes Lighthouse: National Register of Historic Places File: Text and Photos; Historic American Building Survey Documentation ; National Maritime Initiative (Part of NPS) Inventory of Historic Light Stations
• RCA / Marconi Wireless Stations: National Register Historic Places File: Text and Photos; Historic American Building Survey Documentation (Transmitting Station) and Historic American Buildings Survey Documentation (Receiving Station) 

Last updated: August 8, 2017