Safety Issues Associated with Beaches

Warning sign: Dangerous surf, enter at your own risk

The ocean is one of the most dangerous hazards found at Point Reyes National Seashore. Do not underestimate the power of the ocean. Numerous hazards exist along all beaches, including rough surf, sneaker waves, rip currents, contaminated water, hypothermia, and buried hot ashes. Please use common sense when near the water's edge. There are no lifeguards present at the beaches within Point Reyes National Seashore.

Download our Enjoying the Beach Safely brochure. (491 KB PDF)

Before visiting beaches at Point Reyes, visit the National Weather Service's Watches, Warnings & Advisories page for the Coastal North Bay to learn whether there are any active Beach Hazards Statements, High Surf Advisories, and/or High Surf Warnings.

 

Sneaker Waves

Visitors to Point Reyes beaches are advised to be aware of sneaker waves. A sneaker wave is an unexpectedly large wave, higher, stronger and reaching farther up the beach to levels far beyond where the normal waves reach. Beach goers, particularly children, can quickly be caught in the rip current and pulled out to deep water. If the person can not escape the current, they may drown. This has occurred numerous times at Point Reyes Beaches. Sneaker waves also have the ability to toss around large driftwood logs that may fall on a person, injuring or even killing them.

Even though the ocean may appear calm, there is still the potential for sneaker waves. Larger waves, moving fast, pick up smaller waves and carry them toward the beach. Some people erroneously think that sneaker waves can be predicted, i.e., every fourth or fifth wave, but in truth they are unpredictable. They can occur at any time, day or night, during incoming and outgoing tides, during storms and during sunny calm weather.

How to avoid sneaker waves:

  • Never turn your back on the surf
    Stay at least thirty yards away from the water on beaches facing the open ocean, particularly the Great Beach (North and South beaches), McClures Beach and Kehoe Beach. Watch out for sneaker waves. Sneaker waves are often preceded by a sudden lowering of the water level. Supervise children at all times. Two children died at the South Beach after being hit by sneaker waves in 2001.
  • Avoid slippery rocks
    Rock outcrops can be slippery from mist, rain, or spray. Large waves can knock people off rock outcrops and severely injure them or knock them unconscious. In early 2004, a person at McClures Beach was killed when she was knocked off a rock by a sneaker wave. Stay away from rocky areas, particularly during storms, high tide, or tidal changes.
  • Avoid logs and debris
    Sneaker waves are strong enough to take the biggest log and toss it on you. Stay away from logs in surf or wet sand. Do not sit or stand on logs. Keep children away from logs and large debris.

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Rip Currents

Rip currents are powerful, channeled currents of water flowing away from shore. They typically extend from the shoreline, through the surf zone, and past the line of breaking waves. Rip currents can occur at any beach with breaking waves. Rip currents can be killers.

What to do if you get caught in a rip current:

  • Remain calm to conserve energy and think clearly.
  • Never fight against the current.
  • Think of it like a treadmill that cannot be turned off, which you need to step to the side of.
  • Swim out of the current in a direction following the shoreline. When out of the current, swim at an angle--away from the current--towards shore.
  • If you are unable to swim out of the rip current, float or calmly tread water. When out of the current, swim towards shore.
  • If you are still unable to reach shore, draw attention to yourself by waving your arm and yelling for help.

For more information on Rip Currents, check the National Weather Service's Rip Currents and Rip Current Safety Tips webpages.

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Contaminated Water

Lagoons, such as those found at Abbotts Lagoon, Kehoe Beach, and occasionally at Drakes Beach, and similar bodies of water can be hazardous areas for swimming whether they are in parklands or other urban or rural areas. Rainfall runoff and stream flow from surrounding agricultural areas flows into the lagoons potentially carrying harmful bacteria with it. The lagoons are also collection areas for waste from deer, birds and other wildlife that congregate there as well as dog waste. Please exercise caution if you choose to swim/wade in these areas and closely watch dogs and children who may enter the water.

Marin County Environmental Health Services monitors a number of ocean, bay and freshwater sites within Point Reyes National Seashore and the surrounding area. These sites are sampled once a week from April 1 through October 31 to determine if a beach meets the California water quality standards for recreational water contact. EHS works cooperatively with the NPS to collect water samples and post advisory signage as needed at the designated sampling sites. For more information, visit the EHS's Marin County Ocean and Bay Water Quality Testing Program page or download the most recent Beach Water Quality information chart.

Hypothermia

The coastal water temperatures at Point Reyes rarely exceed 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Prolonged exposure to these temperatures can result in hypothermia (abnormally low body temperature) or death. Do not stay in the water for more than a few minutes unless you are wearing a wetsuit. Before swimming or wading, consider the weather conditions and whether you would be able to stay warm if you were to get wet. You have a much better chance of warming up again if the weather is sunny and hot as opposed to overcast, windy and cool. Don't wait until you start to shiver or for your lips to turn blue before you get out of the water. If you start to shiver, you are already suffering from mild hypothermia. Get out of the water and try to warm up. For more information on hypothermia and treatment, check out our Your Safety: Hypothermia page and Rick Curtis' Outdoor Action Guide to Hypothermia And Cold Weather Injuries.

Hot Coals

Hot coals may exist on the beach surface or just below the sand due to improperly extinguished beach fires. Put all fires out with water. Do not attempt to extinguish fires or cover the coals with sand. For more information on beach fires or on how to obtain a beach fire permit, check our Beach Fires page.

Drinking Water Quality

2007 Consumer Confidence Report for drinking water quality for the water system serving Drakes Beach, North Beach and South Beach - June 23, 2008 (75 KB PDF)

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Tsunamis

A tsunami is a series of ocean waves generated by sudden displacements in the sea floor, landslides, or volcanic activity. While in the deep ocean, the tsunami wave may only be a few inches high, but when the tsunami wave encounters a coastline, it may increase in height to become a fast moving wall of turbulent water several meters high. Visitors should be aware that the beaches and shorelines of Point Reyes are locations which could be struck by a tsunami. Whether you live in the Point Reyes area, visit our beaches, or rent or own a home near the coast, it is vital to understand the tsunami threat and take preparation seriously.

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Last updated: July 2, 2017

Contact the Park

Mailing Address:

1 Bear Valley Road
Point Reyes Station, CA 94956

Phone:

(415) 464-5100
This number will initially be answered by an automated attendant, from which one can opt to access a name directory, listen to recorded information about the park (i.e., directions to the park; visitor center hours of operation; weather forecast; fire danger information; shuttle bus system status; wildlife updates; ranger-led programs; seasonal events; etc.), or speak with a ranger. Please note that if you are calling between 4:30 pm and 10 am, park staff may not be available to answer your call.

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