Point Reyes National Seashore backpacking trip report (February 2015)
For three days in February, a friend and I backpacked in the Point Reyes National Seashore, which is about 45 minutes north of San Francisco, California. The park offers hiking, boating, backcountry camping, and boat-in camping opportunities. There is even a hostel in the park!
The hiking was very easy, with mild climbs from sea level to relatively low elevations on well-maintained trails. Overall, the backpacking trip served as a gentle introduction for my friend, who was completely new to the activity. There is no need to find and select a tent site, the water is potable, and bathroom facilities obviate the need to dig catholes. Each campground tent site has a bear box, a picnic table, and a grill.
The weather was mostly foggy for all three days, which kind of killed our photography mojo. Temperatures were very mild, and never went above 70 F and didn’t seem to get below 40 F.
I recommend this park for beginners to backpacking or people testing out gear. While I haven’t backpacked the Lost Coast Trail, this area might also serve as a easy preview, given the apparently similar conditions of humidity, fog, wind, hiking on the beach sand, and keeping an eye on the tide.
For some of the resources I used on this hike, see my Pinboard.
Day 1: Bear Valley Visitor Center to Coast Camp (via Mt. Wittenberg Trail and Woodward Valley Trail)
We got a late start from the south bay and didn’t hit the trail until about 1 PM. It’s 5.8 miles to Coast Camp and we got there maybe an hour before sunset.
The hike from Bear Valley to Mt. Wittenberg might be somewhat strenuous for those who are not in very good shape, gaining 1300 feet of elevation over 2 miles (Bear Valley is at 100 feet and Mt. Wittenberg is at 1407 feet). The rest of the hike is a gradual drop to sea level.
Nevertheless, we were able to visit the northwest side of Sculptured Beach, which isn’t really a sand beach. Sculptured Beach mainly exposed rock with exquisite erosion details, making for excellent tidepooling.
Coast Camp itself has two enclosed permanent port-a-potties and two water spigots that are usually potable. Site 10 didn’t seem to have good ground for a tent near the picnic table, so I had to pitch a couple paces away on the grass. I also lost a bag of trail mix here to some critters that somehow got in and out of the bear box.
I took a look at all the other sites in the campground. Sites 8-14 are exposed to the Coast Trail and are not very private. Site 14 has some bushes that do give some sense of privacy. Sites 1-7 are all enclosed by bushes and are off the Coast Trail, thus they are more private. I recommend Sites 1 or 2 for their privacy and the potential view of the coast. Cell phone service is spotty here.
Day 2: Coast Camp to Wildcat Camp and Alamere Falls (via Coast Trail)
The hike to Wildcat from Coast along the Coast Trail is very mild. The descent down into Wildcat is rather steep. It’s designated as a bicycle trail (and it’s wide enough), but anyone going down it probably has balls of steel.
While the hike itself is easy, the scenery is very pretty. There are three short side trails to Sculptured Beach (the southeast side), Kelham Beach, and Arch Rock that are worth visiting. When the Coast Trail leaves the cliff, hikers frequently enter tunnels of Douglas fir with fallen needles underfoot making for a soft hike.
Once we hit Wildcat, we left our stuff in the bear box and walked southeast on Wildcat Beach towards Alamere Falls. The rangers recommend visiting the Falls only at low tide. However, I saw several people climb down the cliff near the top of Alamere Falls down to the beach to get access to the bottom. It seems like a rather precarious climb and it doesn’t appear to be documented on any official maps.
Even though the weather was fairly cold, I can never resist jumping into water so I stripped to my underwear and took a very cold shower. We also saw a dying seal near the falls. I initially thought it was a log and I was going to sit on it, but when I approached I saw it move and stopped immediately. Other visitors had said it had been there for hours without moving, so I assume it was dying. It was kind of sad watching it flop around helplessly, but I suppose death is natural here.
Wildcat Camp is very nice, with most sites having a high degree of privacy from a lot of shrubs. I recommend Sites 6 or 7 for the greatest privacy since they are furthest away from the trail and closest to the cliff. Site 6 even has a small side trail to the cliff, where there are two grass-covered sites that look like unofficial tent spots. If you pitched there, the views would be fantastic, if a bit windy.
Day 3: Wildcat Camp to Bear Valley (via Glen Trail and Bear Valley Trail) and other Point Reyes sights
Aside from a notable climb from Wildcat up the Coast Trail, the hike out was rather uneventful. The route we took via Glen Trail and Bear Valley Trail avoids the worst of the mountain ridge that Mt. Wittenberg is a part of. Most notably, the Bear Valley Trail follows a creek, which makes for a mild hike back to the visitor center.
After getting back to the car, we had a few hours left of free time, so we drove to the Lighthouse, Elephant Seal Overlook, and historical US Life-saving Service Lifeboat Station. There was a lot of wildlife, including deer with no fear of humans, a ton of noisy elephant seals, and some pelicans dive-bombing for food. There was also an interesting array of antennas that underpin a large part of the radio communications infrastructure across the Pacific Ocean.
The temperature was very mild, if not cold, ranging from a high of 70 F to a low of 40 F. This temperature range was predicted before the hike with good accuracy. However, I failed to check the conditions and anticipate the high humidity and foggy conditions, instead assuming sunny weather.
The temperature prediction led me to choose an Ibex wool 150 Zip T-Neck top. Wool fibers absorb moisture but don’t feel clammy if they are saturated with sweat (like synthetics). This ended up being a fantastic choice, keeping me at the right temperature all the time. For the first two days, I wore a Patagonia Capilene 1 trunk because I intended on jumping into Alamere Falls and wanted quick-drying underwear. After my shower in the Falls, I changed into an Ibex 150 wool trunk, which I hiked in on day 3, and my Patagonia trunk never dried fully due to the humidity.
In the mornings, I wore a Patagonia Houdini wind shirt to start my hikes. It was not the most breathable thing so I quickly took off the jacket at the first stop after starting hiking. In retrospect, I should have taken it off prior to hiking.
I also wore the Houdini jacket while sleeping in an attempt to do a vapor barrier liner and prevent as much moisture as possible from impacting the warmth of my down quilt. I woke up with a damp, but not damp-feeling, wool baselayer and was never cold at night. The dampness never impacted my hiking after waking up. This was my first application of VBL theory and it seems to have worked out.
I used a Marmot Pulsar 2p two-wall tent, with the rainfly up on both nights for privacy. On both nights, the rainfly had condensation inside, but the second night had less condensation since I increased the ventilation by not staking down the rainfly down as much.