Point Reyes Lighthouse is perched on a steep cliff in the windiest place on the Pacific Coast and the foggiest place in California. Despite the unusual weather, the lighthouse is a favorite destination for visitors. Located on the westernmost outcrop of Point Reyes National Seashore, the lighthouse is also the best location for whale watching from land.
Chimney Rock is a similar outcrop, on the opposite side of the tip of Point Reyes’ peninsula, at Drakes Bay. It is a narrow stretch of land of unbelievable beauty. Surrounded by deep blue and turquoise sea, this small peninsula is vividly colorful during spring, when carpets of wildflowers cover portions of the lush green pastures.
It is not a secret how picturesque this portion of Point Reyes is. Consequently, you will have a lot of competition for your photographs. Despite the large number of visitors, both locations still are exceptional photographic treasures that you shouldn’t miss.
How to get there
California Highway 1 leads through Point Reyes Station, north of San Francisco. In Point Reyes Station, you will see a sign to Point Reyes National Seashore and Inverness. Signs are posted in the northbound and southbound direction. Following the signs will lead you to Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. Follow this road through Inverness, all the way to the lighthouse parking lot.
To get to Chimney Rock, follow Pierce Point Road, which branches off to the right shortly after Inverness. Stay left on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard.
How to photograph Point Reyes Lighthouse and Chimney Rock
Point Reyes Lighthouse
Using the long flight of stairs, which lead to the lighthouse in a graceful curve, results in an esthetically pleasing composition. No wonder most photographers end up with an image just like this in their portfolio. The proportions and the flow are perfect. The viewer follows the stairs to the reward, the main subject, at the end. It puts the lighthouse in perspective. The fog helps to emphasize the distance and the length of the stairs. It also adds tension, since the lighthouse seems to stand at the edge of a deep abyss. The image gives no clue of what lies beyond, but somehow it seems as if we are meant to walk down the stairs to find out.
There is no bad weather for photography. Especially fog can greatly enhance the mood of any picture. Avoid including too much sky in your pictures and use your exposure correction, since cameras tend to underexpose in these conditions.
It is no secret that the spectacular location makes the lighthouse so popular. You can find many interesting details and even some unique views down here, but the views from the stairs are simply the best. Unfortunately, those are also the most photographed, so don’t expect to come up with something entirely new. The picture in the introduction shows a different and much less photographed view of the stairs, facing in the opposite direction.
The exhibition inside the lighthouse provides a plethora of detail shots waiting for your camera and the perimeter has good views of the original lighthouse, standing on the ledge that workers blasted into the granite rock face over 100 years ago.
After you say goodbye to the lighthouse, you still face the arduous task of climbing the stairs back up. Take an occasional breather and turn back for another view. Sometimes the weather changes quickly and the lighthouse may look better on your way up than it did on the way down.
Chimney Rock is the most spectacular hike in Point Reyes. The Pacific Ocean foams on one side and Drakes Bay lies on the other side of the narrow land bridge leading out to Chimney Rock. The beach beneath is a popular hangout for cool seals and the meadows above are dotted with wildflowers. Just like the lighthouse, this hike is often very windy.
Do not let the wind distract you from the extraordinary views and superb photography. Look for seals at the beaches and keep an eye open for whales blowing in the distance during spring. The most famous view is from the Headlands overlook trail (two pictures above). Chimney Rock is a small offshore rock that is not particularly photogenic. The trail makes up for it though and I recommend walking the trail to the very end, where California suddenly ends and the vast Pacific Ocean begins. This would be the perfect place to use a fisheye lens and photograph the curvature of the earth, including the Chimney Rock trail.
From here, you can also hike down to the historic lifeboat station via the Underhill Trail. Due to the heavy fog, even the lighthouse could not completely prevent shipwrecks. This station saved many lives, yet the nearby cemetery also tells the story of those that were not lucky enough to catch a ride on the boat in time.
Keep an eye on the beaches and you may be lucky to spot seals taking a sunbath. Watch out for other subjects that can enhance your landscape photographs. Point Reyes is also home to a large population of deer, Tule Elk (not here, but further north), and mountain lions. Attach your telephoto lens during hikes and preset your camera (Exposure speed, Auto Aperture, and Auto ISO) so you are ready when you have to be.
Enjoy your trip!
Best Time of the Day and Best Season
The stairs to the lighthouse are open from 10am to 4:30pm. If wind speeds exceed 40mph, the stairs will be closed. During the whale-watching season (last week of December to mid-April) and on weekends you will have to take a shuttle bus on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard (the road leading to the lighthouse and Chimney Rock). Spring (April and May) is the best time for a visit, since you can drive here directly and you will be able to find a large number of wildflowers.
Driving out to Chimney Rock and the Lighthouse from Point Reyes Station takes about one hour. Walking down the stairs to the lighthouse and back up takes about the same time and hiking the 1.6 miles out to Chimney Rock and back will cost you at least one hour. Together that is already three hours, without taking a single photograph. Since both locations provide exceptionally good opportunities, you should plan your entire day around this visit, maybe combined with a stop in Inverness.
- Telephoto lens (whales, deer, sea lions)
- Zoom lens
- Fisheye Lens if you have one
- Polarizing Filter and UV filter
- Point and Shoot Camera
- Sweater and Windbreaker
- Snacks to get you through the day
Try to keep the load light for the climb down to the lighthouse.
Although there is no entrance fee for Point Reyes National Seashore, the shuttle bus (see Best Time section) will cost $5 / person.
Difficulty Getting There
You cannot drive to the lighthouse between the last week of December and mid April. You need to take the shuttle bus and plan accordingly.
In order to get to the lighthouse, you need to climb 308 stairs down and then back up. If you are in reasonably good physical condition, this is not a major obstacle, but it takes time and costs energy.
Lastly, the parking lot is notoriously overcrowded. You may need to park further away and walk.
- Tomales Bay State Park
- Pt. Reyes Tule Elk Reserve
- Pt. Reyes Coastal Trail
- Inverness and Earthquake Trail
- Fort Ross
- Bodega Bay and Bodega Head
- Bodega Dunes
- Bodega Cliffs
- Mt Tamalpais
- Muir Woods
- Point Bonita Lighthouse
- Secret Views of Marin Headlands
- Marin Headlands Bay Views
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