One of the reasons we love to travel is to find surprises in places that may seem familiar. The Point Reyes National Seashore, a seemingly unending expanse of nature hugging the craggy Pacific coast, is the type of place where you can be constantly surprised, whether it’s by a chance encounter with local wildlife, or by meeting the person you’re going to marry at HI Point Reyes hostel (it’s happened!).
When people visit the national park for the first time, some are surprised when they cross the Inverness Ridge, and instead of more evergreen forests and lush, leafy shrubs, they are met with coastal grasslands – sometimes green, sometimes gold, depending on the rain – and the occasional happy herd of cows. This is the pastoral zone.
About 18,000 acres of the Point Reyes National Seashore is made up of historical and working agricultural land where farming families breed cattle for organic dairy and grass-fed beef. If you look as far back as a century ago, you’ll find ranchers and farmers in this corner of California, and many today are the fifth or sixth generation to work on this particular piece of land. The ranches were protected from urban development when the national park was established in the 1960s, and today, the farmers and park rangers work together in ensuring that the wildlife and ecosystems within the pastoral zone are protected and preserved.
You can see some of the historic ranches today as you take to the trails within the park, and while you can walk through as part of your hike, do remember that these are still work areas for the residents (humans and animals). Try the Tomales Point Trail for a greatest hits-type walk that will take you past Pierce Point Ranch, one of the oldest ranches on the peninsula. Though this one isn’t actually functional anymore, you’ll get to walk around the interpretive site and get a closer look at what coastal farm life was like back in the day. From here you can continue along the trail (it’s a day-long hike), which ends at a breathtaking point.
Pierce Point Ranch is on the northern end of the seashore while the historic ranches are cluttered a little further south down along the coast. If you take the Rift Zone Trail, which tends to be a little quieter and lightly traveled, you’ll walk through miles of open pastures dotted with grazing cows, while the shorter Bull Point trail goes through F Ranch and a few cattle gates towards the stunning Drakes Estero. Otherwise, as you drive along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard towards the Point Reyes Lighthouse (and be sure to stop at the Monterey tree tunnel on the way), you’ll see many of the farm entrances looking like something from a different time.
Then, once you’ve seen and experienced pastoral Point Reyes, head to town to stock up on Cowgirl Creamery cheese, some oysters, and maybe a nice piece of local beef with your new found appreciation for the continuous, often surprising, magic of the Northern California coast.
HI USA Tip: Rack up the likes on social media and make a few stops at some of favorite Instagram-worthy spots to make you fall in love with Point Reyes, and if you’re not sure about visiting in winter, here are five good reasons why you actually should.