Tales from the Field: A Day and a Half at Point Reyes
Sitting no more than 30 miles north of the bustling city of San Francisco, Point Reyes National Seashore holds some of the greatest array of wildlife in California. Point Reyes looks like a strange growth off the Californian coast as it is geologically separated by the San Andreas Fault. Among its rolling green hills, steep cliffs that drop into the sea, and pockets of cypress forests, one can find a great escape, without having to go too far.
I was born and raised in Monterey, which is just a couple hours south of San Francisco, but had never been to Point Reyes. I had met many people who visit frequently and talked about the elk and the coastal scenery and so on, but it had never crossed my find to visit. When I looked up Point Reyes online a few years back, it looked like a watered down version of Big Sur, something the city folk up north could go use to escape the concrete mess of downtown. I had seen elk plenty of times across Wyoming, Washington, Canada and so on, so that was not a huge draw and I’ve watched elephant seals up and down the coast, so there was not that huge urge to visit. Well, that lust to visit came about when I started to think about photographing one thing, and that thing was a bobcat. The smallest wild cat of North America makes its home all across California, but few ever get to encounter one as they are not only elusive, but blend into their environment incredibly well. I’ve been lucky in the past seeing some bobcats up on the hill I live on, but they’ve all been seen through the headlights of my car. After digging around a little, I discovered that Point Reyes was a fairly reliable place to find the cats. I was not exactly sure if the population was robust or maybe they were not shy of humans there, but all the signs pointed to Point Reyes being the place to go.
Hanna and I decided to head up to the park for one night last Thursday to see what we could find. I was extremely excited to get out and look for animals, but did not expect too much. Honestly, I went in with the expectation that we would not find a single bobcat. The drive up took only about 3 hours and the last 30 minutes was spent heading from the small town of San Rafael through a beautiful redwood forest, into the park. We arrived midday, grabbed some sandwiches at a local deli, and proceeded to head to the Elk Preserve, which lies on the far end of the park along Tomales Point. I was sitting in the passenger seat as I wanted to look for wildlife, but was not putting too much effort into it as it was the heat of the day, so I imagined everything would be hunkered down for a couple more hours. We turned onto Pierce Point Road and cruised by lush green meadows where cows lazily grazed on the fresh bounty of grass the rains had provided. We were nearing the Elk Preserve when I noticed a brown object that looked out of place on the green hillside. Within a split second I knew it was a bobcat and was blown away by the fact it only took us 20 minutes to find our first one. The cat was merely 100 feet off the road and gave us a few great looks as it hunted (unsuccessfully) before finding a cool spot to rest in some thick brush. I was ecstatic to have already found a bobcat and could not believe how easy it was, like almost too easy. I was hesitant and considered luck may have just played a big part in finding this cat as even when we knew exactly where he was resting, you could not see him. Would we be able to find anymore? What if that was the one cat we saw the entire time? I kept questioning how the evening and following day would go, but I was still overcome with joy with having the first wildlife sighting be exactly what we came here to see.
Over the afternoon and evening, we drove through the refuge where we had spectacular sightings of the Tule elk herd meandering through the low lying thick bushes as the waves crashed below. A much different environment to see them in compared to Yellowstone or Banff! I was really impressed with the bulls in the herd as they had massive antlers, some growing out to seven points (in elk standards, this is big).
We then continued south down to see if we could see some elephant seals up close. We headed down to Drakes Beach and ended up being the only car down there. No more than 15 feet beyond the parking lot were the massive, unusual, and slightly grotesque, pinnipeds. We wandered through the cluster of male seals, which was a real treat as most elephant seal sightings are done from an overlook or boardwalk.
After taking in our fill of marine mammals, we decided to head out and look for more bobcats in the setting sun. We did manage to find the same bobcat from earlier as he hunted across the same hillside, but he was further off this time, so we kept going. We searched across the northern section of the park, but really did not come up with anything other than a coyote in the distance and a beautiful great horned owl, who happened to catch a rodent right on the side of the road. We were slightly disappointed, but knew we had all day tomorrow to find some more animals.
We found some lodging in the small town of Point Reyes Station and settled in for the night, excited for the prospect of heading back out the following morning. We got some rest and were back at it well before the sun rose on Friday. We started the day by driving up a small dirt road in search for any wildlife we could find. The early morning hours are always my favorite time to be out as the nocturnal animals are still out and most people do not head out this early, leaving it all to yourself. We were immediately rewarded with two skunk sightings, but that was about it. We then decided to go for a hike out across Tomales Point, where we heard there were many bobcat, weasel, coyote, elk, and even mountain lion sightings in the past. The skies were clear, but some lower elevation areas were covered in a dense marine fog layer, which made for a chilly start to our hike. We walked out about 2 miles before turning back as we were not seeing too much besides elk and some migrating gray whales below. The views along this hike were stunning as it overlooked the entire coast and the wide-open Pacific Ocean to the West.
It was getting closer to midday at this point, so we headed back towards town and grabbed some lunch before driving back in. We decided to go towards Mount Vision Overlook to begin the afternoon where we found a coyote hanging out on the road. He hopped off pretty quick, but stayed no more than 10 feet from our car and gave us a great look before he turned around and disappeared. When we went back down the hill, we spotted 3 more coyotes that were busy trying to find lunch. We proceeded towards Abbott’s Lagoon where we were going to take the one-mile hike