By Cody Kitaura
Mid-January is the peak season to spot migrating whales at Point Reyes National Seashore, but don't expect to hop out of your car, take a couple steps and see whales breaching out of the sea.
A trip to Point Reyes takes planning and a readiness to hike a bit. Visitors are currently required to take a shuttle bus to the whale-watching perches near the Point Reyes lighthouse, and the peak season crowds can make for long lines to catch a ride.
During a visit to Point Reyes Saturday, the parking lot was so full, at least one vehicle took a lap around to search for a spot, then left when one couldn't be found.
That bus ride, a moderate walk over some hills and 300 steps (complete with a sign warning of their difficulty) will get you to the iconic Point Reyes lighthouse, overlooking seaside cliffs.
On Saturday, a whiteboard in the main office near the parking lot counted dozens of whale sightings by mid-day, but it's important to keep in mind what everyone is spotting. Visitors at the water's edge that day could see evidence of the Pacific Gray Whales, which each winter migrate from Alaska to Baja California, but only in the form of the water vapor spraying from their blowholes off in the distance.
But that isn't always the case.
A December video posted to the Point Reyes Facebook page shows whales seemingly yards off the coast, their entire bodies visible just below the surface of the water.
And of course, whales aren't the only thing to see at Point Reyes National Seashore. Mating Elephant Seals span beaches in large numbers, tule elk and black-tailed deer roam the hillsides and hundreds of dairy cows spot the landscape of the still-operating "Alphabet Ranches."
Perhaps the unpredictability of nature is one of the allures of national parks like Point Reyes. Visitors travel thousands of miles (the shuttle bus Saturday was filled with tourists speaking various languages) without any promises about what they might see. But even if the main attractions aren't swimming too close to the shore, visitors are only out the $5 shuttle tickets.
Tips for travelers planning a visit to Point Reyes National Seashore:
- Allow extra travel time to the park, as North Bay traffic and shuttle bus lines can easily delay a trip.
- Bring food and water, as refreshments aren't sold at the park.
- Wear comfortable shoes, although the 300-step climb down to the lighthouse isn't required to see the whales and drivers with handicap placards can arrange for nearby parking.