Number 35 - August 2011
Welcome to "Rick's Tips," Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel's quarterly newsletter of fun and interesting things to do in San Francisco, the Bay Area, and Northern California. Whether you are visiting San Francisco or hosting visitors, Blue Heron can provide an unforgettable experience. Visit our website,, to learn more about our private, custom tours.

Visiting Northern California's Lighthouses - Part I

Lighthouses evoke a certain romanticism. When people see a lighthouse, they may think of the days when the lighthouse keeper and his (they were mostly, but not always, male) family lived at the lighthouse and protected ships from the rugged coast. Living along the beautiful California coast is appealing; however, once one learns about the hard life of keepers and their families, the appeal begins to fade.

Today all lights on the Northern California coast are automated. The keepers are long gone, but many of the historic lighthouses remain and can be visited. Visitors can overnight at a few in conditions far more comfortable than the keepers experienced.

Here's a list of some of the more interesting lighthouses to visit in Northern California along with a short description of what visitors can expect when they stop by. I'll start in Monterey County and go north to Del Norte County, along the Oregon border. This issue will cover Monterey, Santa Cruz, San Mateo, San Francisco, Contra Costa, and Marin Counties. The next issue of Rick's Tips," which will come out in November, will cover Sonoma, Mendocino, Humboldt, and Del Norte Counties.

Monterey County

Point Sur Lighthouse is located on a rock outcropping high above the Pacific about 20 miles south of Carmel. Its remoteness has attracted me for years. Unfortunately, I never find myself in the area during the limited hours the lighthouse is open to the public. Docents lead three-hour walking tours on Saturdays, Sundays, and other days that change with the season. Check out the lighthouse's website for more information.

A much more accessible lighthouse is Point Pi?os Lighthouse in Pacific Grove, the oldest continuously operating lighthouse on the West Coast - first operating on February 1, 1855. Being in the middle of a golf course takes away some of the romance of this lighthouse. However, it is relatively easy to visit, being open Thursday to Monday from 1:00 to 4:00 p.m.

Santa Cruz County

For something a little different, visit the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, located in the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse. Here you will get a good view of Monterey Bay and learn about the origins of surfing in Hawaii and Santa Cruz's rich surfing history. The museum is open Thursday to Monday from noon until 4:00 p.m., except between Memorial and Labor Days, when it is open Wednesday to Monday from 10:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m.

San Mateo County

If you've ever wanted to spend the night at a lighthouse, you have two choices in San Mateo County. The Golden Gate Council of American Youth Hostels (Hosteling International) operates hostels at the lighthouses at both Pigeon Point, about 50 miles south of San Francisco and 27 miles north of Santa Cruz, and Point Montara, about 25 miles south of San Francisco. Pigeon Point's dormitory rooms start at $24/night while its private rooms start at $72/night. Point Montara has dormitory rooms starting at $26 night and private rooms starting at $70 night. The views of the Pacific from both hostels are spectacular.

Pigeon Point Lighthouse is also part of a state park. Even if you are not planning to stay at the hostel, the view from behind the lighthouse is worth a stop. You frequently can see harbor seals frolicking in the surf or sunning themselves on the rocks below. If you are lucky, you might see gray whales migrating during the spring or late fall. On nice weekends, docents open a gift shop and a display of historic photographs. The fog signal room also has interesting artifacts.

San Francisco

Each year over one million visitors come to the site of the first lighthouse on the West Coast. But they don't come to see the lighthouse; rather, they come to see the prison. Alcatraz Island was home to a lighthouse and a fort long before it became a renowned prison. The original lighthouse began operation in 1854. The current lighthouse opened in 1909. Unfortunately, tours to the island do not include admission to the lighthouse. This is too bad as the view from the top is amazing. (The Park Service occasionally opens the lighthouse during special events.) If you want to visit "The Rock," buy your tickets well in advance as tours sell out during the busy season.

Contra Costa County

If you like your accommodations more upscale than you will find at a hostel, try the East Brother Light Station. This unique bed and breakfast is in a fully restored Victorian lighthouse on an island in the strait that connects San Francisco and San Pablo Bays. Visitors arrive at East Brother from the town of Richmond in the East Bay, about 40 minutes from San Francisco, via the Light Station's boat. From the island, guests have views of San Francisco, Mount Tamalpais, and the Marin County shoreline. The bed and breakfast has five rooms with nightly rates of $355 or $415, including dinner and breakfast.

Marin County

Point Bonita Lighthouse guards the entrance to San Francisco Bay on the Marin County (north) side of the Golden Gate. From the lighthouse, visitors have spectacular views of San Francisco Bay, the Pacific Ocean, and the San Francisco skyline. Access to the lighthouse is along a half-mile trail that runs partially through a tunnel built by Chinese laborers in 1876. The trail and tunnel to Point Bonita are open Saturday to Monday from 12:30 until 3:30 p.m. and can be reached in less than 30 minutes from San Francisco. However, the suspension bridge to the lighthouse is in need of repair and closed. The Park Service expects to resume access to the lighthouse in the spring of 2012. Even though visitors cannot currently get to the lighthouse building, the views make visiting Point Bonita most worthwhile. Nearby are picnic tables where you can enjoy a lunch on a sunny day.

A visit to the Point Reyes Lighthouse requires a bit of stamina. Getting to the lighthouse is relatively easy as you will descend 308 steps. It's the return that's tough work. However, the views of the Pacific are worth it. During the spring and late fall you might see gray whales migrating between Alaska and Baja California. The lighthouse is open from 10:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. from Thursday through Monday. Before visiting, call to make sure the steps aren't closed due to high winds and that the lighthouse is not completely covered in fog as Point Reyes is one of the windiest and foggiest spots in Northern California. In addition to the lighthouse, Point Reyes National Seashore is home to many excellent hiking trails, herds of Tule Elk, beautiful spring wildflowers, pounding surf, and windswept landscapes. You can easily spend a couple of days visiting the Seashore. Lodging is available in the nearby towns of Inverness, Olema, and Point Reyes Station.

As you can see, there are enough lighthouses to please even the most diehard lovers of these beacons. You'll learn about even more lighthouses in November. If you would like to take a private tour of Northern California that includes some of these lighthouses contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or

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Rick Spear
Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel
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