The Moors Of California

Point Reyes National Seashore is a photographer’s paradise. A local expert on the area shows us the hot spots.
This Article Features Photo Zoom

A northern elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris) pup rests along Drakes Bay below Chimney Rock. Point Reyes is one of the most famous locations for photographing these pinnipeds.

The surf from the Pacific Ocean rushes in and out on McClures Beach at dusk.

As a zealot for places like Yosemite National Park in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, I often find myself photographing in the exact spots where many of the great photographers had focused their cameras, reflecting on how wonderful it is to be standing where many of my photographic heroes spent their lifeblood—Eadweard Muybridge, Ansel Adams and Brett Weston. Most are unaware that these masters also were drawn to other places, however, namely Point Reyes National Seashore, inspired by the amazing coastal landscapes that are part of California’s northern coast, approximately 30 miles north of San Francisco.

The San Andreas Fault runs through Northern California, slicing a gouge through the rolling hills and valleys along the coast. North of the Golden Gate Bridge, the fault line slowly recedes into the ocean. This stretch of protected land, an area California holds onto on the surface, is almost geologically separated from the continental United States by the San Andreas rift zone. Tomales Bay, the coastal estuary created by the infamous fault line, separates Point Reyes peninsula, which lies on the Pacific Plate, from the rolling hills of Marin County, which rests on the North American Plate.

Point Reyes National Seashore is a sanctuary for birds, sea life and wildflowers, as well as historic cattle ranches and oyster farms. Encompassing 100 square miles, including 32,000 acres of coastal wilderness, the area offers visitors more than 150 miles of hiking and horseback riding trails, more than 1,000 species of plants and animals, still waterways to go kayaking, roads for bicycling and sites for camping. Depending on the time of year, you can photograph the gray whale migration, harbor seal breeding, wildflowers blooming, Tule elks rutting and a variety of raptors and shorebirds, as the land is connected to the Pacific flyway zone, the major north-south route of travel for migratory birds in the Americas. Compared to the moors of Scotland or Cape Peninsula National Park in South Africa, Point Reyes was obtained by the National Park Service in 1962, saving it from urban development. Today, more than 2.5 million visitors frequent the park annually.

Mount Vision’s forest, shrouded in coastal fog, along the Inverness Ridge

Sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean to the west and Mount Tamalpais (to many, the birthplace of mountain biking) to the east, and with Drakes Bay on the southern end and Tomales Bay to the northeast, Point Reyes’ landscape is unlike much of the rest of the West Coast, and its weather is unpredictable. On a blue-sky summer day in the San Francisco Bay area, this large peninsula can be wild and windy, foggy and frigid, or calm and sunny. I believe it’s why many of the great photographers were drawn here—for the challenge, as well as the uniqueness in the images they could create.

Muybridge photographed here as early as 1880, capturing an image of the lighthouse the year it was completed. Weston documented a backlit Tomales Bay in 1955, as did his father Edward 18 years earlier in 1937. Adams may have thought of Point Reyes as a “recreational area,” yet he captured a number of images, including a shipwreck on Limantour Beach, a moss-covered fence near Pierce Point Ranch, and an oyster fence in Tomales Bay in 1953, the latter included in his autobiography. Then Philip Hyde arrived at Point Reyes in the 1960s and began his love affair with this coastal region for which his images are depicted in Harold Gilliam’s Island in Time: The Point Reyes Peninsula. Hyde’s images are even said to have played an important role in establishing the park.

In the black-and-white style of the masters, Marty Knapp began producing images of Point Reyes in 1986. Other lesser known, yet equally talented photographers have created quality work here, including Eva Van Valkenburgh between 1910 and 1930, Seth Wood in the ’40s, M. Woodbridge Williams in the ’50s, Art Rogers in the ’70s and Richard Blair in the ’90s and 2000s.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Point Reyes Beach and the Pacific Ocean at sunset, near the lighthouse.

I can’t recall the first time I visited Point Reyes, possibly as a young boy growing up in the Bay area, but when I began to teach photographic workshops here in the late ’90s, I knew it was a special place. It’s hard to take a terrible picture in Point Reyes, but not all that easy to get a really great one. Factors in the landscape and local climate create a quandary photographers find difficult to deal with, yet through patience and a keen eye, you can compose magnificent coastal landscapes, spend a day in and amongst beds of wildflowers or document elephant seal pups resting on a beach, fattening up during the first months of their lives. Many summer afternoons, banana belt fog sticks to this coastal area, obscuring scenic vistas, yet switch your mind-set to adapt to the weather, and you can create mysterious images of forests or macros of dew on spider webs, utilizing the soft ambient light. The beauty of Point Reyes may be evident at first glance, but to come away with a quality photograph forces you to go on the hunt and battle the elements. As Ansel Adams once said, “You don’t take a photograph, you make it.”

Over the past 10 years, I’ve led workshops through the Point Reyes National Seashore Association, a nonprofit partner to the park offering photo workshops, summer camps and bird-watching seminars. As I take groups of photo enthusiasts into the field, some are discouraged by the weather. But it’s possible to get solid images if you learn to take advantage of what seems to be a disadvantage. If you can’t freeze movement, play with slow shutter speeds for flower abstracts or long exposures of incoming surf. Play and wander, and you may happen upon a newly born fawn hiding in tall grass, a great-horned owl feeding fledglings or an elk appearing out of the pea-soup fog, scenes I documented over the past year.

Over two decades revisiting Point Reyes, I’ve come to love a number of spots; here are a few, with brief descriptions of what you may encounter there.

Bear Valley. Drop by the quaint, yet quite large Bear Valley visitor center to plan your journey through the park. Many hiking trails begin near the barn-like park headquarters situated along the eastern base of Inverness Ridge. Situated a bit inland, Bear Valley is usually sunny and warmer than most spots in the park.

Chimney Rock. Goldfields bloom low to the ground covering sections of this headland overlooking the Pacific. Strong winds blast the exposed rocky peninsula, yet the extreme conditions don’t deter the delicate flowers from blanketing the hillsides in spring. California poppies, coastal lupine, calla lilies and Douglas iris are among the varieties of native and nonnative wildflowers. Sea lions huddle on its sandy beaches as winter storms roll overhead. The historic lifeboat station (a rustic landmark and home to a few of my weekend workshops) sits below the bluffs on the eastern side with commanding views of Drakes Bay, an old rescue station for boats run aground, and the lighthouse Muybridge recorded lies on the western side of Chimney Rock.

Drakes Beach. Named after the English Vice Admiral Sir Francis Drake and backed by dramatic white sandstone cliffs and an eight-mile-long crescent beach, Drakes Beach is a great location to photograph. Considered by some to be near Drake’s landing place during his circumnavigation of the world by sea in 1579, the area is popular for elephant seal rookeries and long walks. I enjoy hiking up the western bluff to the Peter Behr Overlook—the panoramic views give you the vantage point to see the curve of Drakes Bay, as well as the moor-like cliffs to the east and west.

Point Reyes National Seashore
(415) 464-5100

Point Reyes National Seashore Association
(415) 663-1200

Abbotts Lagoon. A small pullout along Pierce Point Road connects you to a flat trail leading to Abbotts Lagoon. The area is well protected, providing still conditions, a welcome alternative to Chimney Rock’s exposed windy promontory. Abbotts Lagoon beach lays a mile and a half from the trailhead, but with the diversity of wildflowers offering a plethora of macro possibilities, I’ve rarely made it as far.

Historic Pierce Point Ranch. At the south end of the Tule Elk Reserve, a picturesque 1860s California ranch sits where the road ends in this northern section of Point Reyes. Part of the National Register of Historic Places, the ranch is now an interpretive site, home to barn owls and graphic architectural images. Herds of elk roam the rolling coastal hillsides, providing great wildlife opportunities, and a short downhill trail to McClures Beach offers picturesque rock formations combined with powerful surf—a photographer’s paradise.

You can see more of Sean Arbabi’s photography at