A park equipped with its own seismograph and educational "Earthquake Trail" is guaranteed to help you shake off a bad case of urbanitis.
Point Reyes National Seashore, located northwest of the Golden Gate Bridge and smack on the San Andreas Fault, is a close neighbor to San Francisco. If you have more than a weekend to spare, you can head down the American Discovery Trail, which has its western terminus here. (See "A Treasure In The Backyard," April 2000, for more hiking options in the area.) The park is well known, and crowds are the norm along Bear Valley Trail on any sunny day.
But solitude abounds on the park's chaparral ridges and in the forested canyons and rocky coves—just duck into any of the quiet, green tributaries. The groves of Douglas fir and bishop pine, wildflower meadows, and sublime ocean vistas make living in a major fault zone worth the risk.
To find peace and quiet, start at the Palomarin trailhead, tucked away at the extreme southern end of the park. In early spring, coastal flowers color the hillsides, creeks run wild, Alamere Falls pours off the cliffs above Wildcat Beach, and most hikers are waiting for summertime to strike off on a trail.
The showcase path here is the 15-mile Coast Trail, where you'll spy brown pelicans, red-tailed hawks, harbor seals, sea lions, and, in the distance, gray whales migrating south to Mexico (best seen in mid-January) and north to Alaska (from mid-March to May). Between the craggy headlands, cold water and nasty currents make lonely patches of pristine beach better for walking than wading. If you want to swim without worrying about sharks, check out the inland lakes north of Palomarin.
The sight of Point Reyes under a blanket of fog belies the true nature of this tranquil-looking coast. Most of the park is on the Pacific plate, which is grinding its way northwest along the North American plate at a pace of about 2 inches per year. This whole batch of mobile seashore is due to subduct into the Aleutian Trench in about 50 million years—so explore it before it's gone.
EXPEDITION PLANNER: Point Reyes National Seashore, CA
Drive Time: Point Reyes National Seashore is 35 miles (about 45 minutes) north of San Francisco.
The Way: From San Rafael (10 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge on US 101), take the Sir Francis Drake Highway west for 22 miles to CA 1 at Olema. Turn right, then make a quick left onto Bear Valley Road to reach park headquarters. For the Palomarin trailhead, go 9 miles south on CA 1 to the Bolinas turnoff and turn right and then right again on Mesa Road. Continue 5 miles to the trailhead.
Trails: More than 140 miles of trail cover Point Reyes. For the best combination of solitude and scenery, start at the Palomarin trailhead and make a loop of about 15 miles using the Coast and Ridge Trails.
Elevation: The high point is Mt. Wittenberg at 1,407 feet; the low point is the Pacific Ocean.
Can't Miss: A night on the coast at Wildcat Camp and a morning walk along the beach to nearby Alamere Falls.
Crowd Control: The Coast and Sky Camps receive the bulk of overnight guests. Use the Glen or Wildcat Camps instead (a reservation and fee required).
Guides: Point Reyes, by Dorothy L. Whitnah (Wilderness Press, 800-443-7227; www.backpacker.com/bookstore; $12.95). Point Reyes National Seashore is a 1:48,000 U.S. Geological Survey topo map of the park (888-ASK-USGS; http://ask.usgs.gov; $7).
Walk Softly: Western Marin County is a tinderbox, especially in early fall. Wood fires are prohibited at campsites and driftwood fires are permitted only on the beach below the tide line.
Contact: Point Reyes National Seashore, (415) 663-1092, www.nps.gov/pore.