Breaking News
More () »

The Point Reyes Lighthouse will leave you breathless | Bartell's Backroads

The view is great but if you take the 313 steps down to the Point Reyes Lighthouse, the walk back up will have you gasping over more than the scenery.

POINT REYES STATION, Calif. — On a sunny day, life is good at Point Reyes National Sea Shore, and all along Sir Frances Drake Boulevard it’s easy to see the elk, the elephant seals, and the sea birds, but according to Interpretive Ranger Fiona O’Kelly, life is not always good here — especially along the rocky headlands. 

“The wind speeds can reach in the hundreds, 133 miles-per-hour is our highest record and just two weeks ago we reached 78 miles-an-hour,” says O’Kelly.

Point Reyes is one of the foggiest and windiest places in the whole state and to keep ships in the Bay Area from running aground the Point Reyes Lighthouse warns them or at least it tries. 

“There have been over 70 shipwrecks in this area,” says O’Kelly.

When the weather is nice, O’Kelly opens up the Lighthouse for tourists to see but first, they must travel down stairs. 

“There’s 313 steps. I have counted them many times,” says O’Kelly.

The Point Reyes Lighthouse was built in 1870 and up until 1975 it was manned by a lighthouse keeper and yes, they had to travel up and down these steps multiple times a day.

► See an interactive map of everywhere John has visited on the backroads
► Watch all of the Backroads videos
► Follow John on Facebook

Back in 2019, the lighthouse underwent a massive multimillion-dollar renovation which included structural work and historic preservation. Today, the first thing you’ll notice inside the lighthouse is the large brass gears below the light.

“It’s basically like a large windup grandfather clock and it turns the giant light on gears and the Fresnel lens send beams of light out to sea,” O’Kelly says.

The Fresnel lens O’Kelly is talking about is essentially a bunch of magnifying glasses that illuminate the light and back in 1870 that light was not powered by electricity. 

“The light was a refined Lard Lamp as in Pig Lard,” O’Kelly. 

The pig fat candle was not the only crude lighthouse technology wait till you hear how the foghorn was powered back then. 

“So, they had to shovel 150 pounds of coal an hour to make enough pressure for the steam whistles to go as long as it was foggy. So, there was always someone shoveling to keep the horn going.”

Credit: ABC10 / KXTV
Interpretive ranger Fiona O’Kelly stands in the middle of the 313 steps that lead to the Point Reyes Lighthouse.

In 1939, the pig fat candle was replaced with an electric lightbulb, and soon after the horns were powered by diesel air compressors. Today, however, this solar-powered blinking light and the electric horn do all the work. 

“Yes, the light is less impressive, less romantic but it does the job,” said O’Kelly.

Automated or not, lighthouses still play an important part in Maritime navigation and Point Reyes National Seashore plays an important part in protecting and repopulating the wildlife in this area like the common Murs. 

“The Murs has an increasable comeback story. During the gold rush their eggs were harvested for eating,” says O’Kelly.

As you make your way back up the lighthouse steps you can take a break at one of the whales watching viewpoints that overlook the protected waters. 

“We have the southbound migration of gray whales going down since January,” O’Kelly said.

The Point Reyes Lighthouse is open most weekends weather permitting. You check the conditions here.

WATCH MORE BACKROADS: Top five 'must see' waterfalls in Yosemite National Park:

Before You Leave, Check This Out