Beginner Backpack By the Ocean, Point Reyes National Seashore, California

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14120A, Backpack


  • Hike two days through tule elk reserves and elephant seal breeding grounds  
  • Learn or refresh backpacking skills  
  • Explore beaches, dunes, lakes, a waterfall, and an estuary


  • All campgrounds during the trip
  • Delicious meals and group camping gear  
  • Experienced leadership 


DatesJun 15–21, 2014
Difficulty2 (out of 5)
StaffMelinda Goodwater

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Trip Overview

The Trip

If you would like to try backpacking in an area with grand views, prolific wildlife, and a rich cultural history, then this is the trip for you. Point Reyes National Seashore protects over 70,000 acres of sand dunes, beaches, grasslands, Douglas fir and pine forests, estuaries, marshes, lakes, and 80 miles of unspoiled, undeveloped coastline. In spring and summer, this all comes alive with a vibrant display of wildflowers. See how this Island in Time is still moving along the San Andreas Fault while you learn or refresh your backpacking skills.

We start by exploring parts of the park on two days of day hikes. Highlights these days include rambling through the Tule Elk Reserve and visiting historic Point Reyes Lighthouse and elephant seal breeding grounds. Next, our five-day, 22-mile route (with only one climb of 1,300 feet) is the perfect introduction to backpacking. The backpack begins with topping 1,407-foot Mt. Wittenberg, Point Reyes' highest, en route to our mountain and coastside camps. One and a half layover days allow time to spy frolicking harbor seals, view the Seashore's wide variety of birds, and hike to a waterfall crashing to the beach. We'll see blooming grasslands, chaparral, forests, and unique coastal rock formations and sea stacks. Located an hour from the densely populated San Francisco Bay Area, Point Reyes is a sanctuary for discovery, inspiration, solitude, and rejuvenation of the human spirit.


Day 1: Today, we'll dayhike out to Chimney Rock to see wildflower displays and the elephant seal breeding grounds, then visit historic Point Reyes Lighthouse, completed in 1870. After enjoying lunch at Drakes Beach, we'll head to camp to check our gear and pack for the backpack.

Day 2: We'll finish checking our gear and packing before beginning the backpack up Mt. Wittenberg to Sky Camp, 2.7 miles and 1,300 feet up. There we'll find sweeping views of Point Reyes, Drakes Bay, and the Pacific Ocean.

Day 3: We'll head down to Coast Camp in four miles. Close to the beach and tide pools in the afternoon, we'll be free to hike along sand dunes out to Limantour Spit. Enjoy bird-watching there, from feeding shorebirds to many migratory species. Nearly half the bird species of North America have been identified at Point Reyes.

Day 4: We'll backpack 8.5 miles down the coast to Wildcat Camp, and include a short side trip to Arch Rock for lunch. We'll camp there for two nights in a meadow on a bluff overlooking the ocean.

Day 5: We'll enjoy a layover day to hike a mile down the beach to Alamere Falls, which cascades over a cliff to the shore. We'll continue hiking to several other lakes on a grassland and chaparral plateau.

Day 6: Our return brings us back to Bear Valley Trailhead through chaparral, Douglas fir, Bishop pine, and oak woodland in 6.5 miles. We'll return to our first night's campground for hot showers and one more night of camping.

Day 7: We'll finish the trip with a day hike through the Tule Elk Reserve, home to more than 400 tule elk. Afterward, we'll hike through wildflowers to Abbotts Lagoon, a haven for birds, butterflies, and other beasts, for seven miles of total hiking.



Getting There

This outing begins the morning of Sunday, June 15 at 9 a.m. at the Bear Valley Visitor Center. We encourage you to spend the night locally beforehand so you may meet us on time. Suggestions for this will be sent in a future bulletin. After introductions and a short orientation, we'll begin our day's activities. There is no car camping at Point Reyes National Seashore, so we'll be spending the first two nights at Samuel P. Taylor State Park Campground, about six miles away. The nearest airports to fly into are San Francisco and Oakland, each about 45 miles from our meeting place. One advantage of a trip near a population center is there are public transportation options to get to Point Reyes. Ride-sharing is strongly encouraged and a roster of trip members, driving directions, and public transportation options will be sent well enough ahead of time to facilitate this. Return flight reservations should be made for June 22 or later.

Accommodations and Food

We will be staying at Samuel P. Taylor State Park for two nights. The park is situated in coast redwoods, and the campsites have tables, fire rings, food storage boxes, and access to flush toilets and hot showers. Our backpacking camps will not be as luxurious, but they will have tables, food lockers, grills, vault toilets, and potable water.

The trip price includes all meals from lunch on day one through lunch on day seven. Group camping gear will be provided. Creating masterpieces from freeze-dried and home-dehydrated fruits and vegetables is a hobby your leader cheerfully enjoys. You may even find yourself signing up for future trips for the food! A nutritious, high-energy, non-red meat diet is planned. Any food allergies or limitations should be indicated to the leader as far in advance of the trip as possible. Although red meat will not be served, chicken and fish are on the menu. Vegetarians can be accommodated, but participants unable to eat dairy products should consider another outing. Participants will be divided into cook crews so everyone will have a chance to prepare meals a couple of times during the trip.

Trip Difficulty

Although this trip is rated 2, good physical condition is required to carry a 35-pound pack for four moving days. Daily hiking distances to camps will be 2.7-8.5 miles, though the only major elevation gain is 1,300 feet on the first backpacking day. Elevation on this trip fluctuates between sea level and 1,407 feet. You should sustain a program of physical conditioning to prepare for this trip and the leader will provide suggestions for this. Proper preparation will only enhance your wilderness experience.

Point Reyes is blessed with a Mediterranean climate, and late spring-early summer is the ideal time to be there, with mild temperatures and usually clear weather. The characteristic morning coastal fog is soon blown away by daily winds. Point Reyes extends into the Pacific Ocean 10 miles farther than the surrounding coastline, so fog and strong winds may be encountered at places such as Chimney Rock. Expect daytime highs in the 60s and nighttime lows in the 40s and 50s; however coastal humidity may make it feel cooler, so layers of clothing are recommended. We wouldn't expect to have much, if any, rain, but spring and summer can bring weather surprises so you will still need to bring raingear. This trip is entirely on well-maintained trails to avoid poison oak, stinging nettles, and ticks.

Equipment and Clothing

A detailed equipment list will be provided. Participants must furnish their own personal camping equipment, including a backpack, a lightweight tent (should be shared), a sleeping bag rated to at least 20 degrees, sleeping pad, reliable raingear including pack cover, layers of clothing to be comfortable between 40-70 degrees, and medium-weight (preferably leather), well-broken-in, waterproofed, lug-soled boots. Hiking poles are helpful on rough and steep terrain. If this is your first backpacking experience, you may wish to rent or borrow equipment for this trip -- the leaders are happy to make recommendations. You will enjoy this outing more if you practice with your gear on a weekend trip before this one. Your personal backpack gear should weigh less than 25 pounds as we will give you up to 10 pounds of central commissary. Group commissary equipment will be provided. Time will be spent with each participant before we start the backpack part of the trip to go over gear and teach packing techniques so your pack will be light and comfortable to carry.



  • Wilderness Press Recreational Map: Point Reyes National Seashore and West Marin Parklands
  • Tom Harrison Maps: Point Reyes National Seashore Trail Map


  • Lage, Jessica, Point Reyes: The Complete Guide to the National Seashore and Surrounding Area.
  • Evens, Jules, The Natural History of the Point Reyes Peninsula.
  • Gilliam, Harold, Island in Time: The Point Reyes Peninsula.
  • Hart, John, Walking Softly in the Wilderness: The Sierra Club Guide to Backpacking.



The Miwok Indians were the first human inhabitants on Point Reyes some 5,000 years ago and left behind over 120 known village sites. Europeans followed Sir Francis Drake's landing in 1579, and Mexican land grants established ranchos for cattle grazing and dairy farming 150 years ago that are still functioning today. As development pressure mounted in the 1960s, an odd partnership was formed between the Sierra Club and the remaining ranchers to preserve Point Reyes as a National Seashore. Today, traditional land uses coexist with the large amount of the peninsula preserved as wilderness. We will witness this and discuss the problems threatening Point Reyes today. Air pollution from the ever-growing Bay Area, invasive plants and animals, and rising sea levels from climate change could make this area uninhabitable for many species. We will see how all life here is interconnected and help keep the Seashore wild by learning and practicing Leave No Trace principles.

In 2014 we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act by exploring what wilderness means to us and why it’s important to society.  We will learn the history of how Point Reyes was rescued from development as we hike through its Phillip Burton Wilderness.

Sierra Club National Outings is an equal-opportunity provider and will operate under a permit from Point Reyes National Seashore.



Melinda Goodwater has been leading trips for Sierra Club Outings for over 20 years and has over 100 outings under her belt. She quit her full-time job when it got in the way of her trips and has been leading adventures ever since. She leads treks from Nepal to the Rockies and Sierra to the desert southwest. Melinda is a very amateur naturalist and particularly enjoys finding unique places off the beaten track. Along with years of experience leading remote and high-elevation outings, Melinda has training in CPR and is a wilderness first responder with 80 hours of first aid training. She welcomes you to join her and share her love of the wilderness.

Assistant Leader:

Suzanne Swedo is a botanist who has led wilderness seminars for the Yosemite Conservancy for more than 25 years and is the author of Hiking Yosemite National Park. She leads natural history-oriented outings around the world for other organizations as well as her own adventure travel company. She has led more than 60 Sierra Club National Outings, written a number of other trail guides for Falcon Publishing, and backpacked the mountains of every continent.

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