On recent visits to the Golden State, I have traveled its winding 656 mile Highway 1 from the Big Sur to Point Reyes hiking trails draped by ice plants to cliff-bound sandy beaches where I scaled water-soaked jagged rocks to engulf myself in the coast's natural mystique and document it with the most descriptive photographs, all the time weary of the possibility of being swept away by the Pacific's illusive sneaker wave. A vantage point that was also perfect for viewing the man-made structures built upon these picturesque sea cliffs for the distinct purpose of warning mariners of the hidden dangers characteristic to the California coast, the State's legendary lighthouses.
From St. George Reef to Point Loma, California's 840 mile coast has been lighted by 33 lighthouses. I have visited four thus far, all near the multifaceted and diverse city of San Francisco. Often located on perilous points shrouded in fog, the only access to some of these historical wonders was either walking through a dark tunnel cut into a tall cliff, traversing a suspended bridge high above crashing surf or descending steep, narrow stairs cemented into a jagged rock face. This was true for the lighthouses located at Point Reyes and Point Bonita. For Pigeon Point and Point Montara, it was just a matter of pulling off Highway 1 and walking to the lighthouses.
Both north of San Francisco Bay, Point Bonita and Point Reyes lighthouses are very similar in both design and placement, but each have features and a history unique to itself. Both lighthouses stir your imagination and their unmatched scenery stoke your inspiration.
The Golden Gate's rebellious currents, dangerous shoals, and persistent clinging fog had impeded the journey of many a vessel. 300 boats ran aground near the Golden Gate during the gold rush years. In the 1850's, mariners cried for a light to mark the entrance to the Golden Gate and the 300-foot Point Bonita was selected for a lighthouse site. A fifty-six-foot, conical brick tower with a second-order Fresnel lens went into operation on May 2, 1855. A one-and-a-half-story brick and stone cottage was built near the tower for the keeper of the light. When the light was cloaked in fog, an eight-foot long cannon was fired as a fog signal. In 1874, the first steam siren was installed.
Locating the lighthouse on top of the 300-foot Point Bonita proved to be a mistake. California fog is characteristically high, leaving lower areas clear. A site on the tip of Point Bonita 180-feet lower was selected for the new lighthouse. To reach the site, tunneling through a rock-cliff was required. The 118-foot hand-hewed tunnel and trail proved to be challenging due to the unstable rock. A new 3-room brick structure was built to support the upper half of the original lighthouse that was moved to the new site in 1877, including the Fresnel lens. The new lighthouse went into operation on February 1, 1877.
In time, part of the trail eroded and collapsed into the surf 124-feet below. A wooden causeway was built. Later, it was replaced by a suspension bridge, which appropriately mirrored the style of the Golden Gate Bridge. Again, in 2010, the lighthouse was closed to the public due to the rusting and unsafe condition of the bridge. It too was replaced and the lighthouse reopened in 2011.
Point Bonita is part of the Marin Headlands. From the parking area, it is a 0.5 mile walk on a trail with a stirring coastal view surrounded by grey rock cliffs. It is open for tours Saturday to Monday from 12:30 pm to 3:30 pm.
Looking down from the top of Lookout Point northward, the panoramic view on a fog-free day is breathtaking. Stretching for 11 miles are the brown sands and green-capped cliffs of South Beach and North Beach. Looking seaward, the vast ocean waters are a soulful deep blue and its waves thunderous.
The Point Reyes Headlands jut 10 miles out to sea making it a threat to each ship entering or leaving San Francisco Bay. Before the construction of the Point Reyes Lighthouse in 1870, over three-quarters of a million dollars in ships and cargoes were lost on the rocks. To date, the Point has taken more than fifty ships and the lives of numerous sailors and passengers. Rising 600-feet above the tumultuous surf of the Pacific Ocean, Point Reyes' jagged cliffs were the ideal location for a lighthouse, despite being the second foggiest place on the North American continent. Like Point Bonita, due to the characteristically high fog, an area 300-feet below the top of the cliff was blasted with dynamite to clear a level spot for its construction.
The lens and mechanism for the lighthouse were constructed in France in 1867. The clockwork mechanism, glass prisms and housing for the lighthouse were shipped on a steamer around Cape Horn of South America to San Francisco. The parts from France and the parts for the cast iron tower were transferred to a second ship, which then sailed to a landing on Drakes Bay. The parts were loaded onto ox-drawn carts and hauled three miles over the headlands to near the 600-foot high tip of Point Reyes where they were lowered to the leveled area. It took six months for the lighthouse and fog signal building to be completed. The Point Reyes Light first shone on December 1, 1870.
On April 18, 1906 the famous earthquake of San Francisco occurred, during which the Point Reyes Peninsula and the lighthouse moved 18 feet in less than one minute to the north. The lighthouse did not suffer any significant damage and was off-line only thirteen minutes. A testimony to the dedication and commitment of its hearty lighthouse keepers.
Point Reyes is the windiest place on the Pacific Coast. The highest wind speed recorded at Point Reyes was 133 mph, and 60 mph winds are common. At the end of each shift, the keeper trudged back up the long wooden staircase 300-feet to the keeper's quarters. Sometimes the winds were so strong that he had to crawl on his hands and knees to keep from being knocked down. The hard work, wind, fog, and isolation at Point Reyes made this an undesirable post. The lighthouse keeper at Point Reyes once wrote: "Better to dwell in the midst of alarms than reign in this horrible place."
Visiting and photographing lighthouses has been a passion of mine. They conjure up a now extinct era when man dared to peer into the unknown with the hope of making peace with the natural order of the sea equipped with nothing more than his wits and raw fortitude. Sometimes he succeeded and sometimes he did not. The lighthouse remains a symbol of that era. Visiting the lighthouses close to San Francisco was fascinating and enriching. I will follow up this article with the lighthouses at Pigeon Point and Point Montara.