By Lee Foster
(Author’s Note: I am out exploring California as I update my book Northern California History Weekends for a new edition. This chapter is about the enduring mystery of where Sir Francis Drake landed in Point Reyes and how an impressive redwood grove was saved north of San Francisco and named to honor John Muir.)
In Brief: The precise spot where Sir Francis Drake apparently landed his ship, the Golden Hind, in 1579 for repairs on the Point Reyes coast, remains a mystery today. Drake’s ship was literally sinking with the weight of plundered Spanish silver. The search for Drake can lead you to the glorious natural treasures of Marin County. A parallel world-class experience here on the way to Drake’s Beach is a stop at Muir Woods, the major stand of redwoods near San Francisco, named, appropriately, after the father of the conservation movement, John Muir.
A couple walking among giant redwoods in Muir Woods
The Historic Story: The more modern of the two historic stories involves the legendary conservationist, John Muir. When a benefactor in Marin County set aside redwoods in 1908, he decided to name the tract not after himself but in honor of the man who had dedicated his life to forest preservation. Muir’s accomplishments included founding the Sierra Club in 1892.
Muir Woods is a 560-acre sanctuary north and west from Sausalito along CA Highway 1. The holding is home to California’s signature coast redwood trees, dating back over a thousand years and some rising 250 feet. Specimens of the same tree, in the state’s far northern region, are the tallest trees on earth, a symbol of California superlatives.
Adjacent to Muir Woods and dominating Marin is 2,571-foot Mt. Tamalpais, one of the most agreeable hiking areas in the state and also one of the places where the modern sport of mountain biking was born. Trails range from shady paths deep within the forest to wide open sunny strips running to the top of the mountain.
Farther up the west Marin coast is Point Reyes (“Point of the Kings” in Spanish), where Drake is assumed to have landed. Point Reyes is a designated National Seashore, where you can immerse yourself in several aspects of California history beyond Drake. Presiding over all this is the haunting historic figure of Drake. Historians continue to write their dissertations to argue about the exact landing spot near what is now Drake’s Bay. There is little doubt that somewhere here the English swashbuckler, Sir Francis Drake, put in his ship, the Golden Hind, for repairs in 1579. His ship was literally sinking with silver plundered from Spanish vessels. Drake was the first English explorer to land on the North American continent. Though he claimed the land for England, the English never invested the manpower necessary to hold California, which the Spanish did.
The road to Drake’s Bay can be pointed out to the traveler at the Point Reyes Visitor Center, manned by National Park Service professionals and spirited volunteers. Be on the lookout for what Drake called “a convenient and fit harbor…with white cliffs and banks that lie toward the sea.” Drake said he nailed a brass plaque to a post to commemorate the occasion, so finding that would be special.
Also special are two historic walks, close to the Visitor Center, which should not be missed before you pursue Drake. One walk leads to a recreated Miwok Village; the other walk illustrates the Earthquake of 1906 and its effect on the area.
The Miwok Village, Kule Loklo, shows how these Native Americans lived. The Miwoks were remarkable, but because they left no tactile monuments, it is difficult to champion for the public their importance. They lived in a land of abundance at relative peace. It is said that they had no word for war in their language. The lives they pursued in their simple thatch houses, existing within the ecological means of their environment, was a quiet but eloquent lesson for all time.
The walk from the visitor center that illustrates the 1906 Earthquake is also intriguing. Point Reyes experienced some of the most violent and lurching land shifts during that traumatic event. At one point along the walk a fence broke apart and the land was offset 16 feet. Imagine 16 feet of land mass slipping past each other. That was why the quake of 1906 continues to be referred to as The Great Earthquake. If you have ever wondered what the Great Quake was like, this is the place to see the results. The walk circles for a mile through meadows and bay laurel trees along the San Andreas Fault, with markers alerting you to the Pacific and American plates grinding past each other at roughly two inches per year. Along the Earthquake Walk, you begin to imagine that Point Reyes will truly be an island in time, destined to join the Aleutian chain off Alaska.
Getting There: The world of Muir, Drake, the Miwoks, and the Quake is easy to locate. Cross the Golden Gate on Highway 101, then turn west on Highway 1 to Muir Woods and beyond to Point Reyes.
Be Sure to See: The cathedral of redwoods at Muir Woods and the mysterious possibilities of Sir Francis Drake at Drakes Bay are worth exploring. Stop at the Point Reyes Visitor Center to get directions to Drake’s Bay. Be sure to see the recreated Miwok Village and the 1906 Earthquake Walk near the Visitor Center.
Best Time of Year: Muir Woods and Point Reyes are all-year destinations, good places in sun and fog and rain, appreciated in all seasons. The weather is mild year-round.
Lodging: Midway on this trip, a cozy lodging choice is Sandpiper Lodging at 1 Marine Way in Stinson Beach, http://www.sandpiperstinsonbeach.com, 415-868-1632. They have standard rooms, kitchenettes, cabins, and two-bedroom cottages.
Dining: The Station House Café (Main Street, Point Reyes Station, 415/663-1515) is an example of an old-time, local favorite restaurant in West Marin, where you can’t go wrong ordering oysters from the Hog Island Oyster Company in nearby Marshall.
For Further Information: The local information source is the West Marin Chamber of Commerce (PO Box 1045, Point Reyes Station, CA 94956; 415-663-9232; www.pointreyes.org).
Muir Woods National Monument information is at 415-388-2595, www.nps.gov/muwo.
Point Reyes National Seashore information is at 415-464-5100, www.nps.gov/pore.
The San Francisco region figures prominently in my book/ebook titled The Photographer’s Guide to San Francisco. My main book/ebook on Northern California is Northern California Travel: The Best Options. Those volumes, including some more on California, can be seen on my Amazon Author Page. My further books on Northern California are Back Roads California and Northern California History Weekends. One of my California books, Northern California Travel: The Best Options, is now available as an ebook in Chinese.