The perfect California trip, part 3: Point Reyes

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So you started in San Francisco, then you tackled the grandeur of Yosemite. Now, in the third instalment of this perfect California road trip taken from Lonely Planet Magazine (July 2010 issue), Lonely Planet author and California resident John Vlahides takes you wildlife-spotting in Point Reyes.

Miles into your trip: 430

Point Reyes is about 230 miles northest of Yosemite National Park, under 5 hours by car.

When the 1906 earthquake struck San Francisco and levelled the city, Point Reyes Peninsula moved a whopping 6m northwestward. To prove it there's a broken fence along the Earthquake Trail near the Bear Valley Visitor Center. As the main road, Sir Francis Drake Blvd, crosses a short bridge connecting the mainland and the peninsula, it's hard to imagine that the little creek beneath sits atop such a massive rift zone.

Drakes Bay

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Point Reyes National Seashore's western tip juts 10 miles out to sea and stands 183m high, with sea lions lazing on the rocks below. It's an ideal perch from which to see the January-to-May migration of California grey whales. Just east at Chimney Rock is a large elephant seal breeding colony, complete with a dedicated lookout spot.

'My favourite time of year is winter,' says park ranger Doug Hee. 'The migrating whales, the mating elephant seals, the profusion of wildflowers – everything comes alive in colour from January to April.'

Tree Lupine

Wintertime bird-watching is sensational, especially from a kayak on Tomales Bay. The Pacific Flyway, the route migrating flocks follow between the tropics and the Arctic, sits just overhead. 'Forty-five per cent of all North American bird species have been spotted at Point Reyes – there are great opportunities to see very rare birds,' says Hee.

The most thrilling spectacle is the herds of tule elk, a native-California species of 500-pound reindeer-like beasts, roaming the peninsula's northern finger, Tomales Point. Come rutting season, their bugling echoes across the valleys as the males spar and lock horns in a fight for dominance, wooing potential harem members. The footpath wends right through the 440-head herd, and on weekends from July through September, the parks service provides binoculars for a closer look. It's a little disconcerting hiking so close to these giant animals, but Hee assures, 'They're very tolerant of people on the trail, but if you step off it, the whole group can scatter and the bulls can lose their harems.'

Tule elk

Not that you'd want to step off the trail when you see what's ahead. Just beyond the elk, the wildflower-studded footpath tops out on high, windswept bluffs with superb vistas. On one side, the Pacific churns; on the other lies mellow Tomales Bay, whose stillness belies the staggering power of the San Andreas fault just beneath its surface.

See where it all began with part 1 of the series, then motor on ahead and check out part 2.

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