Point Bonita Lighthouse has sat on a rocky outcrop, safeguarding the entrance to San Francisco Bay, since 1877. The only way to get to it is by walking down a steep path, through a tunnel hewn through rock and across a vertigo inducing, swaying suspension bridge. Tom and I last visited this lighthouse two years ago, just before it closed for two years for the bridge to be replaced.
(Click on the photos for larger versions)
Before we reached the headlands, we headed to Irving Street for breakfast. Afterwards we took a walk on Irving between 7th and 10th Avenue. On those three blocks there is an amazing variety of shops and restaurants. Of course there were the usual scattering of banks, boutique clothes stores and beauty salons plus quite a few coffee shops including the ubiquitous Starbucks. A lot of the shops were several decades out of date – a cobbler, a hardware shop and two, family run grocery stores almost next door to each other with fresh fruit displayed outside. There were at least four bars along the way, lots of restaurants and cafes including four breakfast places. On one block, a Korean, a Japanese and an Italian restaurant were just a couple of doors apart.
After our little walk, we headed to the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands. We drove up Conzelman Road for over four miles, enjoying every twist and turn and some of the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge, the city of San Francisco and the bay. As it was a beautiful day, lots of boats, ranging in size from tankers to kayaks were out on the water. All the parking bays along the road were full which meant there were lots of tourists around. We were lucky to find an empty parking space where we could look back at the bridge. Cars approaching and driving across the bridge sparkled in the sunlight. After a week of rain, people were making the most of the sunny weather. California poppies and other wild flowers adorned the headlands as they sloped towards the bay. We stood admiring the view for fifteen minutes.
Just below Hawk Hill, Conzelman Road becomes one-way. The road hugs the coast and is like a roller coaster ride. From the top, looking towards the Point Bonita Lighthouse, we could see dozens of bikes whizzing down the hill. After the steep and strenuous drive up, they were enjoying the exhilerating drive downhill. We could see the lighthouse standing sentinel on the point and, across the bay, Lands End with the Palace of the Legion of Honor perching on its hill could be seen.
Now for the white knuckle drive. As we started down the hill, Tom said that he thought there was something wrong with the brakes, then said the steering felt weird. I’m used to his sense of humor by now and let him have his fun. It’s truly one of the most scenic rides in the Bay Area and one not to be missed.
We reached the parking lot for the lighthouse which is now the end of the road. The road used to carry on past Battery Mendell and end at the parking lot overlooking Bird Island. Now the road has been turned into a footpath. Already there were a lot of cars parked in the small parking area for the lighthouse and it was only 11.45. The lighthouse opens at 12.30 but, as this is the first day of opening after two years, people were obviously very keen to see the new suspension bridge. We had to go round the roundabout and find somewhere else to park. There is a large car park a short distance away, which I think is new, but we found a convenient spot on the road instead.
The path to the lighthouse is not very long, probably no more than half a mile, but it is quite steep. It is an interesting walk and, at this time of the year, there were a few wild flowers along the way. Glancing down towards the water, I could see a small, black, sandy, inaccessible beach with half a dozen harbor seals basking in the sunlight. Also down in the water are the remnants of an old slipway used to launch a lifeboat.
When we reached the tunnel, our way was barred not only by a locked steel door but also by a dozen people already waiting there. There was still half an hour to wait so we joined the end of the line and waited patiently. When we first reached the point, the sun was overhead and it was pleasantly warm, though windy. While we waited though, the sun disappeared over the top of the headland and it began to get chilly. More and more people arrived behind us and it was surprising the number of people who squeezed past us to get closer to the front. We couldn’t help overhearing the conversation of the people behind is. Two older guys had driven down from the Oregon border in order to watch the Giants game that night at AT&T Park and had heard of the lighthouse reopening and decided to stop off to see it.
12.30 approached and no sign of the park ranger who would open the door. Some of the folks waiting expected the door to be opened from the other side but I knew that the park ranger comes down from the Visitors Center and opens the door from this side. From where we stood, we could see some way up the path and there was sign of anyone in uniform. 12.30 came and went and still no one to open the door. Finally, nearly ten minutes after it was due to open, the volunteer arrived and then took a long time trying to find the right key. Eventually the heavy door opened noisily and we entered the tunnel. Inside it was really dark with no lighting at all and it was hard to see where we were going. The rough rock face hemmed us in on both sides and above. It gradually became lighter and soon we were out in bright sunshine. Someone behind us remarked it was just as if we’d been through a time warp and we had just arrived in Hawaii.
The trail becomes just the width of the path several times with the ocean pounding on the rocks on both sides. The wind hit us from the side with a chilling slap. We got our first decent view of the new bridge. It is painted brilliant white. The old one was made of wood but we weren’t sure whether this one would be the same or made out of metal. It certainly looks like an copy of the old one. When we were here the last time, only two people were allowed on the bridge at the same time and a volunteer would be at the bridge to monitor it. Now there seems to be no limit.
Tom and I had decided that we would just go to look at the bridge as neither of us had any intention of crossing it. At the last moment though, we looked at each other and went for it anyway. The previous one had swayed a lot and I fully expected that this one wouldn’t. I should have realized that suspension bridges are supposed to sway and, as it was windy day, it certainly did sway. Once it started to sway, we just wanted to get to the other side as soon as possible. It is not a long bridge and really doesn’t take more than two minutes to walk across, but it seems much longer when you’re feeling jittery.
The lighthouse stood there all spruced up for it’s reopening with the sunlight glittering on the glass at the top. With the hordes of people piling over the bridge, we knew the cramped interior of the lighthouse would be crammed packed. There are interesting displays inside, including a fascinating map showing of the Golden Gate with the depth of water in places and the size and position of sandbanks. I like to study that map for ages, always finding something interesting I hadn’t noticed before. Today we stayed outside and lent on the railings, in the sun and out of the wind, contemplating the activity out on the water. There were tour boats sailing under the bridge, then turning round to head back; a flotilla of small boats were off Chrisie Field, a large tanker entering the bay with its attending pilot boat but the most amazing sight was of a lone kayaker paddling out to the ocean. We watched him for some time wandering when he would turn back but he never did. Where was he heading, we pondered.
We geared ourselves up for a return across the bridge. We stood there for a few moments, took and deep breath and boldly walked back across the bridge. Once safely back on dry land at the other side, we took a little time looking back at the lighthouse and watching folks crossing the bridge. It was rewarding to see that everything is very much as it bad been before on our last visit and we are glad that people have not forgotten this isolated corner and hope that more people will discover it.
Opening time are Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays from 12:30 – 3:30 pm. The best part is that it is all free of charge.
May 04 2012 06:00 am | Special Places