There’s nothing quite like your first visit to the Pigeon Point Light Station (find tips here for your next trip) and I’ll always remember mine, standing in front of the park’s iconic lighthouse as massive winter swells pounded the rocks below. The wild energy there is inescapably palpable, an expansiveness of space matched by the simple strength of the lighthouse—the sentinel above the roar.
Clearly, I’m head over heels. But in all of my visits to this place I’ve never been able to actually step inside the lighthouse, and very few people have in recent years. In late 2001, several large pieces of iron fell from near the top of the tower, weathered from nearly 130 years of dutiful service. This prompted California State Parks to close the structure to the public and for the past two decades, it has remained guarded by a chain-link fence, patiently waiting its renovation.
Fall is one of the best times to visit this stretch of coastline as autumn’s easterly winds breakdown the ever-present fog bank.
Earlier this year, the state allocated over $18 million for the complete restoration of the lighthouse. “We couldn’t be more excited to one day soon invite the public back inside” said Linda Hitchcock, senior park and recreation specialist with California State Parks, “it’s the beginning of a new life for this coastal treasure.”
State Parks expects the restoration work to begin sometime next year, and it will likely last at least 18 months. Shoring up the ailing structure is a complex task with crews expected to erect scaffolding up the tower, strengthen its insides with concrete beams, and repair the catwalk, cast iron bracing and guard rails. Replacing the tired roof is also on the list. Fortunately, the surrounding park is expected to remain open during that time, but before you go, a little context is key for a more meaningful experience.
Our experiences at Pigeon Point would feel very different had POST not protected Whaler’s Cove from the threat of being developed into a motel site or had the adjacent 6,857-acre Cloverdale Coastal Ranches been reduced to luxury estates.
Picture for a minute standing at the top the 115-foot-tall tower, tied with the Point Arena Lighthouse in Mendocino County for the tallest on the West Coast. To the west, your view reveals a seemingly endless expanse of ocean, a view shared by only the point’s weathered seabirds. And to the east, the view is as equally profound, revealing a wild, raw landscape that still looks and feels much like it did when the lighthouse was first erected.
The rural character and beauty of this coastal treasure is no happy accident. Since our founding in 1977, POST has been hard at work to protect more than 80,000 acres of open spaces within San Mateo, Santa Clara and northern Santa Cruz counties. Much of the landscape surrounding Pigeon Point has been preserved, in large part, through this diligent effort.
Our experiences at Pigeon Point Light Station would be much different had POST not contributed $2.65 million in 2000 to block a nine unit motel from being constructed along the banks of Whaler’s Cove — land that has since been transferred to State Parks. Or if the nearly 7,000 acres of Cloverdale Coastal Ranches — the largest contiguous property along the San Mateo Coast and much of the backdrop for this State Park — had been subdivided into luxury estates. Linda Hitchcock from State Parks put it plainly when she said, “this beautiful restoration of the lighthouse just wouldn’t be the same if there was a motel right next door.”
For millennia, many Indigenous groups have called Pigeon Point and the surrounding area home, including the Awaswas, Muwekma and Ramaytush Ohlone. As one of the most prominent points along this stretch of coast — the other being Año Nuevo just to the south — there is a natural shelter on its southern side which provides ideal protection from the prevailing and, at times relentless, northwesterly winds. It has always been a natural place to access the abundance of the life-rich, cool Pacific waters.
In the Spanish and Mexican eras of California, the point was known as “Punta de las Balenas,” or “Whale Point,” after the gray whales that frequently pass offshore on their annual migrations between the Arctic and Mexico. In the late 1800s, Portuguese whalers would hunt these gentle behemoths off the point, hauling them ashore along the protected southern side at what is still known today as Whaler’s Cove.
The discovery of gold in 1848 and the following rush of ship traffic marked a seismic shift in this landscape’s modern history. Vessels of all types were pressed into service to carry gold-seekers and goods to the booming town of San Francisco, and a veritable marine highway developed almost overnight. Eagerly searching for sights of land, many ships ventured too close to shore, learning the hard way just how foggy this coast can be.
The original, first-ordered Fresnel lens is now on display inside the adjacent Fog Signal Building, with plans to one day be reinstalled in its rightful place. Here the top of the tower is artificially illuminated with powerful flashlights.
One of the most infamous shipwrecks along this stretch of coastline took place on the foggy night of June 6, 1853 when a clipper shipped name the Carrier Pigeon — with a finely-carved gilded pigeon gracing her bow — ran aground just 500 feet from the point’s rocky shore. You can imagine Capitan Azariah Doane’s shock and the ensuing panic as he worked to successfully save the lives of his entire crew. Little did he know that the event would inspire the point’s namesake, the unintended legacy of his newly tarnished career.
Pressure continued to mount on the federal government over the next two decades to build a lighthouse along that stretch of coast. But it wasn’t until sunset on Friday, November 15, 1872 that the sixteen foot tall and two thousand pound French-made Fresnel lens atop the newly constructed lighthouse was lit for the very first time. With the beacon ignited, a new era of maritime navigation along the San Mateo Coast was able to safely take root.
It’s a long drive to Pigeon Point no matter what direction you’re coming from (20 miles from Half Moon Bay, nearly 30 from Santa Cruz, and around 40 over winding roads from inland areas like Mountain View). Plan at least a half day for a proper visit and longer if you have the time. An overnight stay at the Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel is the best way to experience this place, affording enough time to really soak it all in.
Day parking here can be crowded at times, so we suggest arriving as early as possible, especially on sunny summer days, to grab a spot close to the lighthouse. The park’s visitor center (Thursday – Monday, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.) offers stellar educational opportunities, and you could spend hours talking to rangers, reading about the lighthouse’s history and exploring the grounds (the gift shop is also terrific). Half-hour guided history tours are also available upon request (staff permitting) by calling (650) 879-2120.
One of my favorite things to do at this park is to just sit comfortably and enjoy the view of passing wildlife, including gray and humpback whales on their annual migrations (south in November and north in April). But the cornucopia of seabirds seeking refuge on the rocky coast provides ample entertainment. I could sit there for hours, although I’m usually driven away by my energetic kids or the strong and surprisingly chilly northwesterly winds. Pack a few extra layers and maybe a thermos with your favorite warm beverage for an ideal experience.
Beachgoers will enjoy the protected water of Whaler’s Cove. It’s the best place to escape the wind (nearby Pistachio Beach tends to be a bit windier) and the relatively calm waters are much safer for kids to play around. The steps POST constructed down to the beach are quite steep and not recommended for anyone with mobility issues. The adjacent Mel’s Lane trail, however, offers a flat, short trail with epic views of the cove and is suitable for a range of abilities. And the boardwalk near the lighthouse is wheelchair accessible and leads to an observation deck with breathtaking views of the rugged coastline.
For our family, a trip to this stretch of coastline isn’t complete without a quick stop at Wilbur’s Watch, a one-mile out-and-back trail on POST-protected Cloverdale Coastal Ranches that offers one of the best views of the lighthouse. And our trip is often complemented with a stop at Pie Ranch (also protected by POST) for a sampling of their deliciously crafted pies — note that slices are not available and you have to buy the entire pie — but it’s worth it! Wash this all down with a warm cup of coffee from Whale City Bakery just down Highway 1 and you’ll wonder why you don’t visit this scenic coastline more often.
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Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) protects open space on the Peninsula and in the South Bay for the benefit of all. Since its founding in 1977, POST has been responsible for saving more than 80,000 acres as permanently protected land in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties. Learn more