Wrapped in mist and kissed with a chill, the day seems more like winter than summer on the Northern California coast. Fog rolls across the surf at Point Reyes National Seashore and dances silently ashore, where the cool air thrills the horses we ride.
En route to Wildcat Beach, the animals alternately walk, trot, and canter along a thickly forested trail. Wind-sculpted California laurel and towering Douglas fir, many dripping with Spanish moss, line the path. Brief openings in the woodland reveal distant, undulating hills―golden now, but verdant after winter rains. The horses prance with eagerness as our group approaches the wide band of taupe-colored sand at Wildcat.
"Are you guys ready to canter?" Rebecca Williams calls over her shoulder. Accepting our quick smiles as an affirmative, the Five Brooks Ranch guide urges her horse to turn up the speed. Little Button, my palomino mare, immediately lunges into action, her gait as smooth and gentle as a rocking horse.
Seagulls scatter as the horses thunder down the beach. Bullets of wet sand pelt my body, and I taste the salty sea on my lips. As the wind tugs my hair, a shout of pure joy bursts from my lungs. I've never felt so free.
Indeed, few places are more hospitable to equestrians and their mounts. Still fewer match the natural beauty found here. This triangular wedge of prime coastal real estate protrudes more than 10 miles into the Pacific Ocean, about 50 miles north of San Francisco. While it appears to be attached to the mainland, the Point Reyes peninsula is really an island, separated from the North American continent by the San Andreas fault. The pastoral Olema Valley merely represents a temporary healing of this volatile wound in the earth's surface.
The windswept beaches, steep colorful cliffs, and ridgetop forests contribute to the physical beauty of Point Reyes, but it's the fog that shapes its character. Warm winds caress the icy waters of the Pacific, creating great banks of mist that shroud Point Reyes much of the summer. The weather can be perfectly sunny in the nearby village of Olema and still be gray, windy, and cold on the headlands. Yet the 90,000 acres of parkland, 147 miles of trail, and wonderfully mysterious weather patterns make this a perfect place to ride.
With the waves on one side and the beach cliffs on the other, it's an almost romantic notion of what horseback riding should be," says National Seashore superintendent Don Neubacher, also a horseman. But "even if you're not on horseback, it's a pretty spectacular space to explore."
Point Reyes beckons riding enthusiasts Herb Stone and Gail Rich of Shingle Springs, California. They often travel here from the Central Valley seeking cooler weather and a place to challenge their horses. "We can ride here when it's too hot at home," says Herb. "The trails are good, and there's lots of diverse scenery. This is a spectacular place for people to ride." Gail agrees, a smile lighting her face as she turns toward the sea. "Coming here is almost like a pilgrimage for me," she says.
Those who don't have horses of their own, or who live too far away to transport them, can come to Five Brooks Ranch, the park's only outfitter. Owner Andreas Loose and his staff offer guided trail rides of varying lengths, including our 18-mile jaunt to Wildcat Beach, which takes us three hours to reach.
Cantering along the shore, I see the Point Reyes Lighthouse and the dramatic cream-colored cliffs above Drakes Bay. When at last we rest, Little Button and I are both breathless. Sand clings to her golden coat like sugar on a freshly baked cookie. I notice a sea otter offshore, watching us curiously as if he wished, just for a little while, he could trade his webbed feet for hooves.