When the Big One Strikes… A Hike Along Earthquake Trail: Pt. Reyes

At 7.9 on the Richter scale, the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake wreaked massive damage both in structures destroyed and lives lost. This photo is from the National Archives.

I was wrapping up my day at the Lung Association in Sacramento when the building started moving shortly after 5 p.m. on October 17th, 1989. Peggy and I were at the very beginning of our relationship. You might say, it was off to a shaky start. “Is this the big one?” leapt into my mind as I ran outside. But buildings weren’t falling or people screaming. “Not this time,” we thought, relieved. 

Had you been one of 62,000 baseball fans crammed into Candlestick Park for the World Series, or worse, commuting home from work in the Bay Area, your perspective would have been substantially different. A major 6.9 earthquake had ripped into the Santa Cruz Mountains along the San Andreas Fault south of the stadium. Nearby freeways collapsed including a section of the Bay Bridge, numerous buildings were destroyed or damaged, 63 people were killed and 3,757 injured by what became known as the Loma Prieta Earthquake.

A number of faults are located under the Bay Area. The next big earthquake is projected to be along the Hayward Fault. The Pt. Reyes National Seashore is the land jutting out to the left of the San Andreas fault at the top of the diagram.

Eighty-three years before the Loma Prieta earthquake, an even greater one shook the Bay Area. Blame plate tectonics. The San Andreas Fault, marks a distinct boundary as the Pacific Plate grinds its way north past the North American Plate, building pressure until an earthquake erupts.  At 7.9 on the Richter Scale, the energy released from the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake equaled blowing up an estimated 6,270,000 tons of TNT! 

Earthquake Trail, found next to the Visitors’ Center at Pt. Reyes National Seashore, commemorates the event. Peggy and I were there last week and went for a walk along the trail. Like San Francisco, Pt. Reyes felt the full fury of the earthquake as portions of the land moved north as much as 20 feet.

With arms stretched out, Peggy points to two sections of a fence that were separated during the San Francisco Earthquake. They have been rebuilt to demonstrate the power of the earthquake. The lower fence had moved 16 feet north. The San Andreas Fault is located directly under Peggy’s feet.

The trail is easy to hike and is well marked with information signs. Its bucolic, serene beauty makes the damage done by the 1906 earthquake hard to imagine, however. 

A bridge along Earthquake Trail at Pt. Reyes National Seashore. Photo by Curt Mekemson.
The peaceful beauty found along the Earthquake Trail at Pt. Reyes belies the potentially destructive force that lies just beneath it. Fall leaves added color.
While the trail is short and easy to hike, it provides a variety of scenery, like this meadow…
Interesting trees are perfect for little people to explore… (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
A fun stump found along the trail.
Peggy took an interesting closeup. She saw a dragon, a monster, and more….oh, my.
Various Conifers…
And in conclusion, a bit of sunshine.

NEXT POST: More photos from around Pt. Reyes National Seashore and our maiden three week voyage with Iorek the Truck and Serafina the trailer.

52 thoughts on “When the Big One Strikes… A Hike Along Earthquake Trail: Pt. Reyes

  1. Wonderful post, Curt. I have been on this trail in Pt. Reyes, and it’s eye-opening what the EQ did. You did a good job of capturing the huge distance between the two fences, by having Peggy extend her arms. I, too, remember the day of the Loma Prieta. I was working in a highrise in SF’s Financial District, and we were up there swaying from side-to-side, while plate glass windows exploded and bricks tumbled and all sorts of chaos ensued for days. The reason I still live here is that there is an abundance of beauty and diversity and wonder in this beautiful state, which you have highlighted here and in your other Pt. Reyes posts. I love Pt. Reyes, will be posting on it on Friday. Cheers to you and Peggy.

    • Wow, being in a high-rise with windows exploding does not sound like fun, Jet! Very scary. Thanks for adding your comment.
      Like you, I find that the incredible beauty of the area, and all along our California and Oregon coasts, pulls me back time and again. I do pay more attention to escape routes, however.
      I’ll have to check out your Friday post. –Curt

  2. On that day, I rode out the Loma Prieta quake in an elevator in downtown San Francisco. When I hit street level (having taken the stairs down ten flights, when the elevator spat me out), I bought as much food and drink as I could carry, before the gouging started. Then I waited. The bridge was out. BART shut down, and I knew it would be hours before they could get ferries running so that I could get home to Oakland. Oddly, aside from the taste of plaster and concrete in the air, there was a party like atmosphere. Restaurants were giving away food–since their refrigerators were down, Folks gathered in every clearing, wary of aftershocks. I shared the goodies I’d bought–as there were thousands of us waiting to get to the East Bay. Trapped, away from home, in San Francisco had been my fear since I came to California–and here it was, not so bad, after all.

  3. Yes, the world moves but in Australia things rarely move a lot at all. We did have a small earthquake in Newcastle some years ago. Shops and building were damaged, but nothing too much.
    Great post, Curt.

  4. I have never experienced a tremor, so it’s all the more impossible for me to imagine how that beautiful area could go through it time after time.
    I can see Peggy’s dragon!!

    • Yep, they aren’t, any fun MB, that’s for sure. I am lucky to not have been caught in the middle of one so far. I do check the tsunami escape routes whenever I visit the coast, however. 🙂 –Curt

  5. Such serenity and beauty in what was the site of such a calamity. One can’t imagine the force of such an earthquake (well, apart from you all living in the state and regularly experiencing the shakes!) The photo of Peggy (brave lady standing on the St Andreas Fault line) and the two separate fences truly brings home the reality of how much the land shifted. A fascinating post, Curt and you had me laughing with your quip at the start of yours and Peggy’s relationship in 1989 and the earthquake then : ‘ You might say, it was off to a shaky start’. I would expect no less from you! 😀

    • It is an amazing place, Annika, that really has a story to tell. I’ve walked the trail several times over the years and never tire of it. Yes, we do live in earthquake country. That goes for my time in Alaska as well as in California and Oregon. We have been fortunate, so far, never to have been caught in a big one although I have experienced numerous tremors over the years. The worst was in a cabin in the Sierras. It sounded like a freight train running over our roof.
      At least our shaky start was over in five minutes. 🙂 –Curt

  6. When I think of that time, I don’t think only of the Loma Prieta quake, I also think of the Oakland fire three years later. That was when some of my friends lost their homes. Reading this account, it occurs to me how many of the complexities of your own situation played a role in the deaths there: twisted, overburdened roads, how quickly the fire moved, etc. etc.

    I’d love to walk that trail. It’s quite beautiful. When I think of earthquakes, my ‘favorite’ memory is of a small one in the 1970s, when I was living in Berkeley. I was sitting in the chapel at Pacific Lutheran: a beautiful glass-walled building with a tile floor. When the quake hit, I happened to look at the floor just in time to see a wave move through, lifting and lowering the tiles as it crossed the floor. That rolling was remarkable — I’d never considered the possibility of ‘land waves’ before!

    • I remember that fire, Linda. Large firestorms have become all too common in our age of draught. Last year we saw our two local towns taken out. The devastation was incredible. Fortunately, as I recall, only one life was lost. A couple of weeks ago, I talked to man who had survived the Paradise fire. Hiking down the PCT three years ago, I hiked around four major fires.

      Did you think, “Darn where’s my sailboat,” when you saw the waves. 🙂 Actually that was before your sailor days if I have my chronology right.

      My scariest example was when I was at a cabin up in the Sierras where I had taken my dad for a few days. As I commented above, it was like a freight train was crossing over our roof. More scry than that was our wood stove started to sway back and forth! Not good. –Curt

  7. That Peggy is one brave cookie, standing right there on top of the San Andreas. 😲

    Looks like Iorek and Serafina must be holding up well. Have you encountered any backup occasions yet? I’m pretty sure you could spin an amusing yarn from at least an initial encounter. Personally, I think it takes a special kind of brain to be able to handle it. Then again there was the stepdaughter who insisted on backing up the U-Haul with attached trailer every single chance she could when she helped us move from Utah to Oregon. Now, that was certainly an adventure. 🤪

    Despite the dire warnings of earthquakes and tsunamis… I can’t think of any place I’d rather be. May it ever be so. 🙏

    Wishing you two great adventures and happy trails, without any backing up you can’t cope with. 🥰

    • Oooh, I refuse to talk about the tow truck that I had to come out to our yard to help me out of my first trailer backup mishap. Fortunately, no damage was done. Peggy and I really tried to right our wrong but finally I turned to her and said, “You’ve go to know when to hold them and know when to fold them, Babe.” 🙂

      Laughing, she is indeed brave. Standing on an active fault zone is minor in comparison to other examples I have.

      Yes, we are lucky in terms of our choices about where to live!

      And thanks, Gunta. Appreciated. –Curt

  8. That photo from 1906 is intense, Curt. I’m glad you haven’t experienced “the big one,” and the walk looks beautiful. How cool to see the fence moved 16 feet. We’re overdue for the big one up here in Oregon too when the Cascadian Subduction Zone shifts. Hopefully not any time soon. Happy Travels.

  9. I can’t lie, earthquakes freak me out. The worst one I experienced was in New Jersey (10+ years ago). I was in a conference room talking to a colleague and all of the sudden the building started rolling. Scared the crud out of me!! Not quite as bad as being in an elevator. OMG.

  10. I would love to walk this trail. I’m fascinated by seismology. I check the US geological survey site often for recent earth quakes. I have wanted to go have a look at San Andrea’s fault line all my life. I got see it.
    Thanks for this excellent post.

  11. I have been in probably 40 baby earthquakes, because of the places I’ve lived, but I have clearly never been in a big one because I love them. It’s so fascinating to me. All my stories are about feeling bumps and shakes and seeing things fall or sway, but that’s it. Like you and others have mentioned, I’m always waiting for the big one and we’re long overdue. With Tara’s recent geology degree, they are very up to date on how out of date we are for the Big One and we’ve had several animated discussions about it. Like you and D. Wallace Peach, I keep an eye on evacuation routes when I’m out and about, and I also have a quiet little plan in my head for immediate survival strategy for the first couple of days here if infrastructure is destroyed to my house. I used to rely on my hot water heater tank (LOTS of water!) but then I switched to tankless!!

    • I’ve happily avoided the ‘big ones’ myself, Crystal. Or at least been far enough away to avoid the worst of the quake. I’ll bet Tara is up to date. Scary stuff in terms of what a huge Cascadia Earthquake could do. One of the good things about backpacking is we have plenty of survival gear handy, and know how to use it! –Curt

  12. That photo from 1906 is really intense, I definitely don’t want to witness such thing!
    Coming from a country where earthquakes happen few times per year, you might think I’m used to them, but alas, no I’m scared every time, especially when I’m inside a building. Moving to Toronto was a big relief from this point of view, thinking there is no earthquake here, reason I was shocked when I first felt one, about 10 years ago. The strongest one I witnessed was back in 1977, at 7.2 magnitude. I didn’t really realize what is going on, as it was during the night, but there was so much damage in the country..

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