Not many people have heard of Lighthouse Hill, though seven million live within 100 miles of it. For a hill of such diminutive stature, it occupies a conspicuous and curious place in the geography and history of California. Lighthouse Hill is the highest point on Southeast Farallon Island, the largest (120 acres) of a small chain of craggy granite outcrops positioned about 28 miles west of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge.
The islands have a long and colorful recent history. Probably "discovered" by Sir Francis Drake
in 1579, his given name of "St. James Islands" did not stick. A later Basque explorer, Sebastian Viscaino, dubbed the islands "farallones" (pronounced fah-ra-yo-neys), meaning roughly "islands" in the Spanish of the day.
Situated at the edge of the continental shelf, the upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich water attracts a variety of marine life. The odd presence of land further attracts seals and a great variety of birds, which in turn attract well-known populations of Great-white Shark and Killer Whale. In fact, the seals and birds directly led to the only spell of real human colonization for profit, from roughly 1800 to 1900. Russian seal hunters reaped the ocean's bounty for a few decades, but the harsh, foggy weather, combined with a paucity of fresh water and supplies (the island lacks a suitable port for anything larger than canoe-sized ships) drove them away by 1838.
The arrival of the "egg hunters" in 1851 signaled the beginning of the most colorful era of human -- and climbing -- history on Southeast Farallon Island. The eggs of Murres were considered a delicacy at the time, and fetched large sums in San Francisco. However, the objective dangers presented by this activity were not trivial, as noted by an interesting book (link broken):
"The egg-pickers, as the men were called, lived in a small barracks at the base of a steep hill on Southeast Farallon Island. Their days were spent traversing the wind-blown island with canvas 'egg-shirts' slung about their shoulders to hold the precious cargo. Special rope-soled, spiked boots helped them 'follow where a goat would hesitate,' wrote California historian, Earnest Peixotto. The incensed murres pecked the men?s hands bloody, and if the murres were repelled, thieving gulls fought for first rights to the appetizing eggs.
Wind, sun, and fog teamed up to torment the egg-pickers. On clear days, scouring updrafts sent tiny missiles of sand and rock flying into their faces, and the sun burned down relentlessly, forcing them to retreat to their shacks in the heat of the day. When fog enveloped the island, the men easily became disoriented and sometimes wandered among the crags for hours in search of familiar paths. The only communication with the mainland was the regular visitation by the 'eggboat' out of San Francisco."
The heady days of the daring, egg-picking, "alpinists" ended by the mid-1860s, but not before (believe it or not) some were killed or wounded in an 1863 skirmish with government officials bent on enforcing an egg-gathering ban. This objective hazard -- government bureacracy -- continues to thwart prospective climbers of mighty Lighthouse Hill. Administered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service as the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge
, the area is "not open to public access."
A few resident scientists live in a two-story barracks on the island. Clandestine climbers are very unlikely to encounter any law enforcement personnel, though the Fish and Wildlife people are very
serious about enforcing the law.
Sail 28 miles due west from the Golden Gate Bridge to Southeast Farallon Island. Two mooring buoys are located in Fisherman's Bay. If your craft is small and stealthy (recommended, as it is illegal to set foot on the island), you may find small sheltered coves. Lighthouse Rock is on the northeast side of the island. Though a rocky trail climbs to the automated lighthouse on its summit, climbers will surely prefer to tackle one of Lighthouse Hill's steep slopes.
It is illegal (without the proper permit) to set foot on the islands, though not to sail around the island. However, given the proper credentials (i.e., PhD in Biology with a compelling excuse to be there), you may be able to obtain a permit. Call (510) 792-0222 for details.
When To Climb
Without a permit, night is the best time to climb, assuming that you've made the approach in a small Zodiac-type boat. Snow is never a problem, though fog may strike at any time of the year.
Mountain ConditionsUp-to-date air and sea conditions
from the NOAA. Refer to the listing for "SE FARALLON IS", and also to buoy 26, which is 10 miles northeast of the island.