Alone on an Island (in San Francisco Bay)
At 4:30 PM each day, Angel Island can be transformed into your own private heaven. Because that is when the last ferry boat of the day departs the island to take visitors back to the mainland, along with most park workers and concession employees. Remaining are just a handful of campers and rangers, and suddenly, if you are among them, you can have a beautiful island just about all to yourself. Imagine that.
I'll never forget the first night I spent here. From the opening of my tent, right from my sleeping bag, I could see the lights of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge, smell the cool salt breeze, and hear the wind rustling through the trees. Earlier that night, we'd made the steep trip up 781-foot Mt. Livermore, and it seemed that the entire Bay Area surrounded us in an incandescent glow. Like I said, I'll never forget it.
This experience is available only to those who stay overnight at one of the environmental campsites. There are nine such camps, each with a picnic table, food locker, running water, pit toilet, and barbecue unit. This kind of camping is not for everybody because reaching the sites requires a two-mile walk, and the nights can be cold, windy, and foggy. I had one stay here where the wind was howling, then in the middle of the night, an unexpected pounding rain slammed my tent for hours. I slept about zero.
But I rate camping at Angel Island as one of the most special outdoor adventures in California that doesn't require a long drive. The trip starts with the ferry boat ride, departing from Pier 43 1/2 in San Francisco ($9), Tiburon ($5), or Vallejo ($10). The price includes the state park entrance fee. The boat lands at Ayala Cove and deposits you at recreation headquarters for the park.
Here you will discover the trailhead for the Perimeter Trail, which will take you around the island, as well as shops for bicycle rentals, tram tours, kayak rentals, and the Cove Cafe.
The hiking and views at Angel Island have long been the feature attractions, topped by the 360-degree lookout at Mt. Livermore. Many of the trails provide easy walks with great views of the Bay along much of their routes. Visitors should be warned, however, that the hike to the Mt. Livermore summit is short but steep, a climb of 550 feet in a half-mile, and from Ayala Cove it's a round-trip of six miles.
A great option is to bring your bicycle or rent one for a ride around the island. There are eight miles of roadways and paths for bikes, including the Perimeter Road, which is partially paved. The Perimeter Road is wide enough to provide enough room for low-speed bikers as well as for people out enjoying a walk.
There is also plenty of room for a tram, another new feature at Angel Island. The tram consists of little open-air cars pulled at low speed on the Perimeter Road, past historical sites and lookout points. The ride takes about an hour, including several stops to allow participants to take photographs. The tram solves the perennial problem for people not physically able to hike, yet who desire a quality outdoor adventure, without diminishing the experience for other users.
But while all this is fun, you will enter a new dimension when the day-users depart for the night, the concessions close down, and you are left at your hike-in camp. Suddenly, it seems there is nobody here, nobody at all, and you will have the trails, the lookoutshey, the whole darn islandall to yourself.
Facilities: There are nine walk-in environmental camps, each with a picnic table, food locker, running water, pit toilet, and barbecue unit. You need to bring all camping gear. A backpacking stove is essential. Reservations, fee: camping reservations are required; $14 fee per night, plus $6.75 reservation fee. Ferry boat rides are $9 from San Francisco, $5 from Tiburon, $10 from Vallejo. Ferry discounts are available for children, seniors, and groups. Bicycles are permitted for free on the ferries from San Francisco and Vallejo, and for $1 from Tiburon.
Insider's note: Tram rides are $4 per person, and you can get out as often as you wish. Bike rentals are available for $12 to $25 per day. Single kayak rentals are available for two hours for $20, and double kayak rentals are available for two hours for $35; experience and reservations are required.
Ferry information: Phone Red & White Fleet, San Francisco, (415) 546-2628; Tiburon-Angel Island Ferry, Tiburon, (415) 435-2131; Blue & Gold Fleet, Vallejo, (415) 705-5444.
Who to contact: To make a campsite reservation, phone Destinet at (800) 444-PARK. To make a kayak reservation, phone Sea Trek at (415) 488-1000. For recorded information at Angel Island State Park Headquarters, phone (415) 435-1915. To contact Ayala Cove, phone (415) 435-5390. To contact State Park District Headquarters, phone (415) 456-1286.
San Francisco Red & White Fleet ferry: From U.S. 101 on the Peninsula, drive north to San Francisco. At the Y for U.S. 101 and Interstate 80, take Interstate 80 to the right and continue toward the Bay Bridge. Take the Fourth Street exit and drive straight ahead (it turns into Bryant Street) until it dead-ends at The Embarcadero. Turn left and drive along the waterfront for two miles to Fisherman's Wharf, then park at one of the pay lots.
Tiburon ferry: From U.S. 101 in Marin, take the Tiburon exit and drive east to downtown Tiburon. Park at one of the pay lots and walk a short distance to the terminal.
Vallejo Blue & Gold Fleet ferry: From Interstate 80 in Vallejo, take the Interstate 780 exit. From Interstate 780, head west on Curtola Parkway, which eventually becomes Mare Island Way. Continue on Mare Island to the terminal at 495 Mare Island Way.
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