North Ridge and Sunset Trail Loop
Total Distance: 4.5 miles round-trip
Hiking Time: 2 hours
Elevation Change: 780 feet
You want to visit Angel Island State Park, but you can't bear to hike on pavement? You don't like sharing the trail with bikers and you want a hikers-only path? No problem. There are two completely different ways to hike Angel Island: One path is on the wide, paved Perimeter Trail, which circumnavigates the island. The other path is the dirt and mostly single-track North Ridge and Sunset Trail Loop, which travels to the island's highest point, the summit of Mount Livermore. For the former, see Perimeter Trail listing in this chapter. For the North Ridge and Sunset Trail Loop, read on.
The hardest part of this trip is in the first 10 minutes after you get off the boat. While everyone else disembarks and heads to the right toward Ayala Cove and the island's concession stands (there's a café, bike and Segway rentals, tram tours, and more), you'll head the other way. North Ridge Trail starts on the north side of the ferry dock, just to the left of the restrooms. It begins with a quick, steep climb of more than 100 steps, leading past a couple of well-placed picnic tables (with a great view) and then up to the paved Perimeter Road.
Cross the road, pant a few times, then pick up North Ridge Trail on its far side. Now the path is more like a trail and less like a staircase. The single-track is well graded and alternates through sunny chaparral-covered slopes and a shady, fern-filled canopy of live oaks. At just over one mile up the trail, the path traverses the northern flank of Mount Livermore, passing a surprising grove of nonnative Monterey pines. Views widen as you climb, and Tiburon and Belvedere begin to fade into the distance.
Where North Ridge Trail junctions with Sunset Trail and the trail to the summit, bear right and follow the summit trail uphill. Climbing a 0.25-mile brings you to the hill's previously flat, but now pointed, 788-foot summit. How did Mount Livermore get its pointed peak? In 2002, California State Parks went to great effort and expense to replace the top 16 feet of the mountain, which had been shaved off to make room for a Nike missile base in the 1950s. They also got rid of the old, ugly road that led to the summit and put in this hiking trail with its much kinder grade. A few picnic tables are found at and just below the summit, as well as interpretive signs that point out the landmarks of the bay. What landmarks? These and more: Berkeley, Mount Diablo, San Leandro, Alameda, Mission Peak (38 miles away), Mount Hamilton (56 miles away), Santa Clara, Mountain View, San Francisco's Telegraph Hill, Alcatraz Island, Montara Mountain, Twin Peaks, the Golden Gate Bridge, Mount Tamalpais, Tiburon, Belvedere, San Quentin Prison, and Mount St. Helena in Napa (57 miles away).
With a view like that, it's not surprising that Mount Livermore's few picnic tables are in high demand on sunny weekend days. After you've lunched or just enjoyed the view, head back down the summit trail. Pick up Sunset Trail at the junction with North Ridge Trail, and enjoy another 0.5 mile of open views as you descend through the grasslands. The trail heads into a forest of oaks and bays, switchbacking gently downhill to another wide viewpoint and a crossing of Perimeter Road. You can follow the paved road back downhill to Ayala Cove, or take the forested single-track just to the right of it.
Highly observant hikers may notice evidence of a wildfire that burned more than 400 acres here—more than half the island—in October 2008. But the vegetation has largely recovered, and now it takes a careful eye to discern the fire's path. Many oaks and pines were lost, but a fresh crop of chapparal and grasslands covered the earth in a vibrant green cloak. As is typical in the years following a wildfire, the spring wildflowers now bloom in full glory.
One of the best ways to explore Angel Island is by spending the night at one of its backpacking camps. Advance reservations are required; phone 800/444-7275 or visit www.reserveamerica.com. Three popular sites are located at the Ridge camps on the west side of the island, where the views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge are divine, but the wind can howl. If you just want to make sure you sleep in a wind-protected spot, the East Bay campsites on the island's east side are the best choice. Other good options are the three east-side Sunrise camps, which offer great views of Treasure Island and the East Bay. However, because these sites are very close together, they are best suited for groups. All three camping areas require a hike of only 1–2 miles each way. Tables, food lockers, running water, pit toilets, and a barbecue are located at each site. No wood fires are allowed; you must bring charcoal or a backpacking stove.
Ferry service to Angel Island is available from Tiburon, San Francisco, and Oakland/Alameda. For Tiburon departures, contact Tiburon Ferry, 415/435-2131, www.angelislandferry.com. For Oakland or Alameda departures, contact East Bay Ferry, 510/522-3300, www.eastbayferry.com. For San Francisco departures, contact Blue and Gold Fleet, 415/705-8200, www.blueandgoldfleet.com.
Information and Contact
Ferry fees and schedules vary according to your city of departure ($13.50–$18 per person, round-trip). All ferry fees include entrance to Angel Island State Park. Dogs are not allowed. Bikes are allowed on the island, but not on this loop. A park map is available for $2 at the ferry landing on the island, or by free download at www.angelisland.org. A detailed map is available from Tom Harrison Maps, 415/456-7940, www.tomharrisonmaps.com (ask for the Angel Island map). For more information, contact Angel Island State Park, P.O. Box 318, Tiburon, CA 94920, 415/435-1915, www.angelisland.org.
From the book Moon 101 Great Hikes of the San Francisco Bay Area by Ann Marie Brown. Excerpted by arrangement with Avalon Travel, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011. For more information, visit http://www.moon.com.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication