Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary was escape-proof back in the day. Now ceded to tourists, it’s impossible to get into the maximum security relic without a reservation. May we recommend nearby Angel Island instead?
We get it. Alcatraz Island, a 22-acre rock in frigid San Francisco Bay, holds the ruins of one of the most notorious prisons in America. Everyone wants to gawk at cell blocks that once held the likes of Alphonse “Scarface” Capone, Robert “The Bird Man” Stroud and George “Machine Gun” Kelly. Visitors want to hear a cell door slam. But that’s where the magic begins and ends.
Angel Island State Park may not be notorious, but it offers a much more robust island experience than “The Rock,” with hiking, camping, kayaking, beaches, great views and even a cantina. A tram tour (April through September only) explores the 760-acre island’s past as a native Miwok hunting ground, 19th century military garrison, 20th century immigration station, Cold War Nike antiaircraft missile base and more. California State Parks took charge of the island in 1962.
You can get to Angel Island via ferry from either downtown San Francisco or suburban Tiburon. We chose the Angel Island Tiburon Ferry, which makes four round trips a day from the Marin County community on weekdays and eight on weekends and holidays. Cost? We paid $15 each for the round trip AND admission to the park. An entertainment bargain by Bay Area standards. Parking nearby costs $4, though we missed the sign and paid more than $20 in a downtown lot. Oops.
We also missed the 10 a.m. ferry, which meant we could indulge in coffee, pancakes and pastries at Caffē Acri to settle our stomachs for the crossing. Breakfast was delicious but we needn’t have worried about getting sea sick. The pier-to-pier trip lasted just 12 minutes under sunny skies on calm waters.
The Angel Island landing was buzzing with morning foot traffic and a beach full of young day campers enjoying the warm sand and chilly water of Ayala Cove as we cruised into the dock. Our mission was to hike the 5.9-mile perimeter trail before the last ferry back to Tiburon at 3:30 p.m. No problem.
We figured an island perimeter trail would be flat and near the water. Wrong! Instead, the trail rose steeply from the cove and meandered up hill and down dale for the duration without ever coming close to the water. Yes, there were opportunities to detour to the beach or a bayside historical building – such as the lighthouse at Point Stuart. But, once we had climbed that first hill we were loathe to cede the high ground. And poison oak appeared to be an issue at Point Stuart. Just sayin’.
We made an exception to our high ground rule at Camp Reynolds (aka West Garrison), which was built by the U.S. Army in 1863 to defend San Francisco Bay from Confederate raiders, who never materialized.
The officer’s quarters and other out buildings at the top of a parade ground that slopes to The Bay have been restored. A ghostly row of white-washed barracks with neatly boarded windows stretch the length of the grounds, which end at a row of agave (aka century plants) just above the remnants of a wharf.
Surprised at how much time we had spent poking around Camp Reynolds – we had the place virtually to ourselves — we reclaimed the high ground and stuck to the main road along the south shore of the island, enjoying sweeping views of the San Francisco skyline plus Alcatraz Island from a unique vantage point. For us, anyway.
Upon reaching Fort McDowell (aka East Garrison), we took a break for a light snack from our packs on the steps of an abandoned barrack. Much of the fort was in high decay but portions have been restored to provide housing for island staff and other services.
As we neared the end of our hike, the old Angel Island Immigration Station (aka North Garrison) looked intriguing, but we took a pass so we could hold the high ground just a bit longer. The rolling perimeter trail had taken its toll, so we refueled with tacos and cold drinks at the Angel Island Cantina before joining scores of tuckered day campers aboard the day’s last ferry to Tiburon.
Back on the mainland, our pub at the end of the trail was Sam’s Anchor Café, where we supplemented our island fare with another round and retook the high ground one last time by devouring a mountain of fries.