Travel

A quick bike tour of the Bay Area's Angel Island

Angel Island State Park, Calif.

The views were mesmerizing: A shroud of fog enveloped the Golden Gate Bridge. Waves washed onto the Berkeley shores. A sailboat tacked its way under the Bay Bridge.

But I had little time to sit and absorb the scenery from Angel Island State Park. If I didn't pick up the pace, I would be stranded on this largely undeveloped island in the middle of San Francisco Bay without food or shelter until the next morning.

It was not going to be easy, considering I was lugging a disabled 40-pound mountain bike along dirt trails and winding paved roads.

I hadn't planned to turn my recent visit to this 470-acre island into a hyper-speed sightseeing tour. That was the result of bad planning and bad luck.

On a warm summer afternoon, I jumped on a ferry from Pier 41 in San Francisco to see why nearly 200,000 people a year take the 40-minute boat ride to visit Angel Island, the largest of the Bay Area's 11 islands.

From the swaying deck of a creaky ferry slicing through the choppy bay, Angel Island looked like a bland, brown-and-green mound, protruding from deep-blue waters. The aging boat chugged past Alcatraz, the more famous island to the south, which once housed such hardened criminals as Al Capone, George "Machine Gun" Kelly and Robert "Birdman of Alcatraz" Stroud. On a shoreline north of Angel Island, rows of expensive homes and high-end boutiques lined the bay-side community of Tiburon.

From a distance, Angel Island looks much the way I imagine it did when the Miwok Indians came to hunt and fish there until Spanish explorers dropped anchor in a northwestern cove in 1775 and dubbed it Isla de Los Angeles. Oak, eucalyptus, bay and madrono trees form a spotty, green patchwork that covers much of the otherwise brown island.

Now, more than two centuries later, the visitors are hikers, bikers and sightseers. "We come here for the views and because there's not a lot of traffic on the roads," said Steve Barber, who visited the island to ride bikes with friend Matthew Stocker, both from San Francisco.

What sets Angel Island apart from most state parks is that nearly all activities there revolve around the schedule of the ferries that shuttle to and from Ayala Cove. Because I missed an earlier ferry by minutes, I arrived on the island only two hours before the last ferry departed for the mainland. With such a time crunch, the only way to see the park's four or five historic landmarks along 13 miles of dirt paths and paved roadway was to rent a bike and start pedaling. Fast.

The paved perimeter road rose gradually, and I pumped hard to get to my first stop, Point Campbell, on the northernmost end of the island, offering a panoramic view of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. Bicyclists and hikers zipped past a couple enjoying the scene from a wooden bench.

I followed the paved path to the Immigration Station, a collection of white buildings that gave Angel Island the nickname "Ellis Island of the West." In reality, the station was used to detain and deny entry to thousands of Chinese immigrants in the early 1900s, when the facility was built. At the moment, the buildings are fenced off because of a renovation project that, among other things, will restore dozens of poems that heartbroken detainees carved into the wooden walls.

The perimeter road followed the island's shoreline. For a better view of the Bay Area, I had to take the interior fire roads that climb toward the 788-foot summit. As I pedaled up the gravel and dirt fire road, I checked my watch. "I have plenty of time before the last ferry departs," I thought. What could go wrong?

I was working up a good sweat, riding toward the summit. Below me was Quarry Point, where the Army built the East Garrison, a collection of brick and concrete buildings used to process returning soldiers, from the Spanish-American War to World War II. In the distance, the fog lifted to expose white and gray buildings along the Berkeley shore. The foamy trails of water-skimming sailboats bisected the bay.

Toward the south, across the water, the Golden Gate Bridge appeared like a thick, red cable separating the cotton-ball clouds and the sea. To the west, tendrils of fog crept over Sausalito. In the distance, the summit of Mt. Tamalpais poked out of the haze.

As I descended to the paved road near the Nike Missile Site -- another Army installation added during the Cold War -- my bike felt sluggish. It was a serious back-tire leak, and I still had about a mile to go to reach the dock and only 30 minutes before the last ferry departed.

I pedaled hard toward a two-story brick building along the perimeter road. A sign indicated it was once a hospital, but I didn't have time to linger.

Now I had only 15 minutes to get to the dock. The rubber from my back tire was flopping over the edges of the rim, jamming against the brake pads.

Once the last ferry left Angel Island, the only way to get back to the mainland was to call for a water taxi from Tiburon, which can cost a minimum of about $600.

I was determined to make that ferry, so I got off the bike and pushed and, at times, carried it for the final half-mile to the visitor center. At the bike rental shop, I angrily dumped the disabled bike on the ground and heaved a sigh of relief when I was told that I wouldn't be charged the $35 daily rental fee.

Angel Island offers some glorious views, but the sight that brought the biggest smile to me that day came when I walked out of the bike rental shop and saw a line of people waiting at the dock for the ferry to arrive.

I got in line, now with enough time to relax and watch a handful of sailboats skipping like stones across the choppy sea between Angel Island and Tiburon.


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