|The most popular island where
vacationers visit and stay overnight is Catalina Island. One source
reported around one million visitors to the island annually.
most Not that anyone remembers,
but California was once considered island. Never mind that the map
makers got it wrong. Even after it was proven that California's baja
region was actually a peninsula, it took some of that "flat world"
theorists a while (100 years) to reflect reality in their tools of
travel. Published proof in 1705 that California was in fact a
peninsula eventually made its way into maps used by explorers.
Granted, consensus on what an
island consists of is subject to interpretation, but it is generally
thought that an island is larger than a rock and smaller than a
continent completely surrounded by water. Small islands are called
islets, keys or cays are small islands, and groups of related
islands are archipelagos.
East Brother Island– Ships
making their way inland toward Sacramento through the strait that
separates San Francisco and San Pablo bays had to contend with small
islands and an indented shoreline that could be treacherous at night
or in foggy weather. In 1874, a lighthouse began operating on East
Brother Island, the bigger of two small islands located about a mile
north of the present day Richmond San Rafael Bridge. Several
families moved to the island, crammed into a .75-acre area and
dependent on cistern water and supplies from the mainland.
The lighthouse, also equipped with a foghorn that could be heard for
miles, functioned well into the 20th century, finally closing down
in 1969 as more modern technologies supplanted it. The Coast Guard
wanted to raze the lighthouse, but a group of preservation-minded
locals talked it into leasing the island to them under the aegis of
a non-profit organization. The Coast Guard approved, and the group
began an extensive restoration of the island’s Victorian-era
buildings in the 1980s that led to the creation of the East Brother
Light Station Bed and Breakfast.
It is one of the most unusual B&Bs in the West. Guests at the
four-room B&B must first drive to a funky small-craft harbor at Pt.
San Pablo (the café there serves a pretty good breakfast), then ride
to the island on a small power boat. Once there, they enjoy a
360-degree view of San Pablo Bay and the waters leading down to San
Francisco, and watching marine traffic ply its way up to the ports
at Sacramento and Stockton.
Though officially retired, the steam-powered foghorn here still
works. Many an unsuspecting visitor, sitting on the innocent-looking
structure that houses the horn, has been blasted out of his skin and
several feet into the air when the horn has suddenly sounded.
Stays at the B&B are pricey: Rates run from $290 to $420 for a
one-night stay, but the meals use gourmet ingredients and are poured
with fine wines. Bedding and furniture are opulent, and the sense of
isolation is romantic. Day-trippers are welcome, too. You can bring
a picnic, enjoy the view and then leave before nightfall. East
Farallon Islands – OK, technically these small islands 27 miles west
of the Golden Gate are not part of the San Francisco Bay. But if the
Ice Age had never ended, thereby raising the level of the oceans,
these islands would have been the entrance to the Bay and the
likeliest place that people would have chosen to build a “Farallon
Aside from what-might-have-beens, the islands teem with birds –
gulls, cormorants, pelicans – as well as seals, sea lions and
scientists (there to study the birds and sea life). The waters
around the islands support plenty of salmon and sharks, including
seal-eating Great Whites – the waters off the Bay Area are the
world’s most dangerous interface between humans and Great Whites.
A wilderness preserve protects 141 acres of the islands, including
maintop, the second largest island of the group. Seventy-acre
Southeast Farallon island, the biggest, is where the scientists
live. Visiting here casually just isn’t done. Unless you’ve filed a
detailed wilderness use request, the best you can do is head on out
to the islands on one of the many charter fishing boats that come
out seeking salmon. A useful web site for information on the
Farallones is at:
Mare Island – For almost 150 years, Vallejo’s Mare Island (about
three square miles in size) was the West Coast center of U.S. naval
power. Its great dry docks maintained the entire Pacific Fleet,
built 512 ships over the years and later home ported nuclear attack
submarines. In its heyday in WWII, 46,000 people worked on the
island. In 1993, at the end of the Cold War, the Navy decommissioned
the island and turned it over to civilian uses.
The Navy left some nice things behind. For one, the 18-hole Mare
Island Golf Club, whose greens fees approach the sublime: $55 on
weekends; as low as $25 on weekday afternoons. St. Peter’s Chapel
contains a world-famous collection of Tiffany windows, and “Officers
Row” preserves a neighborhood of Victorian-era mansions that were
among the most opulent ever built for military men on the West
The industrial remnants of the island also fascinate: a stone dry
dock that took 20 years to build and was the construction site of
some of the most important ships launched from Mare Island; the
abandoned cranes and workshops in some ways are a western version of
Ford’s great River Rouge plant. Eventually those reminders will be
removed as the City of Vallejo moves to make the island a
residential and high-tech center.
You still have to pass through a guard gate to access Mare Island,
but guided tours are available and easily arranged. Contact the Mare
Island Historic Park Foundation at (707) 557-1538 for information.
Tours of downtown Vallejo, which is drawing a lot of sophisticated
former San Franciscans to its neighborhoods, or a visit three miles
up the road to Six Flags Marine World can round out a tour here.
Marin Islands – Kayakers especially love these two islands, which
cover a total of 11 acres and sit a few hundred yards off the Point
Lomond Yacht Harbor in San Rafael. East Marin Island, the larger of
the two, has eucalyptus groves and several structures on it,
including one with large windows that once functioned as a day
facility for conferences and corporate getaways. Except for some
shrubs and low trees, West Marin island is mostly bare. But it is
also the largest heron and egret rookery in the Bay Area, as well as
a favored layover for migrating birds.
The islands’ popularity with the avian set has made them the core of
a 340-acre national wildlife refuge, a status that forbids landings
by anybody who doesn’t have official permission. Still, the larger
island’s buildings and woodsy profile conjure images in the minds of
passersby of a cozy island refuge, only minutes from metropolitan
bustle but far removed in mood.
Red Rock Island – Travelers heading east on the Richmond-San Rafael
Bridge often notice a red-colored, pyramid-shaped rock at the
halfway point, just a few yards south of the span. Red Rock isn’t
much to look at, but it’s a pretty important speck of land for
surveyors. The boundaries of three counties – San Francisco, Marin
and Contra Costa – converge on this 100-foot high rock, a fact that
has always made any entrepreneurial fantasies about the island
In the 1980s, one developer proposed lopping of the top half of the
island and constructing a 10-story hotel with a casino on the first
floor. The island’s lee side, facing the bridge, would have been
turned into a small yacht harbor, with water and power running off
of lines attached to the bridge. (The developer even had a good use
for the waste material from construction: The island rock, once
mined for manganese, meets state highway specs for the roadbed
material used in highway construction.)
Alas, there was no way that the three counties, the state,
environmentalists or neighboring school districts would have ever
come together on this. The would-be developer long ago moved to
Southeast Asia and Red Rock remains an interesting sideshow at the
halfway point of a high-speed crossing.
Skaggs Island – This creek-bound 4,300-acre island at the top of San
Pablo Bay is a haven for migratory birds and a major stop on the
Pacific Flyway. It’s part of a relatively intact delta estuary
system that did not suffer the fate of the mudflats and marshes
rimming San Francisco Bay, which long ago were turned into landfill
and salt evaporators. As a remnant of a once much larger eco-system,
Skaggs and its neighboring delta islands show just how fecund and
rich the shores of the Bay Area once were.
Skaggs itself is closed to visitors as non-profit volunteers
continue working on breaching dykes to restore its natural qualities
on its north side, as well as dismantling buildings left onsite from
when the island was a naval communications center. Nearby Tubbs
Island, similar to Skaggs in almost every respect, is accessible via
a gate located on the south-facing, Vallejo-bound lane of Highway 37
just east of where it intersects Highway 121 at Sears Point.
Treasure Island – At 1,000 acres – about 1.5 square miles – Treasure
Island is one of the Bay’s more ambitious man-made features. Joined
to hilly Yerba Buena Island (which the Bay Bridge tunnels through as
it spans the waters between Oakland and San Francisco) by a
causeway, the island was built in the 1930s by pouring millions of
rocks into a shallow part of the Bay to produce a rectangular plot
Within months of its creation, the new island was the site of San
Francisco’s 1939-40 World’s Fair, which housed exhibits and
attractions in a fantastical collection of buildings based on
imaginary “Pacific” architecture. War clouds and the Depression kept
the fair from achieving box-office success, but for years afterward
locals happily reminisced about the aquacades, the over-the-top
buildings, and the naughty feather dances by Sally Rand’s showgirls
that produced a few private war clouds of their own.
After Pearl Harbor, Treasure Island immediately became a naval base.
Post-war plans called for it to become San Francisco’s new
international airport, but the development of giant airplanes and
the looming arrival of the passenger jet showed up the island's lack
of size for that purpose.
Following the collapse of the USSR, almost all naval facilities in
the Bay Area were decommissioned. Treasure Island is now a new
mixed-income neighborhood of people living in old Navy housing (much
of it detached single homes) with a splendid view of San Francisco’s
skyline. Future plans call for the construction of dense housing and
possibly conference facilities, a development that could make it a
West Coast version of New York’s Roosevelt Island.
The Treasure Island Museum, housed in one of the two buildings left
from the world fair, may look familiar since it often served as a
backdrop in the “Nash Bridges” TV series.
Angel Island San Francisco
Red Rock Island
Sherman Island - The Island´s
proximity to the mouth of the Sacramento River makes it prime
fishing habitat for salmon, steelhead, striped bass and sturgeon.
Its location at the north end of the San Francisco Bay also provides
strong, constant breezes from May to October, making Sherman Island
one of the prime windsurfing sites in the nation. You can access
Sherman Island by turning right off of Hwy 160 at Sherman Island Rd.
Kimball Island -
is a 109-acre preserve
located in southwest Sacramento County.
The island lies in the Delta at the confluence
of California's largest rivers, the Sacramento
and the San Joaquin, and is strategically
located with respect to important Delta
environments, including the Sherman Island
Waterfowl Management Area to the
immediate north and the Suisun Marsh to the
Brannan Island -Brannan Island
State Recreation Area is a maze of waterways through the
Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. This park northeast of San Francisco
Bay, has countless islands and marshes with many wildlife habitats
and many opportunities for recreation, including boating,
windsurfing and swimming.
Hogback Island - Hogback
Island facility is perfect for people who enjoy fishing,
recreational boating, rowing, picnics and barbecues. Located off of
Highway 220 at Grand Island Road, Hogback is easy to find and easier
to enjoy. One of the outstanding water-oriented recreation areas in
the world, the area offers great fishing, including striped bass,
sturgeon, catfish, bluegill, perch and bullhead. Frank’s Tract, a
protected wetland marsh, is home to beaver, muskrat, river otter,
mink and 76 species of birds.
Mandeville Island - San
Joaquin Delta east of Antioch