California Islands - Island Inventory in California


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 Brother Island

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 City.”

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 Coast.

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 problematical.

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 of land.

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

Treasure Island

Yerba Buena

Red Rock Island

Catalina Island

Coronado Island

Balboa Island

Lido Island

Linda Island

Channel Islands

Shelter 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.

Twitchell Island

Grizzly Island

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.

Bethel Island

Mandeville Island - San Joaquin Delta east of Antioch


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