San Francisco offers so many delights, it’s hard to imagine wanting to escape. But savvy seafarers know some of the Bay Area’s most interesting destinations are just off the mainland, only reachable by crossing the estuary. While not every one of the 40-some San Francisco Bay islands is only accessible by ship, many of the smaller, uninhabited islets remain largely untouched despite the shores teeming with humans nearby. Here, a look at several popular islands worth a visit—some just a short drive from the city, no boating required.
The most iconic island in the San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz Island was first dubbed “Isla de los Alcatraces,” or “Island of the Pelicans,” by Spanish explorer Lt. Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775. President Millard Fillmore, who advocated for California statehood, declared Alcatraz a military reservation in 1850, two years after gold was discovered along the American River near the city of Coloma and forever altered a state known for its wild beauty and erratic population growth.
The federal penitentiary part? That lasted just under three decades, from 1934 until the last cell door swung open in 1963. Today, that short history features most prominently in tours of the island, alongside the history of several Native American occupations on the island in 1964 and a nearly two-year occupation that began in 1969, both protesting the federal government’s treatment of American Indians. In 1986, Alcatraz was designated a National Historic Landmark.
Today’s visitors—more than a million annually—can learn about the island’s many histories through informative signage and audio tours and view historic structures such as the guardhouse and water tower. In recent years, the island has even become a site for artistic exploration. In 2014, Chinese dissident artist-activist Ai Weiwei used old outbuildings and even jailhouse cells to install “@ Large,” his acclaimed exhibition on themes of imprisonment and freedom.
A California State Park even larger than neighboring Alcatraz Island, Angel Island is another former “site for activities undesirable in the middle of the city,” according to the book by the Center for Land Use Interpretation, “Around The Bay: Man-Made Sites of Interest in the San Francisco Bay Region.” The island hosted generations of gun batteries and a Nike missile site and was the so-called “Ellis Island of the West,” serving as the region’s primary immigration processing and detention center, in addition to a prisoner of war camp in World Wars I and II.
The lush island has since been reclaimed for most enjoyable activities and become a popular day trip in the bay, offering beautiful panoramas of the city skyline and vistas from which to admire 360-degree views of the area. Island-goers can rent bicycles and cruise the perimeter loop trail, hike the squat hills or take a tram around the six-mile circumference of the island. Cantinas serving soft drinks and savory snacks are open seasonally.
The native Ohlone tribes of Northern California settled this former peninsula off the western coast of Oakland thousands of years ago. The Spanish arrived in the late 1700s, about 150 years before Alameda became a leisure destination. Neptune Beach, an early 20th century shoreline amusement park, featured carnival rides like a wooden roller coaster, and competitions in the park’s Olympic-size swimming pools featuring Bay Area legends such as Jack LaLanne, the so-called “Godfather of Fitness.” The bayfront park endured for over two glorious decades until the Bay Bridge directed traffic away from Alameda, and the town (mostly) ceased to be a destination for thrill-seeking tourists.
Mark Twain once called Alameda “the garden of California,” and the description holds. Today, Alameda is often considered the Mayberry of the Bay Area, accessible by car as well as ferry across the bay from San Francisco. The bedroom community boasts quiet, residential streets, easily accessible coastal parks and charming downtown stretches featuring affordable vintage shops and restaurants serving Old-World German and Lithuanian cuisine. In a quieter way, Alameda is also still a good-time destination with three retro arcades and gaming spots for all-ages fun including the Pacific Pinball Museum, where you can play over 90 pinball machines all day for a flat fee.
Below the iconic Cliff House and jutting out of the northern end of Ocean Beach, you’ll find these towering rocks, barely reachable in low tide and a handy stopover for hundreds of brown pelicans and cormorants searching the coastline for food.
Known for its namesake oysters, this small, sandy mound in Tomales Bay north of San Francisco is also a roosting ground for cormorants and a stopover for the occasional bald eagle. Rent a kayak from local outfit Blue Waters to explore the bay, and you’ll likely spot orange bat sea stars and harbor seals keeping a respectful distance behind your boat.
New trails on this otherwise undeveloped 3,000-acre salt marsh restoration in progress make it a delightful spot along the Pacific Flyway to observe massive flocks of seabirds. Look for great and snowy egrets, as well as curlews—the long-billed wading bird also known as the candlestick bird—and the namesake of the San Francisco state park, as well as the baseball stadium formerly on the same waterfront stretch.
There was much to celebrate when Treasure Island was constructed for the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition. The federal government-commissioned construction on the man-made 400-acre parcel adjacent to Yerba Buena Island soon after construction was completed on two other major Bay Area landmarks: the Golden Gate Bridge, opened in 1937, and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, completed in 1936 and with the eastern span replaced in 2013. The popular 49-Mile Scenic Drive was also created to lure visitors to San Francisco and the 1939 World’s Fair and initially terminated on Treasure Island.
Shortly after the World’s Fair, the U.S. Navy took over the island as a training base for half a century, officially closing in 1997. Thousands of civilians now call the island home, and many of the art deco terminal buildings are used in film and television production, in addition to housing art and antiques for dealers and collectors.
In the last decade, as Treasure Island has become known for its eponymous annual music festival, seven urban wineries have also planted metaphorical roots on the island, including Treasure Island Wines, a collective of artisan wineries. Treasure Island also offers some of the best views of the San Francisco skyline. Even amateur shutterbugs will enjoy the sweeping views of the city across the glittering waters of the bay—provided the fog hasn’t rolled in.
“Twenty-eight miles from the end of the continent, you come upon the most forbidding piece of real estate to be found within the borders of any major city in the world: the Farallon Islands,” wrote San Francisco journalist Gary Kamiya in his bestselling love letter to his hometown, “Cool Gray City of Love.” “The Farallones are only barren and desolate from a human perspective,” he added. “For the myriad other living things that swarm all over and around them, they’re like Times Square on New Year’s Eve.”
Indeed, nature-lovers populate the all-day excursions ferrying visitors to the jagged so-called Devil’s Teeth several hours beyond the Golden Gate Bridge. The islands are a mecca for some dozen-plus species of birds, including several species of storm-petrel and the tufted puffin. The Farallones are also a haul-out site for several species of seal and sea lion, including hulking northern elephant seals. Gray, blue and humpback whales feed in the surrounding waters, as do great white sharks, which show up seasonally to feast at this marine mammal breeding ground. Designated a national wildlife refuge, only scientists are allowed on a single slab of rock, Southeast Farallon Island. All other visitors must stay aboard the vessel that brought them.
“Until recently, the Farallones were not islands at all,” Kamiya noted in his history of the rocky outcroppings. “During the last glacial period, which ended 12,500 years ago, sea levels were much lower than they are today... The first San Franciscans, who arrived some 13,000 years ago, could have walked out there.” Today’s visitors will have to settle for a sail to sea instead.