Bay Crossings Article

Islands of San Francisco Bay

Sejal Choksi, Senior Program Advisor
From the March 2011 edition of Bay Crossings

Shivery winter weather has been the daily forecast this season, with snowstorms in the East and even the occasional blustery winds and rains around the Bay Area. For many people, cold weather brings to mind warm comforts of hot cocoa, slow-cooked soups, fleece blankets and wishful thoughts of island getaways. But Bay Area residents may not have to book a flight to the tropics to enjoy an island experience. There are more than 15 islands right here in San Francisco Bay, and some of these picturesque habitats are worth visiting:

The best known Bay Area island experience is Alcatraz Island. A former prison whose most notable inmate was Al Capone, the facility was closed in 1963 due partly to the sewage pollution to the Bay created by the 250 prisoners. Now part of the Golden Gate Recreation Area, the island is home to the California slender salamander and is visited yearly by throngs of sea birds (including cormorants, western gulls, night herons), as well as harbor seals and tourists.

Another popular destination is Angel Island, part of the California State Parks system. Formerly an immigration station that housed more than a million Asian immigrants through 1940, the island has two active lighthouses and is now a central spot in the Bay for hiking, biking, camping and picnicking.

Alameda Island on the Oakland Estuary boasts a population of more than 70,000 residents, quaint Victorian architecture and a popular Independence Day parade. Wind surfers and kite boarders frolic along the shoreline of Crown Beach, one of the best urban beaches around the Bay with vistas of the Bay Bridge and San Francisco. The Island is also now home to the museum ship USS Hornet, a former aircraft carrier. In addition, Alameda’s shoreline supports the important and rare eelgrass habitat.

The adjacent Bay Farm Island is not actually an island. Brooks Island is located just south of the Richmond Inner Harbor and is part of the East Bay Regional Park District. Once home to Native American Ohlones, it also has housed a sheep farm and shrimp factory. The island now provides salt marshes and tidal flats that are a protected nesting site for many of the Bay’s birds, including egrets and herons. The island is now accessible only with a regional park permit.

The Brothers Islands (East and West) are located in the Bay near the Richmond Bridge. They were historically designated military property in the 1860s but were never put to use. East Brother Island is now owned by a non-profit that runs a historic lighthouse and a Victorian bed and breakfast with spectacular 360-degree views of the surrounding shorelines.

Red Rock Island is the Bay’s only privately owned island and is located near the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. Developers have tried in the past to create a luxury hotel and casino, but because the three counties of San Francisco, Contra Costa and Marin all converge on the island, there has never been a consensus for approval. As of last year, the island was for sale, listing price: $22 million.

Artificially created from dredged fill to host the 1939-40 World’s Fair, Treasure Island has great views of the San Francisco skyline. San Francisco had plans to locate the new airport there after the Fair, but then decided that more space was needed. Now the island houses around 2,000 residents and is a popular filming location for movies and television shows. According to the EPA, however, the site of the former naval facility contains highly contaminated soil and groundwater, which is scheduled for cleanup.

The Marin Islands (East and West) are located in the waters near San Rafael and, along with the surrounding tidelands, are part of a 340-acre national wildlife refuge. The islands are only accessible with a U.S. Fish and Wildlife permit, but kayakers can witness the largest egret and heron rookeries in the region.

So the next time the skies are blue and the wind is calm, you can hop on a boat, ferry or in a kayak and experience local island life for yourself. And for information on how Baykeeper works to protect the Bay’s islands and many other diverse habitats from pollution, please visit our website at