Where Angels Tread – San Francisco, California, USA

View from Angel Island

View from Angel Island

It was just after eight in the morning when my sister called me.

"Aren’t you glad we took all those pictures of Angel Island?"



She does that a lot. I often feel like I’ve missed the first five minutes of any conversation with her.

"What? Why?" I asked, groggily. I wasn’t really sleepy. I had been awake for at least an hour, she didn’t need to know that. I didn’t want her to get into the habit of calling me so early in the morning.

"Because it may be gone soon. That’s why. It’s burning."

She may have thought I already knew. Not an unreasonable assumption. I hadn’t lived in San Francisco since 2004, but I still checked the San Francisco Chronicle‘s webpage most mornings. I flipped open my laptop and logged in. Sure enough, right on the front page was a picture of Angel Island with a huge column of smoke rising, a bad fire.

“Do you think the animals will be alright?” She asked. “All the deer that live there, I mean. They can probably smell the smoke and know enough to get out of the way, don’t you think?”

My sister is an inveterate animal lover. So am I for that matter. “Oh, I’m sure you’re right. They’ll probably be fine.” I said in what I hoped was a confident voice.

I lived in San Francisco for several years. A trip to Angel Island was one of the last things I did before I moved away. Fisherman’s Wharf, Alcatraz and various other famous San Francisco attractions are places the locals go to only when someone from out of town is visiting. Angel Island is different. It attracts a fair number of nature-loving San Franciscans who want to enjoy a little biking, hiking, and camping without getting into a car and driving for miles and miles. It’s only a short ferry ride away.

New Best Friend

My sister and I had intended to take a tram around the island. Unfortunately, it was November, we hadn’t done our research. The trams only run during the high season from April to October, so we walked the five miles around the island. That might not sound like a big deal to some folks but, for the athletically disinclined (i.e. lazy) like me, this was a major accomplishment. There are actually more than 13 miles of hiking trails. If you prefer your nature hikes with solitude and don’t mind the chill coming off the Bay, I recommend Angel Island in the off season. We were alone almost the entire time, except for one rather obnoxious seagull that followed us almost the entire way (walking, not flying). Apparently he thought we were his best bet for a snack.

If you are not a fan of nature, nothing I say here is going to change your mind. For the rest of you though, let me say it was a great walk – peaceful, beautiful and green., with a fair amount of autumn brown mixed in with the green. We saw a surprising number of deer, a treat for me since I live in the city. My sightings of wildlife were usually limited to rats and pigeons or, as my sister calls them, “flying rats".

Angel Island was known as the “Ellis Island of the West” because it once served as an immigration station. Approximately one million Asians passed through Angel Island from 1910 to 1940. The island’s history goes back farther than that. It was once the home to the Miwok Indians, also a Mexican cattle ranch in the 1800s, a military base in the American Civil War. The immigration station still stands, along with a few other points of historical interest, such as the old military buildings and two lighthouses. Guided tours are available, but the primary appeal for locals is the park.

Some people seem to view national parks as “tourist traps" – one more way to get out-of-towners to fork over cash. Not true. These places are absolutely vital, especially in such high-density, high-pressure, urban places like San Francisco. The city has more than its fair share of high-strung, tightly-wound urbanites. I speak from experience. Sometimes a day trip to a calm, pastoral setting is the only thing keeping the tops of people’s heads from blowing off.

The island is 740 grass and tree covered acres, making it the second-largest island in San Francisco Bay. The highest spot is the top of Mount Livermore, 788 feet which, oddly enough, is about twelve feet taller than it was six years ago. In the 1950s, when the island was still being used by the army, the peak was flattened for a missile base. I had no idea you could lop the top off of a mountain. Do you remember the scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, when Richard Dreyfuss made a model of a mountain in his house and then yanked the top off? Bulldozers simply pushed the peak off. The result was functional, not very attractive. So in 2002, the mountain underwent some plastic surgery. The dirt had never been removed. With a little sculpting, the peak was restored to a close approximation of its younger self. The summit of Mount Livermore offers some of the best views of San Francisco. For those tourists who want to go home with photos of San Francisco’s skyline, this is "it".

It makes me nervous to think how close we came to losing such a lovely place. The fire had started on Sunday night. It was out by Tuesday morning, but the landscape was drastically altered. Half of the island was scorched. From a distance it seems a bizarre quilt of green and gray patches. Fortunately, none of the historical buildings were destroyed. Most of the damage was done to the vegetation, all things that will grow back. My sister was especially glad to hear that none of the 60 deer living on the island were hurt. It may take a while however, before Angel Island recovers fully.

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