21 Most Unusual, Most Beautiful, and Most Romantic Places to Explore Along the San Francisco Bay Trail and Beyond

I saw many beautiful and fascinating places on my 350-500 mile walk around the San Francisco Bay Trail (and beyond) at every accessible point, including islands, bridges, and docks. Here are my twenty-one favorites in a long overdue post. (All photos are my own unless otherwise noted. Check out more pics at #ronosaurusbaywalk on Instagram. I am now walking around the bay again on the Bay Area Ridge Trail, so check out #ronosaurusbayridge too. See also my guest post on Save the Bay Blog.)

#21 Garbage Mountain

“You bring me to the most romantic places,” Omar Rodriguez-Rodriguez told me when I took him to Garbage Mountain to walk the 2.8 mile Wildcat Marsh and the charmingly named Landfill Loop Trail. More of a squarish hill (158 feet high), the mountain was opened as a dump in 1953 and sealed in 2010. Framed on either side by Wildcat and San Pablo creeks, cutting through vegetation-rich tidal marshes popular with water birds and mammals, the dump is returning to nature. The brochure from Republic Services, which now owns the site, explains that poisonous water leached from the site is treated and used in the park, the nearby Chevron refinery, and the Richmond Country Club. Siphoned methane is converted to electricity and sold to PG&E, enough for 1,500 homes. In short, Garbage Mountain is transforming human waste into a natural preserve and a source of water and energy. A great place for a date (if a little stinky on the downwind side).

Garbage Mountain, as seen from Wildcat Marsh

#20 Fifth Avenue Marina Artist Community

Metal sculptures adorn the ramshackle habitations of this hidden Oakland neighborhood at the Fifth Avenue Marina behind the Phoenix Iron Works. Residents have taken metal scraps and transformed them into art, creating a neighborhood like something out of post-apocalyptic Mad Max movie. The artist community retains the rough-and-tumble Bohemian character of the old Oakland waterfront, which is being overtaken elsewhere by expensive condos. Check out this photo gallery. I wasn’t sure if I was trespassing as I stepped into this private wonderland, but the people there greeted me warmly and seemed pleased that I was taking pictures of their artworks. Let’s preserve these remaining pockets of Bay Area Bohemia.

A metal sculpture adorns the fence of a home in the Fifth Avenue Marina Artist Community.

#19 Mare Island

Off limits to civilians for about a hundred years, Mare Island, the first permanent naval base on the west coast, has recently-opened a four mile path through salt marshes, the Mare Island San Pablo Bay Walking Trail. Once considered “wasteland,” as in land that is wasted, we now recognize that these marshes are the kidneys of the bay, cleaning pollutants from the water, and providing essential habitat to many species of birds and other wildlife. You can also check out the Mare Island Shoreline Heritage Preserve, rusting shipbuilding yards great for photography, historic military buildings, and a haunting cemetery right out of a western. The “island” grew as the Mare Island Strait was dredged for shipping and the dredgings were dumped into the bay as landfill until the island became a peninsula. Whatever you want to call it, it’s well worth a visit!

A view of the salt marshes from the Mare Island San Pablo Bay Walking Trail.

#18 Alviso Marina County Park

Alviso was once a budding town as shipping center for the south bay. Now a few magnificent Victorians tell of past greatness. However, the thing to do is walk the levees of the old salt ponds of various shades of green and red, depending on their salt concentration. The world simplifies: a single path with water on both sides. Make sure to bring a hat, lunch, and water!

A path on a levee at Alviso Marina County Park

#17 Albany Bulb

Once an industrial dumping ground, the bulb extended out into the bay as they unloaded broken blocks of cement until it at last it was a peninsula. When dumping was prohibited, squatters moved in and made houses out of the scraps, along with beautiful sculptures like the one below. Since they had no plumbing or electricity, the communities were eventually banned, but now the Bulb, an excellent place for dogs, is a natural wonderland with stunning  junk art.

My favorite sculpture on the Albany Bulb

#16 Eastern Span of the Bay Bridge

Although the new span of the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge was plagued with delays of six years, high costs (the most expensive public project in California at $6.4 billion), and controversysome substandard materials did not meet earthquake specificationsthe new span is simple and elegant, the cables making changing patterns depending on your perspective. Unlike a typical suspension bridge, which is hung from two towers, this one, the world’s widest bridge, is a self-anchored suspension bridge, hung from one tower, like a sling. Compare the new span with the old clunky cantilever bridge, which has now been dismantled, in my photo below to see why it is so much better. When Omar and I went, the walking path was not yet connected to Yerba Buena Island. Now that it reaches the landing there, I will have to go back. I encourage you to take a walk on the bridge as well!

Why isn’t the main span of the Bay Bridge with its sparkling light show on this list, you ask? Well, no one is allowed to walk on it. Build me a path, and I will add it to this list.

Omar Rodriguez-Rodriguez on the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge with the old span to the left.

#15 China Camp State Park

Journey to another time and another continent by visiting China Camp, once a secluded shrimping village for Chinese immigrants, only accessible by boat or a difficult trek across the hilly peninsula. In the 1880’s, mostly Cantonese people, escaping racial discrimination in San Francisco, gathered here and in 26 other shrimping villages to make a living in exporting shrimp to China. After the earthquake and fire of 1906, the population peaked at 10,000 with three general stores, a barber shop, and a marine supply store, then emptied after discriminatory laws were passed to decimate the Chinese shrimping industry. Eventually only the Quan family family remained, but they were able to resume shrimping with the invention of a new net, the trawl, which side stepped the prohibition against bag nets. The last of the family Frank Quan, who continued to run a general store and cafe, died in August 2016, bringing an era to an end, but you can still step into the past when you visit this evocative state park.

You can also hike or bike through the hills and salt marshes, a 1,514 acre park, then visit McNears Beach Park, where you will find a fishing pier, swimming pool, snack bar, sand volleyball court, picnic areas, and tennis courts.

A collection of photos from China Camp. (The two black and white photos are pictures of photos I saw there.)

#14 Point Pinole Regional Shoreline

Once Atlas Powder Company made gunpowder and dynamite on this rugged point, far from nearby towns so they would have plenty of space in case of accidents. Point Pinole has become beautiful parkland (2,315 acres with twelve miles of trails!). Explore meadows peppered with wildflowers, fragrant eucalyptus woodlands (once a buffer for explosions), a recently restored marsh, factory ruins, a campsite, bluffs, beaches, and a 1,200 foot fishing pier that stretches into the San Pablo Bay. Get to the point!

The fishing pier at Point Pinole stretching into San Pablo Bay.

#13 Point Richmond

What could be better than this the Miller/Knox Regional Shoreline, a charming park with a swimming beach in a cove, a tree-shaded lawn with picnic tables, a glassy salt-water lagoon, a fishing pier, hiking and biking trails, and golden California hills with panoramic views? There’s even a model railroad museum! If that’s not enough, go through the tunnel and visit the Point Richmond Historic District, developed in the 1890’s under the influence of the railway and oil refinery. Enjoy the charming brick and wooden architecture. Get a drink and some delicious food at the Up & Under Pub and Grill with pressed tin ceilings.

A golden California hill reflected in the salt-water lagoon at the Miller/Know Regional Shoreline.

#12 Treasure Island

Named after the gold that may be in its soil and inspired by the novel by Robert Louis Stephenson (who lived in San Francisco for a short while), Treasure Island is an artificial island built for the art deco Golden Gate International Exposition in 1939 and 1940 (only one of those buildings remain, now a museum). An army base for many years, it is now a quiet residential neighborhood. The military housing may be unimpressive, but truly stunning views of San Francisco, one of the best places to see the city, easily make up for the drab architecture. After brunch on the patio at Aracely, take a walk around Treasure Island (avoiding a few areas closed off because of the toxic waste the military left buried). Find real treasures at the flea market, and rock out at the  Treasure Island Music Festival.

Bliss Dance by Marco Cochrane debuted at burning man and enlivened the waterfront on Treasure Island from 2011-2015.

#11 Fort Baker

At the northern end of the Golden Gate Bridge, you can explore Fort Baker, a former army base built between 1902 and 1910, with charming Colonial Revival military buildings looping around green parade grounds. Have a fancy brunch at Marin Circle Restaurant, then, if you have kids or are young at heart, visit the Bay Area Discovery Museum. Whatever your age, take the hidden trail behind the batteries to the east of the Fort with great views of the bay. Next, it’s time for a drink at the fancy-sounding Presidio Yacht Club, which has a world-class view of the bridge, but is actually more of a dive bar. My friend Gary got chewed out for ordering a margarita, so keep it simple: a whiskey and a beer.

A glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge from the western side of Fort Baker.

#10 Fort Mason

So much to see and do at Fort Mason! Poised atop headlands between the grassy Marina district and Aquatic Park (both well worth a visit), Fort Mason was a Spanish, Mexican, and U.S. Army Post for more than two hundred years and the principal port of embarkation for the Pacific campaign of World War II. Wander through the historical buildings, then check out the wide stretch of parkland to the west ideal for playing frisbee, picnicking, reading, or just lying in the grass.

The lower dockside area is the Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture with piers and warehouses that hold a variety of museums, theaters, and businesses, such as the world-famous vegetarian Greens Restaurant, Magic Theater, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Artists Gallery, and Museo ItaloAmericano; however, my favorite spot in this favorite place on my walk around the San Francisco Bay is the used Readers Bookstore, which is associated with the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library.

Buttons in a hollowed-out book at the Reader’s Bookstore.

#9 Alameda

Until my bay walk, I had no idea that Alameda had the largest, most beautiful beach on the San Francisco Baby, Crown Memorial State Beach, which ends in a naval air shipyard, where you can visit the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Hornet. Make sure to see the two charming old-time neighborhoods, the oldest on Webster Street where you must get a beer at 1400 Bar and Grill with a stained glass ceiling in an 1879 building. The newer town center is on Park Street with great antique shops, the best toy store in the bay area, Toy Safari, an arcade museum High Scores Arcade with classic games, one of my favorite Mexican restaurants in the bay area, La Penca Azul, and an art-deco movie palace by Timothy Pflueger, who designed the Castro Theater in San Francisco and the Paramount in Oakland. Ah, Alameda!

The Alameda Theater designed by Timothy Pflueger

#8 Tiburon

Take a ferry to Tiburon, which means “shark” in Spanish. This particular shark may have lost some teeth since its days as a railroad terminal and a party town during prohibition (you can get a feel for the old west in the architecture of the main street when you compare it to the historic photo on the plaque at the head of the street), but you can still get a good bite in this charming town. I recommend one of the wooden patios over the bay. My favorites are Guayamas, a Mexican restaurant,  and Sam’s Anchor Cafe, where, during prohibition, alcohol was lifted through a trapdoor into the restaurant from boats that slipped underneath. Then, walk around the corner and up Ark Row. These historic houseboats are now locked in asphalt, but you can still float into the past as you visit these beautiful buildings. Then, walk along the bayfront park up to the Lyford’s Tower, which was once the gateway to a utopian sanitarium.

Enjoying a cold one with my in-laws Diana and Carlos at Guayamas. In the reflection, you can see Angel Island.

#7 Houseboats of Sausalito

Sausalito looks like a village on the Riviera, colorful houses stacked up on the hills. Lots to see and do, including two of my favorite toy stores, but I especially love to stroll along the houseboat piers on the northern end of the city. One houseboat, the Taj Mahal Houseboat, is a miniature version of that architectural masterpiece. You can spend an afternoon exploring these piers, but I especially love the hippy houseboats of the Gates Co-Op, which residents call “The Last Free Ride.” I’ve heard that a houseboat combines all the problems of a house and all those of a boat, but it may still be cheaper than buying a house, and it is certainly more romantic!

A colorful houseboat in the Gate Co-Op community. Peace out, everyone!

#6 The Presidio

Walking through the forested Presidio, it’s easy to imagine that San Francisco was once covered with trees. Not so! Its sandy, shifting soil supported mostly low, ground-hugging plants, such as dune strawberry and lupine. One of the best places to see what San Francisco looked like before its transformation is the tidal marshes of Crissy Field. The main area of Crissy Fields, once a military airfield, is now a grassy park, a perfect place for a picnic.

The Presidio has a long history, encompassing seasonal villages of the Ohlone Indians, a Spanish Imperial Outpost (established at nearly the same time as Mission Dolores, the first European settlement in the bay area), a military base on the Mexican Frontier, a U.S. Army Post, and now mostly public parkland. The Presidio is full of interesting things to see and do: historic military buildings, including the Civil War era Fort Point, excellent museums, like the Walt Disney Family Museum, amazing art by the likes of Andy Goldsworthy (see “Andy Goldsworthy’s Art in the Presidio”), and nature trails that will leave you wondering whether you are still in a city. (Read more about it in my post Crissy Field and the Presidio: A Favorite Place on Ronosaurus Rex’s Walk Around the San Francisco Bay.

Andy Goldsworthy’s Wood Line

#5 Angel Island

The Island of Angels arches its majestic back out of the grey-green waters of the bay, a protected wilderness with views of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay Bridge, Alcatraz, Tiburon, Sausalito, and Mt. Tamalpais. Hike to the top of Mt. Livermore or walk around the island. Visit the abandoned McDowell army base on the eastern side, a photographer’s dream of colors and textures.

Once called the Ellis Island of the West, Angel Island was the immigration station of the western U.S., a site of sorrow where the first anti-immigrant laws were enforced first against the Chinese, then other groups. Potential immigrants were kept locked up in buildings resembling concentration-camps, sometimes for a year, writing poetry on the walls. Here is one by an anonymous inmate:

The sea-scape resembles lichen twisting

and turning for a thousand li.

There is no shore to land and it is

difficult to walk.

With a gentle breeze I arrived at the city

thinking all would be so.

At ease, how was one to know he was to

live in a wooden building?

Mottled light on a mottled copper bell at the Immigration Station on Angel Island

#4 Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon

This bar looks like something out of the old west, and it is, as you can plainly tell from its architecture and the memorabilia crowding the walls. The wood, from an old whaling ship, is even older. Heinold’s was the first and last chance sailors for sailors to throw a couple back before shipping out and after coming back. Some who left for war pineed dollar bills to the walls for their return drink, some of which, black now, were never collected. In 1906, during the great earthquake, the back of the bar, which is built on pilings over the bay, sank several feet, so the floor and bar are steeply tilted, making you feel drunk before you ever have a drink. Jack London came here as a kid and met sailors, who got him hooked on stories of adventures. Later London would write at a table by the entrance. I usually order a rye, since a bartender told me that is most likely what Jack drank. I spoke to the owner one day, and she insists on old-fashioned rules. The bartenders wear ties. If a customer is using profanity, they get kicked out. Take a chance on Heinold’s; it may be your last!

Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon

#3 East Brother Light Station

Two rocks rise from the water just past the Richmond-San Rafael bridge near the tip of the secluded San Pablo point: the west brother and east brother. The west brother, white with guano, is prohibited, but the east brother is crowned with a glorious Victorian light station, alerting ships to the dangers of the brothers with its flashing beacon and booming foghorn. Transformed into a charming (but somewhat expensive) bed and breakfast, the light station (a light station is bigger than a lighthouse) has charming bedrooms, living room, and dining room from another era. Hosted by various couples hired for their skills with boats, maintenance, and cooking, your stay will include a historical tour of the island, social mixers, and delicious meals.

I felt like we had been transported to the Agatha Christie novel And Then There Were None, so I kept joking with the other visitors about who would murder whom. When another visitor said I would probably be the killer, I answered, “That would be too obvious.” However, the next morning, everyone was still alive and smiling. You will be smiling too when you go.

East Brother Light Station

#2 The Ferries

One of the best places on my walk wasn’t a place but a mode of transportation: the ferries. At Fisherman’s Wharf, you could pay $35 for a bay cruise, or, hop on a ferry that is actually going somewhere for $5 – $12. Grab an Irish coffee, a glass of wine, or a soda, and sit outside on the back of the boat where you are protected from the wind but have panoramic views of the bridges, the islands, the cities, and the ridges, as the ferry cuts a rough wake through the water and seagulls hover in the air. Keep your eyes open for marine life: I have seen sea lions, dolphins, and even a pair of gray whales.

I heard that the ferry business on the bay is picking up. Time for you to discover why. Take a ferry to Sausalito, like a Mediterranean village stacked up on the hillside. (Read about its houseboats above.) Travel to Tiburon, a charming town with hints of the old west and tasty restaurants. (See my entry above.) Go to Angel Island, a natural and historical preserve ideal for hiking. (See above.) Ferry to Larkspur to walk along the bay, visit a neighborhood of houseboats, and guzzle delicious beer at the Marin Brewing Company. Take my favorite ferry ride, an hour-long trip to Vallejo, the former capital of California, for brunch and antique shopping, then visit Mare Island. (See above.) Journey to Oakland, a colorful city with amazing art deco buildings and a thousand things to do, including having a drink at Heinold’s First and Last Chance. (See above.) Or visit Alameda, an island with two old-time downtown areas, restaurants, and an art deco movie theater (see above).

The Bay Bridge from the back of the Larkspur Ferry

#1 The Golden Gate Bridge

Arching from the rounded hills of the Marin Headlands to the forested Presidio, the Golden Gate Bridge is an art deco masterpiece with squared towers often adorned with streamers of fog. No, the bridge is not golden; it’s international orange, easily visible to planes and ships, a color enhanced by the rosy light of sunset. It is the gate, not the bridge, that is golden: the opening to the bay. The explorer John C. Fremont, named the strait Chrysopylae (“Golden Gate” in Greek), saying that if California were ever developed, the opening would be as important as the golden horn (Chrysókeras) of Istanbul. After the discovery of gold in 1848, the name stuck, and it is still a bridge of promise, offering dreams of prosperity and personal freedom. The bridge, which is where I started and ended my more than 350 mile journey, had to be number one on my list for its beauty and symbolic power.

Ronosaurus finishing his walk around the San Francisco Bay, accompanied by Deb Garfinkel (behind me), Gary Boren, Katie Fox, Eric Kessell (not pictured here), and Omar Rodriguez-Rodriguez, who took the picture.

Do you have any favorite places on the bay that I am missing on this list or any information to add about those below? Tell us about them in a comment!

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