Mountain Biking

Mountain biking Angel Island, a panopticon of iconic Bay Area vistas – The Mercury News

CLICK HERE if you’re having a problem viewing the photos on a mobile device.

On Angel Island, you can take the high road or the low road — either way, you’ll have a bicycling experience unrivaled in the Bay Area. Every bend reveals a sweeping view, starting with the sight of sailboats gently bobbing at the lovely landing cove. Cycling from there, you’ll catch glimpses of Mount Tamalpais crouching over Marin County, the stunning Marin Headlands, the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco’s famously striking skyline and the East Bay hills. And then back around to Tiburon and Belvedere, whose residents look out from their hillside mansions on views that, sad to say for these wealthy folk, are far less encompassing than what you’ve just taken in.

Reached via a scenic 15-minute ferry ride ($15 round trip) from tiny, tony Tiburon, Angel Island is a state park and a panopticon of iconic Bay Area vistas that requires only easy pedaling to circumnavigate. As you ride ’round, you’ll come across wildlife, classic coastal vegetation and some surprising — and not always enchanting — history.

Board the Angel Island ferry in Tiburon for a 15-minute ride to the island. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group) 

Taking in views from low and high, I rode my mountain bike around the island on the paved Perimeter Road that’s closer to the shoreline as well as the upper Fire Road, a wide dirt avenue that rings the island a few hundred feet below Mount Livermore’s 788-foot summit. The peak is named for Caroline Livermore, a Marin County conservationist who led the push to create the park in 1954.

My bike has front and rear shock absorbers, fat, knobby tires and 30 speeds, but this was overkill for Angel Island, where either circuit could be completed fairly easily on most bikes with 10 speeds or more. Riders on skinnier tires will want to watch their velocity on the Fire Road for safety reasons, and basic human decency suggests all riders should put aside the need for speed on these roads shared with hikers, walkers and stroller-pushing families.

Heading counter-clockwise on the Perimeter Road, after a short jaunt up a connector from the ferry landing, you’ll encounter only a couple moderate inclines between start and finish. For the first half of this low-road circuit, I was joined by a companion on a five-speed around-town bike, who only had to get off and push once for a few dozen yards at a short steep section on the south side of the island.

The smooth, wide road encourages leisurely cruising, with a premium on soaking up the vistas. On the day I rode, fog shrouded the upper regions of Mount Tam and the tops of the Golden Gate Bridge and cut the Salesforce Tower in San Francisco down to a more decorous size. Overhead, the white, fleecy blanket dimmed a blazing summer sun and cooled the air to ideal-for-riding temperature.

With San Francisco’s skyline in the distance, a boat cruises past Angel Island’s Point Blunt, Friday, July 17, 2020, on San Francisco Bay. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group) 

I gawked nonstop: at Marin with its gorgeous hills and ritzy residences, at the Golden Gate, suddenly revealed in its breathtaking splendor when I rounded a turn, at Alcatraz, the city, the other bridges, the sailboats leaned over on a white-capped bay. During the occasional uphills, breezes kept sweating to a minimum but rarely gathered sufficient force for headwinds.

After I cranked up a brief, steepish path from the Perimeter Road to the Fire Road, I repeated the ’round-the-island journey, watching puffs of wind make waves in the tall-grass meadows along the road on the island’s south side. Moseying along the northern slopes in dappled sunlight beneath the pines, oaks, bays and toyons, I spotted rattlesnake grass, orange sticky monkey flower and a great deal of poison oak beside the road. I slowed for a hefty mule deer buck with spreading antlers that eyed me from the roadside before bounding down the hill.

One amazement follows another here, but there is more on offer than world-class scenery and recreation. My history lesson started at the ferry landing in Ayala Cove, one of several sites on the island where 1,000 years or more ago, Miwok Indigenous people set up camps, gathered acorns and hunted deer, seals, otters and ducks and set out in reed boats to catch salmon in the Raccoon Strait. Idyllic — until it wasn’t.

The cove is named after Juan Manuel de Ayala, a Spanish naval officer who landed there in 1775 on a mission to map the San Francisco Bay. Ayala, who let his shipboard priest name the island after angels, was a compatriot and contemporary of Father Junipero Serra, founder of the Catholic Church’s California mission system, who arrived in the Bay Area two years later and left a legacy of enslaving and abusing native peoples.

Ayala Cove also holds the four remaining buildings of 50 structures that originally made up the Quarantine Station. Opened in 1892 to fumigate ships from foreign lands, the station detained immigrants suspected of carrying disease in 400-bed barracks.

An old hospital building in the East Garrison area of Angel Island’s Fort McDowel, frames a view of San Francisco Bay, Friday, July 17, 2020. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group) 

Once you pedal up from the cove, the Perimeter Road provides access to the range of historical relics on the island. Past an off-limits U.S. Coast Guard station at Point Stuart and before the turn-of-the-century gun-battery platforms that overlook the Golden Gate, the buildings of the U.S. Army’s Camp Reynolds remain well-preserved. Two of them date back to 1867.

On the day I visited, kids were playing soccer on the old parade grounds. But this place, too, seeps dark history: As a post-Civil War infantry camp, it served as an infantry staging area for bloody campaigns against the Modoc, Apache, Sioux and other tribes.

Across the island, Fort McDowell also boasts a variety of historical structures, some refurbished and in use by the park, others succumbing to time and weather, roof tiles missing, paint peeling and empty windows agape. Completed in 1899 to serve as a quarantine station for U.S. troops potentially exposed to diseases during the Spanish-American War and Philippine Insurrection, the fort became a processing center for hundreds of thousands of American soldiers heading out and coming home from fighting overseas through the 1930s. Beside it runs a gorgeous stretch of beach.

Rounding Angel Island’s northeast tip, you’ll find the preserved U.S. Immigration Station, which a signboard notes is often compared to Ellis Island but was not a place of welcome. “It was used to keep immigrants, specifically those from China, out,” the sign reads.

The station, built in 1910 largely to enforce immigration restrictions that began with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, was used for three decades to detain, interrogate and examine would-be immigrants, including 175,000 Chinese citizens, many of whom inscribed poetry inside the buildings.

“There are tens of thousands of poems on these walls,” one poem reads. “They are all cries of suffering and sadness.”

As disturbing as some of the island’s historical reminders may be, what dominates here is the epic scenery. Given the island’s proliferation of benches and picnic tables with panoramic views, adding a lunch stop to your Angel Island cycling adventure is highly recommended. Or you can take advantage of the offerings at Ayala Cove’s small cafe, which provides, among other libations, the perfect cap to many a mountain bike ride: ice-cold beer.

Getting there: Online reservations are required for the Angel Island Tiburon Ferry. Service to the island by the Blue & Gold Fleet is suspended because of coronavirus.


Three more rides

Bicycling has boomed amid the coronavirus pandemic, as cooped-up people seek safe ways to exercise. In the Bay Area, mountain biking offers an abundance of safe exercise along with life-affirming doses of fresh air and natural beauty.

While perilous single-tracks exist, much of the region’s riding is accessible to nearly anyone on a mountain bike. Suspensions — shocks in the front or both front and rear — help smooth the bumps but aren’t necessary on many routes. All you need is a bike, a helmet, a basic repair and flat-tire kit, water, sun lotion, a map and, of course, some snacks.

Here are three locations offering rides for people of all abilities.

1 Mount Tamalpais State Park

Mountain biking was born here, when Gary Fisher, Joe Breeze, Wende Cragg and other rebels added fat tires to road bikes and began blasting down dirt trails. Today, breaking the 15-miles-per-hour speed limit on the mountain can get you a costly ticket, but Mount Tam presents a range of scenic rides that are best enjoyed at lower speeds.

Recommended: Park near the Mountain Home Inn on Panoramic Highway in upper Mill Valley and ride on the broad fire roads to the West Point Inn, then up to East Peak, taking in panoramic views over the San Francisco Bay, Golden Gate and San Francisco skyline.

2 Tilden Regional Park and Wildcat Canyon Regional Park

These adjacent parks in the Berkeley hills offer a wide array of rides that can take you from high, open meadows with expansive vistas down into thickly vegetated valleys. Keep your eyes peeled for coyotes, deer, bobcats and wild turkeys.

Recommended: From Inspiration Point on Wildcat Canyon Road, head out on the paved Nimitz Way trail with its sweeping views. From there, pedal along the ridge for seasonal wildflowers and vistas to the east and west, or descend to the lush, bird-filled thickets and pretty glades bordering Wildcat Creek.

3 Wilder Ranch State Park

Coastal Wilder Ranch, just north of Santa Cruz, offers beaches, coves and cliffs, rolling grassy hills, ravines full of redwoods and oak and madrone forest in the upper realms.

Recommended: Park in the lot beside Highway 1 and ascend Engelsmans Loop, Old Cabin Trail and Eucalyptus Loop to reach three picnic tables in a meadow with a sprawling view of the Pacific Ocean. To get back, take Eucalyptus and Wilder Ridge Loop and enjoy one of the most scenic downhills in Northern California.