I’m not always great at slowing down when I travel. When I visit a national park, I want to see all the things and hike all the trails and explore as many nooks and crannies of the place as I possibly can. So I go and go and go until I collapse into a dreamless sleep around 9 p.m. only to wake up before the sun the next day and do it all again.
Ugh, you guys, Death Valley is so good. It's so good I cried on the way into the park. It was so pretty, so breathtaking, so different and so brilliant that it brought fat, literal tears to my eyes, tears so fucking big they rolled down my cheeks.
This is surprising to me because I've always thought of myself a forest creature, but here I am, spending all my vacation time in the desert, scaring lizards from their sun-soaked perches, guzzling water by the gallon, talking to cactus friends and falling madly, deeply and truly in love with America's deserts.
Alcatraz Island is just one piece of Golden Gate National Recreational Area. In total, the GGNRA includes around 25 National Park Service-administered sites spread across San Francisco and Marin and San Mateo Counties.
To get to Alcatraz Island, you have to take a ferry. It’s a short ride, with indoor and outdoor seating. It offers incredible views of both Alcatraz Island and the San Francisco skyline and occasionally, on clear days, the Golden Gate Bridge. The ferry has snacks, including wine, beer and soft pretzels, but anything you purchase, other than water, must be consumed on board the boat as no food or drink is allowed on the island.
Once you get to Alcatraz Island, a park ranger gives a brief rundown of the rules, mostly that no food is allowed, not to wander off the marked paths and when the last boat of the day leaves, along with an overview of what there is to see and do on the island, where the bathrooms are and where to get water. After that, they send you off on your adventure, to wander the prison island known as “The Rock.”
Once you make your way up the hill, past the old officer’s quarters and gun positions, you’ll come to the prison. There, staff will ask your language and hand you an audio device with headphones and then you’re free to tour the prison at your own pace.
The tour is narrated by former prisoners and guards. They recount what it was like to live and work there, what some of the more infamous inmates, like Al Capone, were like, what solitary confinement was like and how lonely it was on New Year’s Eve, when prisoners could hear the sounds of revelers welcoming in the new year on boats outside their island prison. As the story is told, the narrator directs you through different parts of the prison, down different prison blocks, through the mess hall, into the offices where prison staff worked.
You get a lot of stories on the tour, a lot of details about significant events at the prison, but my favorite is the 1962 escape attempt.
Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary was designed to house the worst of the worst, the prisoners with no hope for rehabilitation and who had caused problems or trouble at other prisons. It was notoriously rough and, allegedly, impossible to escape from, mostly because it’s a rocky island in the middle of the San Francisco Bay.
Still, 14 escape attempts were staged by 36 inmates during the 29 years Alcatraz served as a federal prison. Most were recaptured and six were shot and killed. Two drowned and a few others were never found, but were listed as missing and presumed to have drowned.
In June of 1962, three men – Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin staged an incredible escape. They’d been digging for six months, slowly widening the ventilation duct in their cells with tools that included spoons they’d stolen from the dining facility. They concealed the holes with well-painted cardboard and shook the excess dirt from their pant cuffs during their time outside.
When the time came to escape, each inmate put a papier-mâché-type head on his pillow, well-painted and complete with full heads of hair and eyebrows, made from hair clippings they’d stolen from the floors of the barber shop. They piled towels and clothing on their beds to mimic the shapes of their bodies, snuck out of their self-dug tunnels into a forgotten corridor they’d used as a workshop and gathered their supplies. They’d managed to accumulate around 50 raincoats, which they’d sewn together to make rafts.
From there, the men climbed the ventilation shaft to the roof, slid 50 feet down a kitchen vent, climbed two 12-foot perimeter fences and inflated their rafts when they reached the water. According to tests conducted later, the rafts were so well-made that they would float indefinitely.
Allegedly, the three were heading for Angel Island, some two miles away.
Their escape wasn’t detected until the morning, when a 10-day search was launched. Authorities found a paddle, a wallet that belonged to the Anglin brothers and some shreds of a raincoat, presumably the remnants of a raft. But that’s it. No human remains were ever found and after a 17-year investigation, the FBI closed their case, ruling that the prisoners probably drowned in the cold waters of the San Francisco Bay. The U.S. Marshals didn’t give up so easily, and their case is still open and will remain so until the men are either found or until their 99th birthdays.
Chances are they drowned, but maybe they didn’t. The Anglin brothers were excellent swimmers. In their teens, they spent summers in Michigan, picking cherries with their family and swimming in the lake while ice still floated on the surface.
Over the years there’s been speculation on whether or not the men could have survived, with shows like MythBusters testing the feasibility of their escape.
A few months ago I listened to an episode of the podcast Criminal that talked about the Anglin brothers and their sister, now 82-years-old. She and the rest of the family still believe the brothers are alive, that they survived the escape and made it to Brazil.
Personally, I’m a sucker for a good mystery. There’s a certain amount of magic in the idea that these men escaped the most fearsome prison in America, made their ways to some far away land and are living out their old age in a tropical paradise somewhere.
Outside the prison there’s more to explore. There’s a whole garden club that keeps the vegetation looking lovely and the island is a happy home for a variety of bird friends. There’s a gift shop, too, and a video that goes into the full history of Alcatraz, beyond its use as a federal prison.
Once you’re done exploring, you’re free to leave on any available ferry. Even though the ride is short, I’ve made it a tradition to get a wine on the ride back, to quickly sip as I ponder the possibility of prison escapes.
Alcatraz Island is accessible by commercial ferry at Pier 33 on San Francisco’s Embarcadero. Tickets go on sale 90 days in advance and have been known to sell out, especially in the summer and during holiday weekends. Tickets range from $37.25 for a day tour to $44.25 for an evening tour, with other tour options and programs available seasonally. Alcatraz is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years Day.
Turns out, tide pools are found on rocky sea shores. They’re covered with water during high tide, but when the tide goes out, separate little pools are created. The real draw here is the sea critters who live in these pools. There’s all sorts of things, crabs and anemones, snails and barnacles, even lobsters and the occasional octopus. With the tide low, you get little glimpses into their usually hidden sea creature worlds.
You’ve got two options when you head down the tide pooling path at Cabrillo – left or right.
First, we went left and the area was mobbed with screaming children and their parents, who had already annoyed us nearly to the point of confrontation in the parking lot. They could not understand the concept of car pooling, and it was soccer mom mayhem as they blocked the road in an attempt to take the parking lot by force. But still, we went down to the water and said hello to some crabs and poked at a few anemones. After the 34th child screamed in terror or exhilaration or whatever the fuck it is that makes eight year olds scream so damn much, we went back up the trail and headed to the right.
The right side of the trail is definitely more of an adventure. It winds up the hill and around some cliffs and then heads back down to the cliff-ridden seashore. It was, however, blissfully, majestically free of screaming children. In fact, seeing as it’s a bit of circuitous journey to get over there, we were mostly alone. We did not see any lobster or any octopuses, but we did meet a lot of crabs and we poked at 50 anemones, give or take, plus a bunch of barnacles and some snails, too. We were also easily distracted by the amazing views. As much as I wanted to meet sea creatures, watching the water smash into the cliffs and admiring the Pacific Ocean proved to be equally enjoyable.
While tide pooling is one of the coolest things to do at Cabrillo, that’s not why it’s a National Monument. It’s a National Monument because, in 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo led the first European expedition to explore the western coast of what is now the United States. He’s believed to have landed at Point Loma’s east shore, near where the park is located today.
Cabrillo died on the expedition, after he shattered a limb in a skirmish with some natives, but his crew kept going. They made it as far north as Oregon, maybe, before they returned to Mexico.
In addition to the tide pools, there’s also a visitor’s center, where nerds like me can get their National Park passport stamps. There’s a gift shop and a series of displays explaining the history of the area and the types of critters found in and around the park. There’s information on the Kumeyaay, the native inhabitants of the area who Cabrillo and his men encountered during their exploration.
The National Monument also includes parts of Fort Rosecrans, built to protect the harbor from enemy warships. Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery is near Cabrillo – we passed it on the drive up – and it’s probably the most beautiful military cemetery I’ve ever seen, with an incredible view of the San Diego Bay.
From Cabrillo, you can see the skyline of San Diego, Coronado, the Naval Air Station and on clear days, Tijuana. Even if you hate sea creatures and history, it’s worth the drive just for the incredible panoramic views.
TIPS FOR VISITING CABRILLO NATIONAL MONUMENT
+ Use the charts on this page to check out the tide schedule. You really want a .7 or lower, but negative tides are the best.
+ Late fall and early winter are the best times to visit. In the summer, low tides happen at night, when the park is closed.
+ You get about a four hour window to visit during low tide – two hours before and two hours after. That’s approximate though. It’s the ocean. It does what it wants.
+ Wear waterproof shoes. You’ll be in parts of the ocean exploring and dry feet are happy feet.
+ Visit the Cabrillo National Monument page for any alerts or closures. If something is closed, it’s closed. Don’t be a dick and don’t disregard park guidance. Seriously. If part of the park is closed, it’s for a reason. Probably for your safety, but also for the safety of the environment the park protects.
Cabrillo National Monument is open from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m daily, tide pool access closes at 4:30 p.m. Admission is $10 per vehicle.
If I made a list of must-see American cities, San Francisco would be on it, along with cities like New York and Vegas, Chicago and Austin. It’s iconic as fuck, for one, and it’s beautiful, and also weird. The weather is inconsistent at best and requires the wear of layers, always. The food is varied and delicious, the people often crazy.
Inadvertently, our first full day in SF ended up being very San Francisco sort of day. We didn’t plan it that way, not really, but we managed to cram a good bit of San Francisco into one
4 VERY SAN FRANCISCO ACTIVITIES
1. FARMER’S MARKET @ THE FERRY BUILDING
We started at the Ferry Building. It was designed in 1892 and completed in 1898 and was, at the time, the largest project ever completed by the city. It was and still is a ferry terminal, as the name suggests, for ferries that go across the San Francisco Bay. On the ground floor, in what used to be the baggage handling area, there’s a marketplace filled with all sorts of delicious things and on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, there’s a farmer’s market out front on the Embarcadero and, on Saturdays, also on the rear plaza that overlooks the Bay.
We found ourselves there early on a Saturday and figured the market would be the perfect place to grab some breakfast snacks before setting off for the day. We first walked through the Ferry Building to get some Blue Bottle Coffee and taste some olive oil, then heading outside to peruse the offerings.
I love a farmer’s market, and not just because it means I can eat food while standing in the street. That is a perk, for sure, but I also get a lot of joy out of discovering good food in a simple and attainable setting.
We split a rhubarb galette and then shared a porchetta sandwich from Roli Roti that was so good, that when we bit into it some angels came out and sang a really nice song about how good spit-roasted meat is and how glorious that sandwich was. True story.
2. ALCATRAZ ISLAND.
Alcatraz Island is administered by the National Park Service and is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It was first used as a military fortification, and was heavily fortified during the American Civil War, when it was used as storage to keep firearms away from Confederate sympathizers. It was also used as a military prison during the Civil War, and that continued through the Spanish-American War and through to World War I when it held conscientious objectors. In 1933, Alcatraz was deactivated as a military prison and control of the island was transferred to the Bureau of Prisons.
From 1934 to 1963, Alcatraz Island served as a federal prison. If you didn’t behave in regular prison, you got sent to Alcatraz. Al Capone spent some time there, along with organized crime boss and murderer James “Whitey Bulger, and Robert Franklin Stroud, called the “Birdman of Alcatraz” for the birds he’d raise in his cell.
Starting in 1969, Native Americans from San Francisco occupied the island for more than 19 months, and then, in 1972 the part became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and was designated a National Historic Landmarks in 1986.
Our tour was early, at 9 a.m., and even though I’d been through the prison and listened to the award-winning audio tour twice before, I still really enjoyed it. The tour is narrated by former prisoners and guards and it does a really exceptional job of explaining what life was like on the island and in the prison.
Also, it’s really beautiful on the island. The gardens are gorgeous and kept up by a group of volunteers, there’s a seabird colony that’s living a fantastic life, although I did encounter two geese who were probably plotting mayhem out in the old exercise yard, and the views of San Francisco both on the island and from the ferry out there are also pretty fantastic.
3. IRISH COFFEES @ THE BUENA VISTA.
The Irish Coffee was not invented here, but it’s where it got its start in America. Two men experimented their way to creating the perfect combination of cream, coffee and booze (plus some sugar cubes), that they’d had at the airport in Shannon, Ireland. They perfected the recipe in 1952 and it’s been the same ever since, served at the Buena Vista. According to their website, they serve something like 2,000 Irish Coffees every day.
The Irish Coffees are damn delicious, and it’s amazing to see them made in bulk, all lined up on the bar, by a bartender who’s been making them pretty much his entire adult life.
We had two, because why the hell not, and they were probably the best we’ve ever had, an we’ve had a lot of Irish Coffees.
The Golden Gate Bridge spans the Golden Gate Strait, and connects San Francisco to Marin County. Opened in 1937, it’s the most photographed bridge in the world according to Frommer’s, and is one of the Wonders of the Modern World and until 1964, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world, at 4,200 feet.
We knew we’d only have one day of sunshine while we were in San Francisco, and my travel partner wanted to walk across so even though we’d scampered around most of Alcatraz Island, we figured, fuck it, better to cross the bridge with a little bit of sunshine than to miss it due to the raging rain that was expected the next day.
We walked all the way across and then, because there’s really not a super easy way to get back across, we walked back to the San Francisco side.
One thing I love about walking across the Golden Gate, is that the weather actually changes around you. We left to bright skies and came back to gray skies, over the course of less than an hour. San Francisco is definitely known for its ridiculous weather and walking the bridge really gives you a feel for how absolutely crazy it really is.
About the only really San Francisco thing we didn’t do that day was ride a trolley, but we made it up for the next day.
And the feeling is mutual. Critters seem to love me too. There have been bat, possum, raccoon and bird adventures in the past few years and then there’s the neighborhood stray cats – all spayed and neutered – who I’ve been feeding for a handful of years and who, really, I count as good friends.
So, really, I like critters. I love them. They are my friends. And that’s why it shouldn’t be any sort of surprise that visiting the seals of La Jolla during a recent trip to San Diego was on the top of my to-do list, right next to “EAT ALL THE TACOS.”
I know there are people from places where seals just live, but I am not from one of those places. I am an East Coast cat, Virginia born and bred, and we don’t have seals just chilling on a city beach doing their seal thing. That is not real life for me and so, upon meeting the seals of La Jolla and upon seeing that there were seals EVERYWHERE, I freaked the fuck out.
BECAUSE SEALS, YOU GUYS. SEALS! JUST BEING SEALS AND DOING SEAL THINGS.
Also, there were seal pups. So it was seals and seal pups and the beautiful and perfect California coast and that was enough for this Virginia girl to smile so hard my face hurt by the end of the day.
That you can get so close to these wild creatures, these goofy and amazing sea creatures, is amazing to me. You just walk down some stairs and there they are. Seals.
The plan was to wander around La Jolla a little bit, but I couldn’t pull myself away from my new friends. I just crouched next to them and stared at them as they sunned themselves and napped and just lived their ridiculous seal lives.