A conceptual illustration – “brainstorming” Ayala Cove, the Islands’ main point of entry

A “reprinted” article
written by GRETCHEN LANG
Permission granted by THE ARK Newspaper


Your ferry has just docked at Angel Island. You head down the gangplank, beguiled by beautiful, sleepy Ayala Cove. You stroll around the cove for a half hour, buy a drink at the Cove Cafe and then you are ready to move on — but where to? The cove is hemmed in by steep, thickly wooded hills, and what lies beyond isn’t visible. You know the island is full of historic sites, but how do you get there and what will you do there? Can you rent a bike? A kayak?  Where can you eat on the island? What is a good hiking destination, or the best place to picnic out of the wind? How do you get to the top of Mt. Livermore, and what will you see?

Angel Island, the 740-acre state park in the middle of San Francisco Bay, is a potential treasure trove of historical, environmental and recreational opportunities, but rough terrain, poor infrastructure and lack of information often stymies visitors.

Now the California Department of Parks and Recreation, in cooperation with the Angel Island Conservancy, has proposed a new visitor orientation center in Ayala Cove, phase one of an ambitious 20-year master plan to open the island’s historical, environmental and recreational riches to the public.

“Our goal is to create an awe-inspiring visitor experience on Angel Island by bringing to life the cultural, historical and natural attributes of the island,” says Gail Dolton, Board President of the Conservancy.

The state parks service has already discussed designs for the orientation center with architects, although the final shape of the project remains undecided. The center would provide a sheltered area with maps and interpretive displays, as well as park staff and concessions counters where visitors could rent a bike, book a tram ride or plan a hike.

“We want a comfortable welcoming area for visitors to get an idea of where they want to go and what they want to do, to give people the opportunity to see all that Angel Island has to offer,” says Amy Brees, Angel Island State Park Superintendent. Brees says she hopes that once donors are found for the project and plans are finalized, groundbreaking can begin. She hopes to have the center up and running within three years, she says. The scale of the structure will depend on how much money can be raised, with $1 million the goal. The plan also includes digital tools, like applications that visitors can download on smartphones that would provide for self-guided exploration of the park.

An improved Ayala Cove is the first phase of an ambitious Interpretation Master Plan, published last month by California State Parks and the Angel Island Conservancy, the park’s fundraising wing.

The 175-page plan provides a roadmap for new and improved interpretive facilities, educational programs and recreational opportunities on the island, the conservancy announced in a press release.

The plan envisions a future Angel Island far more accessible than it is today, with directional signs, orientation kiosks at sites like East and West Garrison, trail signs and interpretive signs explaining the history of places like the Nike Missile site and the Immigration Station.

Signage and displays at the island’s major sites would bring the human stories of the island to life, including stories of the Native Americans, soldiers and immigrants who lived on the island at different times in its history.

The plan envisions an environmental education center and new teaching curriculum for school-age children, connecting them to Angel Island’s marine and terrestrial environments. It even envisions a garden where kids can learn about the food grown a hundred years ago on the island.

It proposes to partner with companies to expand the recreational opportunities on the island, including kayaking that would allow visitors to explore the island by boat.

Other partnerships with local museums and wildlife organizations could enhance learning programs. While not all of these wonders may come to pass, the publication of the plan has already helped the conservancy net $450,000 in Proposition 84 funds to finance an island wide interpretive sign project. The signs are due to be completed in time for the 34th America’s Cup in September 2013, Dolton says.

The plan is the first step in fundraising for these projects. The conservancy also plans to hire an executive director, sometime in the coming year, to handle fundraising full time, Dolton said.

Angel Island has a wealth of historic sites including the remains of Miwok Indian settlements, former U.S. military barracks at East and West Garrison and the eerie Nike Missile site, which housed anti-aircraft missiles for seven years during the Cold War.

It also boasts beautiful hiking trails with panoramic views and quiet coves for picnicking and play. But as described in the Interpretation Master Plan document, the island also presents problems for visitors wishing to access these sites, including rough terrain and a lack of amenities like restrooms, restaurants and covered visitor centers at several sites. Many of the historic buildings are in disrepair and are a safety hazard.

With state funding at a historic low, Dolton and Brees say they are hoping for private donors to come forward to contribute to whichever aspects of the plan that inspires them.

“The (Interpretation Master Plan) has a project for every budget and a project for every passion,” Brees says.

Environmental reporter Gretchen Lang, a Belvedere native, spent 15 years of living and writing for newspapers abroad, including the Boston Globe and the International Herald Tribune.