A Guide to San Francisco Bay Ferries (and what to do when you get there)

A San Francisco Bay ferryboat ride is a sublime experience of the first order. Figuring out which one to take can be a bit daunting because there are many ferry companies and no centralized schedule. But with the tiniest bit of planning itís possible for anyone, visitors and Bay Area residents alike, to quite easily experience the romance and unspeakable beauty of a short cruise on the Bay. And it costs surprisingly little. The commuter ferries present an especially attractive deal. Hereís the basic skinny on whatís available:

Published: February, 2002
 

A San Francisco Bay ferryboat ride is a sublime experience of the first order. Figuring out which one to take can be a bit daunting because there are many ferry companies and no centralized schedule. But with the tiniest bit of planning it’s possible for anyone, visitors and Bay Area residents alike, to quite easily experience the romance and unspeakable beauty of a short cruise on the Bay. And it costs surprisingly little. The commuter ferries present an especially attractive deal. Here’s the basic skinny on what’s available:

Alcatraz 

By far and away the most popular ferry ride destination on San Francisco Bay is the retired federal penitentiary on Alcatraz Island; it’s the default ferry ride experience. It’s also a popular ticket to get and single tickets can be had only from the Blue and Gold Fleet at (415) 705-5555 or www.blueandgoldfleet.com. Call well in advance. You may also buy tickets at Blue and Gold’s Pier 41 Fisherman’s Wharf Box Office or the Blue & Gold Fleet’s TeleSails ticket counter at DFS Galleria near Union Square. Do not expect to get tickets on day of departure. There are trips about every half-hour from 9:30 A.M. with the last departure at 4:15. The entire experience takes about 2 ½ hours. All ferry service to Alcatraz departs from Pier 41/The Marine Terminal at the epicenter of Fishermen’s Wharf (the corner of Jefferson and Powell Streets) very near Pier 39. The ride is a short 10-15 minutes to the island, where the morbid attraction of gawking over a place of heartless punishment awaits. Award-winning audio tours are available. The ride is directly across San Francisco’s middle bay. The views of the City skyline, Russian and Telegraph Hill in particular, are incomparable. The cost is $9.25 roundtrip for adults, $7.50 for seniors and $6.00 for children 11 and under. Audio is a little extra and there is a $2.25 per ticket additional charge for phone and web orders.

Angel Island 

Angel Island is the thinking person’s Alcatraz. It’s a large, hilly, tree-covered hiker’s paradise, in sharp contrast to the tiny, treeless crag that is Alcatraz. The wide, well-maintained trails on Angel Island offer sweeping vistas of the Bay in all directions, and as you go higher up the hill, they just get better and better. It’s easily possible to get the sense that you are on a deserted island, plunk in the middle of San Francisco Bay. Park officials, to reduce overuse of Alcatraz, are stimulating interest in Angel Island with the Island Hop that operates from April through October only. This all-day affair involves first ferrying from Pier 41 to Alcatraz, then catching a boat from Alcatraz to Angel Island and finally a return trip to San Francisco from Angel Island. The service is offered by Blue & Gold and costs $35.25 per adult ($32.50 for seniors, $21.00 for children 11 and under). Options for getting to Angel Island include Blue and Gold from Fishermen’s Wharf Pier 41 with a transfer to the Blue and Gold Ferry to Angel Island ($10.50 adults, $5.50 children), the Alameda/Oakland Ferry from the East Bay ($12.00 adults, $9.00 seniors, $6.00 children, weekends and holidays May through October) and, surely the most charming way of all, Tiburon’s Angel Island Ferry ($5.50 adults, $4.50 children, $1 per bike). The McDonough family has run this adorable service for four generations. Call (415) 435-2131 or visit www.angelislandferry.com for information. While there check out the Angel Island Ferry’s Sunset Cruises.

Bay Cruises 

An easy and convenient way to get on the Bay is to take one of the many Bay Cruises offered by either Blue and Gold or the Red and White Fleet (877-855-5506 or www.redandwhite.com). Bay Cruises involve a one-hour trip to nowhere, usually consisting of a loop in the direction of the Golden Gate Bridge and back to Fishermen’s Wharf, from which all Bay Cruises depart and return. Audio guides are available in many languages. The cost for both companies is $18.00 for adults, $14.00 for seniors and $10.00 for children 11 and under. The Angel Island Ferry also offers Sunset Cruises (see the Angel Island section for more).

Pacific Bell Park 

You can get to many, not all, San Francisco Giants games by ferry. Best to consult the web site of the ferry service you’d be taking before setting out for details. From the East Bay see www.eastbayferry.com, from Vallejo see www.baylinkferry.com and from Marin it’s www.goldengate.org.

Commuter Ferries 

Before World War II, a vast network of ferries and coordinated rail connections moved 50 million people a year and their automobiles across and around San Francisco Bay. But the opening of the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges doomed commuter ferry service. By 1941, all commuter ferry service on the Bay ceased, with only Southern Pacific continuing to offer connecting ferry service for its passenger trains until 1958. Red & White Fleet re-introduced ferry service to Tiburon in the early sixties, followed by the Golden Gate Bridge District, offering service from the North Bay. Red & White slowly introduced more services, including Vallejo with the opening of Marine World. Then came the 1989 Loma Prieta quake and with the partial collapse of the Bay Bridge, suddenly there were CalTrans-funded ferries to Richmond, Berkeley, and Alameda-Oakland. However, when the bridge re-opened, the ferries all lost ridership and were discontinued, with only the Alameda – Oakland ferry hanging on. Two years later, maverick developer Ron Cowan began a new service from Alameda’s Harbor Bay to San Francisco. Today, three public agencies and one private company provide ferry service connecting San Francisco to seven communities (3 in the East Bay, 3 in Marin and Vallejo; see details following). Efforts are underway to create a comprehensive regional ferry system with expanded service crisscrossing the Bay and, most devoutly of all to be wished, a centralized schedule. Though Balkanized and a bit confusing, the existing commuter ferry system is a great deal for everyone: commuters, residents and visitors. The boats are largely modern, clean and spacious. We particularly recommend taking a ferry during the mid-day or on a reverse commute direction; you have the boat virtually to yourself so long as you make your trip after 10 in the morning and before 3:30 in the afternoon (or away from San Francisco in the morning commute and towards San Francisco for evening commute). A cocktail cruise, even on a crowded rush-hour boat, is wonderful fun. The ferries serve a variety of interesting destinations; the best idea of all is to take one, get off and wander, and return on the next boat. Here are the options:

East Bay 

The Alameda/Oakland Ferry goes under the Bay Bridge on its way to entering the Oakland Estuary, home to Oakland’s thriving port on one side and the island community of Alameda on the other. The first stop, about 20 minutes from San Francisco, is Gateway Alameda, the “Isle of Style and Pleasant Living,” as a 1920’s Mayor and bon vivant termed it. Alameda is a wonderful place, richly endowed with the largest stock of surviving Victorian homes and the most beautiful beach on the Bay, Crown Beach. But Gateway Alameda is a forlorn little shelter in the middle of nowhere. But, lo and behold, directly adjacent to Gateway Alameda is the award-winning Rosenblum Winery located in the former Southern Pacific electric car repair facility (the last vestige of electric trains that ran in Alameda). Take the 4:10 from the Ferry Building (3:45 from Pier 41), arriving at Gateway Alameda at 4:30, taste some great Zinfandel, and glide back on the 5:40 (the 6:10 if you’re headed to Pier 41). If you are more adventurous, take the 50 bus into town. It passes the World War II aircraft carrier the Hornet (open 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, Wednesday through Sunday) and proceeds on down Central Ave. You use your AC Transit Ticket stub by placing it in the fare machine and pay a quarter for a transfer for the return trip. Get off at Webster and walk one block to your right to see a “Spite House,” built tall and skinny to spite the neighbors (the second and skinnier one is at Crist and Broadway). Turn left and walk along San Antonio to Franklin Park to enjoy some of the nicest historic architecture in Alameda. You can board any bus on Central and head towards Park Street, home of antique stores (between Central and Lincoln) or the Alameda Museum, located behind the slightly Goth coffee house on Park St. at 2324 Alameda Ave (open Wednesday through Friday 1:30 pm to 4:00 pm and Saturdays 11:00am to 4:00 pm). The museum also operates the Meyers House (2021 Alameda Ave.) in case you have an urge to see what it was like to live inside one of the large Victorians (open the fourth Saturday of every month). Up at South Shore Shopping Center (a stop on the 50 line), you are only a block from the beach, with its shorebirds and sweeping views of San Francisco Bay. Only in Alameda would they put a movie theatre in such a location, as if to say, “We see this all time…” AC Transit will take you back to the ferry or directly on to Jack London Square by transferring to the 10 line. Alameda is also home to two ferry companies and the 61 line will take you to the Harbor Bay Terminal. The next stop, about 10 minutes across the Estuary, is Oakland’s Jack London Square. There are shops and restaurants here, a large Barnes and Nobles bookstore and a movie multiplex. A must see is Jack London’s cabin, removed from the Yukon and Heinhold’s First and Last Chance, where Jack worked (and drank) as a boy. Heinhold’s is virtually unchanged from the days of a wooden ship working waterfront and was called the “First and Last” because it was literally the first chance on arrival to get a drink. But times have changed and Jack London Square is now filled with shops and restaurants. Perhaps the best idea is to just ride the ferry back and forth without getting off. You can’t beat the view and the beers are cold. Tickets are $5.00 each way for adults, $3.00 for seniors and $2.25 for children. There is a significant commuter discount when buying tickets by the book. Get your tickets aboard the ferry. The Alameda/Oakland Ferry is a joint venture of the Port of Oakland and the City of Alameda. The Harbor Bay Ferry serves Alameda’s Harbor Bay Island, at the eastern tip of the Island. The trip takes the same amount of time (about 25 minutes) and costs the same as the Alameda/Oakland Ferry but takes a different route, going straight up the middle of the south bay before turning in at the Harbor Bay dock. The view of sunrise from the stern of the Harbor Bay Ferry is jaw-dropping. Connecting bus service on the 61 line will also take you Park St. in Alameda, where you can start the tour (see Alameda Oakland ferry for description). Their web site is www.harborbayferry.com. 

Marin 

Here’s where it gets a bit confusing. The Golden Gate Ferry provides frequent, first class ferry service between the Ferry Building and both Larkspur and Sausalito. The service is frequent (to Larkspur it’s very frequent) and features clean, modern boats. The terminals are stylish and well staffed. The fares are very reasonable: just $5.30 to Sausalito, $3.10 to Larkspur on weekdays and $5.30 on weekends. Discounts for disabled, seniors, youth, children and families are available. Both lines take a route up the middle of the bay in the direction of Richardson Bay, a relatively placid inlet ringed by some of the most expensive homes in the world. They pass by both Alcatraz and Angel Island and offer a peerless view of the Golden Gate Bridge before the setting sun. Note that Larkspur is a commuter terminal and a pretty goofy one at that. Those stylish triangles made of aluminum do nothing to keep out the rain and the whole fireproof structure is covered with a sprinkler system! Once you get over the architectural triumph of a terminal, there isn’t much within walking distance, with the exception of a nearby shopping center. There are excellent bus connections, however, that can take you anywhere in Marin County and beyond, to Sonoma, even Mendocino. We recommend a trip to Mt. Tamalpais and a day visit or an overnight at the West Point Inn, located deep in the water district reservation and remains the last gas-lit inn in California. Originally constructed as a railroad hotel, it has survived due to a dedicated group of volunteers. But to get there, you have to walk a mile and a half and bring your own dinner to cook on the gas stoves. Reservations are required for overnights (415-388-9955). Mt. Tamalpais is served on weekends and holidays (only) by Golden Gate Transit’s 63 bus from the Marin City Transfer Center. And it’s a bicyclist’s paradise, with many trails leading into central Marin nearby. A day trip to Sausalito is a popular tourist choice and a visit to this charming community makes quickly apparent why the word of mouth is so good. A number of shops and good restaurants beckon just a stone’s throw from the ferry dock. For more information visit www.goldengate.org. Where it can get confusing is that the Blue and Gold Fleet also offers ferry service to Sausalito midday only, and from Fishermen’s Wharf Pier 41. The fare is $6.75 for adults and $3.25 for children. The Blue and Gold Fleet also continues to operate the historical Tiburon ferry from both Pier 41 and the Ferry Building. The fare is the same as for Sausalito. Tiburon, like Sausalito, is irresistibly charming, and very much worth a day trip to wander around. All Marin ferry variants are excellent candidates for a trip to nowhere, simply to enjoy the view and the ambience.

North Bay 

We’ve saved our personal favorite for last. Hip urban homesteaders attracted by beautiful downtown architecture, great views and an excellent public transportation network are rapidly gentrifying Vallejo, a heretofore-working class waterfront community. Like Alameda, it is adjacent to a large decommissioned military base, which, also as in the case of Alameda’s, is being transformed into parks and housing. The Vallejo Ferry, for our money, offers the most interesting ferry trip on the Bay. The 50-minute ride at first follows roughly the same route as the Marin ferries, then veers northward to go under the Richmond/San Rafael Bridge, before finally entering the Mare Island Straits. It’s about a 50-minute trip aboard fast, ultra-modern ferries. The Vallejo Ferry Terminal is cheerful and welcoming, and the city waterfront a scenic delight. As with Larkspur, Vallejo boasts excellent transit connections, and they’re about to get even better. There are plans for rail and bus connections that will make Vallejo the gateway to the North Bay wine region. The fare is $9.00, $4.50 for seniors and children. There are significant discounts for commuters. A great deal is the Day Pass, which can be used all day for $14.00. Most Vallejo Ferry departures are from the Ferry Building, although there are a few throughout the day from Pier 41. Visit www.baylinkferry.com for details.