San Benito Lifestyle

NATURALLY: Take a Walk by the Bay

The San Francisco Bay Trail opens a new window on the shore

We just returned from adding another link to our own San Francisco Bay Trail saga.

The San Francisco Bay Trail is an almost impossibly ambitious undertaking-in-progress. Try to imagine a trail that circles the bay from Santa Clara and Milpitas to Napa, one that crosses great bridges, that links walkers and cyclists to ferries, that opens the cultural and natural history of the bay to people in a new way.  The trail will allow walkers and bicyclists to circle the entirety of San Francisco Bay – more than 500 miles.   Already, more than 330 miles are in place and ready for new adventures. To grasp its scope, the Bay Trail will ultimately be more than twice as long as the legendary John Muir Trail through the heart of the Sierra.

It’s an effort being promoted and shepherded along by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG). Just as it sounds, ABAG is a consortium of public agencies ringing San Francisco Bay.

Before you begin rising off the couch to start a rant about government waste, consider that the trail is being built largely through volunteer efforts, and that ABAG’s role is pretty much limited to promoting it through sales of maps and posters. State appropriations authorized by voters through the ballot initiatives have provided most of the funding for acquiring easements, so most of the government funds that are expended already have the public’s blessing.

But why bother?  The answer should be both obvious and manifold. Putting an attractive recreational resource that promotes healthy activity, right at the doorstep of millions of people, is a tremendous public health boon.  It is an opportunity to educate and inform people about issues and opportunities confronting the bay. Public presence discourages undesirable use of the bay front. It gives urban dwellers ready access to natural resources.

Perhaps most important, it’s the right thing to do. Californians are guaranteed coastal access by law. That’s something we may take for granted, but it’s not a given in many states, where “Members Only” signs are as common along coastlines as beach umbrellas on a hot August day.

But that’s enough of the bureaucratic background. What does the Bay Trail hold for us today?

The answer would be plenty.  It’s best revealed through purchase of one of the biggest bargains in publishing: the San Francisco Bay Trail Map Set.  It’s available at a lot of sporting goods stores around the bay, and at a handful of outlets in San Jose, but the easiest path for San Benito County residents is the internet.  Just surf over to https://store.abag.ca.gov/baytrail.asp and for $14.95 and a little more for shipping, you can start checking your mailbox for a great little boxed set of 25 map cards and an overview map.

The cards are on heavy stock, and designed to fit into a large pocket. Each breaks the Bay down into a manageable chunk, and on the reverse side is a concise guide to what the area holds.

The overall map most clearly reveals what an enormous piece of California is involved in this project. Both the map cards and the overall map are pretty weatherproof – not that anyone’s ever going to experience rain in California again.

We’ve nibbled at a few small pieces of the trail. Rather than training to lace up running shoes to tackle it in one gonzo ultramarathon, we’re taking it as time and opportunity allow.

This week, we circled Treasure Island and adjoining Yerba Buena Island. We had to climb into a car for Yerba Buena, because that part of the trail isn’t finished. And we did find treasure aplenty – none of it buried in sea chests.

Treasure Island is all landfill. The site of a Naval base with restricted access until the late 1990s, it now hosts a weekly flea market and an annual music festival. There are a handful of cafes, a marina, and lots of deteriorating buildings. The north end of the island is given over to an enormous complex of affordable housing.

That’s not exactly a Chamber of Commerce description of why to go to Treasure Island, but don’t forget it’s only minutes from Oakland or San Francisco. Circling the island reveals changing real-life Imax views of cityfronts. Ships, sailboats and ferries cross the bay. The new and problem-prone span of the Bay Bridge is almost close enough to touch. It’s all about the views and the very odd experience of feeling so close yet so far from those places.

The place to begin on Treasure Island arrives on your right, almost right after exiting the Bay Bridge.  A gleaming white crescent-shaped building draped in Art Deco style offers abundant free parking and a modest museum. The building is a relic of the 1939-1940 Golden Gate International Exposition – a world’s fair on a newly created island next to a newly created bridge. By all contemporary accounts, it was an amazing experience to all who attended.

The building you’re visiting was planned for reuse as an international airline terminal, right in the middle of the bay. At the time, airline service across the Pacific was available – at staggering cost – via the Yankee Clipper flying boats. The planes offered white tablecloth service and bunks to passengers.  Good thing, because the trip from San Francisco to Hong Kong took six days, as the plane hopped from one island to the next to refuel.  It’s one of only three buildings surviving from the Exposition.  The rest burned in a major fire.

And visions of a terrestrial runway, along with the seaplanes, evaporated with the arrival of World War II, and the Navy’s appropriation of the entire island for more pressing needs.

Yerba Buena is a natural outcrop in the Bay, one that has been mostly used for military service since the 1860s. The Coast Guard still operates a base there, and the USCG Vessel Traffic Service is there. Vessel Traffic operates the same way an air traffic control tower does, guarding against chaos on the water. It was once housed in a wooden tower at the top of Yerba Buena’s steep slopes, but it’s now in a modern building with access restricted only to those who need to be there.

The views from the top, captured through gaps in the trees that cover the island, are unique. Look down on the Bay Bridge toward San Francisco and it seems that you are perched on one of the bridge towers. Turn around, and watch traffic on the new span right at your feet.

Nearby is a row of mansions dating to 1900. The last in the row was the home of Adm. Chester Nimitz, commander of the Navy’s Pacific Fleet through World War II, during those years. The mansion is available for special events, but most days, the only company you’ll have as you stroll around is yourself. The views of workers on the new bridge span are as good as you can get.

We have had other adventures, and each has opened our eyes to unexpected finds. Cycling in the East Bay turned up public art, verdant marshes and a beautiful marina complex in Richmond.  The Palo Alto Baylands were filled with people and dogs enjoying the trails and the sea air.

The best part about that little box of maps is wondering about what comes around the next bend in the trail.  I can’t wait.

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Mark Paxton

I've been at this most of my life, and it still fascinates and challenges me. San Benito County can be a cruel mistress at times, but we can share in our love for her, even with all her quirks.