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Camping Connection – When the Twinkling Lights Are City Lights

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By Bill Steiden

One of the big draws for most who go camping is a change in surroundings from our workaday urban or suburban world. We want to see trees, streams, fields, mountains – something other than cars and concrete to break the routine of our lives.

Yet a pair of unique camping destinations, one in the East and the other the West, somehow manages to offer a bit of urban excitement while also providing a nearby natural getaway.

It’s not camping in a city park – an idea not all that uncommon in Europe, but unfortunately, the realm of the homeless in this country. These destinations are harbor island parks with designated tent camping areas and the city skyline as a backdrop.

In the West is San Francisco’s Angel Island State Park. Centered around 788-foot-tall Mount Livermore in San Francisco Bay, it has commanding views of the Golden Gate and San Francisco – which is why it long served as a base for Army artillery units guarding the harbor. Later an immigration station and quarantine impoundment, and in the 1950s and ‘60s a Nike missile base, it is now a popular getaway accessible by private boat, kayak or ferry from San Francisco, the Solano County city of Vallejo and, closer at hand, Tiburon in Marin County just across the Raccoon Strait.

The island has thirteen miles of roads and trails, but cars are not permitted. Except for one site designated for campers with disabilities and another for kayakers, reaching the nine campgrounds requires a hike of up to two miles. All of the sites have pit toilets and running water. Fires are not permitted, so bring a camp stove. Reservations are recommended.

Bicycles are allowed – and are a wise idea for getting around the island. They can be rented, along with kayaks, at the ferry terminal.
The ridge sites above the southwest shores of the island are the prime location for city views. But they are high and exposed, and can be quite windy. Other sites are located on the northeast and east sides of the island. You can’t see the Golden Gate from there, but the views of the bay are still spectacular.

Open to all is the top of Mount Livermore, where the entire city, framed by the bay and sky, stretches in the distance.

The island is also a good day-trip destination, offering tram and Segway tours, historic buildings and rewarding hikes. There are two beaches for those brave enough to take the plunge in the chilly bay waters, and another that, while too pummeled by tidal currents for swimming, can be rewarding for beachcombers.

Some 2,700 miles to the east is another city on the water, Boston, and in its famous harbor are thirty-four islands managed as parks, some by the National Park Service and others by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. Three of those islands – Lovells, Bumpkin and Grape – have campgrounds.

ourtesy of the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, Boston Harbor Islands State Park, George's Island. Photo byCourtesy of the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, Boston Harbor Islands State Park, George’s Island. Photo by Sherman Morss

These New England islands are quite different from their California counterpart. By contrast with the sere, angular Pacific shore, they offer a gentle, meadow-like landscape, as well as sandy dunes and slate beaches.

All three are accessible by ferry, kayak or private boat with offshore anchorage. Closest to Boston proper, and offering the best view of the skyline, is Lovells. It has three rustic campsites, with pit toilets and picnic tables, while Grape and Bumpkin have ten apiece. Each of the islands also has a group campsite.

Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, Boston Harbor Islands State Park, Spectacle Island. DCR file photoCourtesy of the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, Boston Harbor Islands State Park, Spectacle Island. DCR file photo

Lovells is the pick location. Not only does it offer an expansive view of the city – particularly spectacular when the sun sets behind the skyline – but there are the ruins of a World War I fort to explore.

Bumpkin Island has a more distant skyline view. It is the scene one weekend each summer of an art encampment, where artists install environmental works or stage performance art for public viewing.

Grape has no direct views, but it has a different kind of attraction: as the name suggests, it is covered with old arbors. Anyone visiting the islands must bring water – there is no freshwater source, and reservations are required.

Is camping within sight of the big city really an escape? During the day, when you’re sharing your island with tourists, you may not think so. But after the last ferry of the afternoon departs, leaving just you and your fellow campers as the lights in the distance begin to wink on, you’ll feel as though you’re in a different world, so near, yet so far away, from your everyday landscape.


Angel Island State Park
P.O. Box 318
Tiburon, Calif. 94920.
www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=468 or www.angelisland.org

Boston Harbor Islands State Park

(part of Boston Harbor Islands National Park area)
251 Causeway Street
Suite 600
Boston, Mass. 02114-2104.
781.740.1605 ext. 205
www.mass.gov/dcr/parks/metroboston/harbor.htm or www.bostonislands.com

Top photo: Angel Island State Park, courtesy of California State Parks.

However often he gets the chance to camp, it still isn’t often enough for Bill Steiden, a Decatur, Ga.-based journalist. Got a suggestion or a question about a camping destination? Email him at bsteiden2@yahoo.com.

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