The prison itself is small, small in the way that a childhood schoolyard is small when revisited a generation later: four cellblocks in one medium-sized building, three tiers of cells per block, a concrete recreation yard the size of a football field and little else. A few outbuildings still stand; others are piles of rubble—several buildings were destroyed when Indians occupied the island between 1969 and 1971. The main prison building is obviously crumbling. Park employees do only the minimal housekeeping necessary for safety. They call its condition "arrested decay."
Alcatraz is actually a mean and ugly monument to hopelessness, an extended dungeon incongruously surrounded by flowers. "I always thought they at least had a view of the city from here," said one woman visitor, "but they only had that in the dining room." The prison leaves many visitors with a strange, unsatisfied feeling, Ranger Craig Dorman says. "People expect it to be bigger, and they expect something magical, but they don't know what. There's no magic about it. It was just another federal prison, with the same problems as other prisons. It was part of the maximum security main line in American prisons. The only difference is that it was smaller."
But if Alcatraz is disenchanting, the rest of GGNRA is a garden of delights. Some have long been popular, still others are relatively unknown. "We're still doing an inventory to find out exactly what we have in this area and to learn about it," says Jack Wheat, the park's chief of "special projects." "We haven't really established our identity yet."
At Fort Point rangers in Union Army uniforms lead platoons of giggling high school students in close-order drill. Wet-suited surfers flirt with the rocks in a cove next to the fort. "We don't forbid surfing, but we warn about the dangers," says Wheat, who is mild, white-haired and looks like the butler in an English movie. "We do point out that five or six people a year are drowned in park waters and that another 150 have to be rescued." Strangers to northern California are usually unaware of the dangerous current in this part of the Pacific. One warm day last year a group of teen-age singers from Salt Lake City galloped eagerly into the inviting water en masse; two were swept away and drowned.
Across the Golden Gate Bridge, in the once-verboten green hills of the Marin Headlands, Park Service signs have replaced NO TRESPASSING. Still, says Wheat, "People even now don't know they're allowed there."
Kirby Cove is a beautiful, secluded beach snuggled against a cliff in the shadow of the bridge. "There's a road down to it, but we're keeping it closed at the moment," Wheat says. "We let groups use the campground there in the summer." The cove is the site of one of the dozens of artillery batteries pocking the hills that were constructed in the early 1900s to defend the entrance to the harbor.
Just west of the cove is Bonita Point, at the end of a long hill covered with mustard, Indian paintbrush and purple lupines. Here the Army planted a grove of pines to shield its guns. Dark-feathered cormorants jam wing to wing on offshore rocks. A piece of an old pier, iron rings still bolted to its frame, lies on the sand. A single surf fisherman stood there recently, arms folded, his rod anchored with a sand spike. The fisherman said that he coaxed an occasional shark out of the surf along with perch and stripers. "Some of these sharks have some size, too," he said. "Why, a friend of mine lost his whole rig—rod, sand spike and all." The fisherman had heard that the Park Service was contemplating opening the road to Kirby Cove.' That'll probably shoot it and this spot here," he said. "There's just enough of a hike now to discourage most people. If they open that road, we'll get station wagons and kids and all their trash." He looked across the water at the shimmering city. "It's amazing how peaceful it is here now," he said, "with the city so close you can practically see in the windows."
Nearby, several gun emplacements are carved into the hillsides. Small concrete platforms stand atop lower hills near the water: sighting positions for gunners. "There are a couple of abandoned Nike missile sites in the area, too," says Wheat. The Park Service runs a summer camp for city kids at a Nike site on the San Francisco side, using the underground silo for a dormitory.
A high, poppy-covered hill offers a panoramic view of the entire Bay Area—the ocean shoreline down to Pacifica, the cities of the East Bay tucked beneath the foothills, the twin arms of the bay reaching out toward the Sierra Nevada tributaries. The Farallon Islands, 30 miles out in the Pacific, are a dark mound in the hazy distance.
Red-tailed hawks hang over the hills between ocean and bay, silently working their wings like rudders to counter the wind and remain in the same place. This particular spot is a kind of assembly point for predatory birds. They migrate south until they get here, then hesitate, seemingly because of the water. They go into a holding pattern, circling until they crank up the courage for the flight across the Gate. "A bunch of hang-gliding enthusiasts wanted to use that spot," Wheat says, "but we decided the birds had priority." The hang-gliders were forced to settle for another hill nearby.