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To a kid growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, the windy green headlands on the northern side of the Golden Gate Bridge were taboo. The placid hills, splashed with bright orange poppies and mustard, meandered west to the ocean, dipping abruptly to steep cliffs and rocky coves that were whammed by the ferocious waves of the Golden Gate. These hills afforded the best view of the handsomest city in America, whatever other delights they concealed, but they were off limits. The Army owned the land. No trespassing.
The same was true of Alcatraz, except that its grip was mainly on the imagination. At Fisherman's Wharf you could peer through a telescope and try to spot the villains quartered there. You could sail to within 200 yards of the island, but if you strayed closer, the prison guards would fire warning shots. As a San Francisco reporter I once gazed in wonder at an Alcatraz inmate who had managed to survive the swim to the mainland, where he was promptly captured; he grinned foolishly and flashed an "O.K." sign with thumb and forefinger, but his skin was lavender.
The forbidden fruits of the past seem permanent, invulnerable to change. Who would expect to find Smokey Bear nibbling at them. But in October 1972 Smokey and his pals at the National Park Service were presented Alcatraz, the Golden Gate headlands, most of the San Francisco shoreline and a glorious stretch of land northwest of the Golden Gate. The whole complex, known as the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, passed so quietly into Park Service hands that most local residents are still unaware that it is a national playground. Grammar school kids now tromp the worn corridors of Alcatraz; hang gliders soar from the cliffs bordering the Golden Gate; hikers and cyclists roam the meadows of the old Army posts.
Together with Gateway National Recreation Area around New York harbor, the San Francisco park represents the first visible result of the "parks to the people" program initiated during the stormy tenure of Interior Secretary Walter Hickel. The two urban-centered parks have also thrust the National Park Service into the still-uncomfortable role of urban recreation director.
Golden Gate National Recreation Area (or GGNRA, which helps a little) offers more diversions within its 34,000 acres than are dreamt of in Disney boardrooms. It reaches from the southern edge of San Francisco's narrow Ocean Beach to the village of Olema, 20 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Within that strip are dunes, rocky coastline, swimming beaches (but only for the intrepid; swimming here is dangerous), redwood and pine forests, abandoned missile silos, old gun emplacements, lagoons, rookeries, hiking and horse trails and, at the Marina Green, the best kite-flying turf on the Pacific coast. It includes many of the pleasure grounds that San Franciscans are always showing off to tourists: the Cliff House and Seal Rocks; Fort Point, the Civil War fortress beneath the bridge; and the cliffs on the city's northwest tip that culminate at Land's End.
The acreage figure is misleading; 34,000 acres is the amount of landscape that Congress authorized the Park Service to acquire, but acquisition has been slow and costly. Some of the land belonged to the military and was simply transferred to the park. Other segments are state parks and must be formally released by the state to the National Park Service. Still other sections, including the Cliff House, are privately owned and have to be purchased by the government.
The most popular portion of the new park is Alcatraz, the 12-acre outcrop of sandstone and serpentine in midbay that served as a fort, military prison and (from 1934 to 1963) the toughest federal slammer in the land. Alcatraz visitors pay $2 for a round-trip boat ride from Fisherman's Wharf to the island, where rangers walk them past the cell-blocks once occupied by Al Capone, Old Creepy Karpis, Birdman Stroud and Machine Gun Kelly, then surprise them with the dazzling variety of flowers growing on imported topsoil. More than half a million people have visited Alcatraz since tours began in 1973.
A switchback road climbs to the prison from the island's pier. The road passes through the remains of a pre-Civil War citadel, then skirts banks of geranium, lilies, ice plant and wild radishes. Squadrons of cormorants fly low over the gleaming bay. Sailboats nose through the waves, still keeping their distance of more than 200 yards—nautical habits die hard.
There have long been fables about Alcatraz. Sharks, for example, were said to cruise offshore, waiting for a tasty fugitive, but they were, in fact, a minor risk. The water's temperature and the speed of the current were the real dangers. Only one prisoner (my grinning friend) was ever known to have swum successfully to the mainland. Five others disappeared in the attempt—maybe they made it, maybe not.
Since the prison became part of the park, however, swimmers have practically turned the Alcatraz-to- San Francisco trip into a commuter run. Jack LaLanne did it in handcuffs, and with his legs shackled, towing a boat behind him. Numerous people have swum from San Francisco, circled the island and swum back.