Alcatraz and the San Francisco Bay seen from the upper-deck of the Peralta ferry.
The San Francisco Ferry Building seen from the upper-deck of the Peralta ferry.
Seeing the San Francisco Bay Area by Ferry
The San Francisco Bay Area has several different ferry routes, almost all of which eventually end at the San Francisco Ferry Building (or the Port of San Francisco according to the sign on the Building). The shortest route is between San Francisco and Sausalito and the longest is San Francisco to Vallejo. Each route has its own unique qualities and I will try to present them with both words and photographs. The information below is organized by route and there are links to ferry schedules, fares, and other resources. There are other boats available to the public that ply the Bay in addition to the ferries listed here, such as boats to Alcatraz. Only the regularly scheduled “commuter” ferries are mentioned here, as those are usually priced more affordably and are usually less crowded (unless it is commute time). This allows for movement around the vessel and several different vantage points for photography. It also means a shorter line at the bar, which has reasonable prices (at least compared to other forms of transportation such as airlines).
Oakland/Alameda to/from San Francisco
If you like large ships and want to see some of the world’s largest container ships, this route is hard to beat (narrative is written for the Oakland to San Francisco direction). The Port of Oakland accommodates the largest ships and is the 5th busiest container port in the U.S. The largest ship I have seen here is the MSC Fabiola, which is 366 meters long and 48 meters wide (1,201 feet long and 157 feet wide). I don’t have a photo of that vessel, but I do have pictures of some that are almost as large – the MSC Ines, for example.
If you are departing Oakland or Alameda, don’t immediately stand in the line for tickets or you might miss the ships. The first berth almost always has a Matson container ship, which is usually being loaded with containers and cars bound for Hawaii. The nest berth is Schnitzer Steel, which is regularly loading shredded cars on to large bulk carriers. The next several berths are used by APL, MSC, CGM CMA, and others. This stretch of berths can sometimes have five container ships, but sometimes only one or two. Check marinetraffic.com to see what ships are there.
In addition to container ships, you can usually find dredging operations underway in the Estuary and many different ships at Bay Ship in Alameda. On your left are the runways of the old Alameda Naval Air Station (NAS), where the U.S.S. Hornet and other Navy ships are berthed. Beyond the runways, there are usually large tankers anchored on the left and on the right is the Bay Bridge. The ferry provides a good view of the construction of the new eastern span of the bridge with the currently used span in front of it. As you approach San Francisco, you get a great view of the S.F. skyline with the western span (the suspension span) in the foreground.
The ferry is great for kids (my kids think so, anyway) and they love seeing the view from both the upper and lower decks. Parking at Oakland’s Jack London Square area is free with validation and the lot is seldom crowded. The ferry terminal is a covered dock next to the U.S.S Potomac in the Oakland Estuary and provides a nice view of the arriving ferry. There is a Subway, Ben & Jerry’s, and a Beverages & More located between the parking lot and the ferry terminal for any needed food and alcohol.
Vallejo to/from San Francisco
This route is currently the longest ferry route in the S.F. Bay Area and is served primarily by high-speed ferries - it is also the most expensive. The first part of the trip takes you past Angel Island on your left and then petroleum refineries on your right (narrative is written for the S.F. Vallejo direction). You can almost always count on large tankers unloading their crude, but you don’t get nearly as close to these as the container ships in the Oakland Estuary. After that, you pass under the curvy Richmond/San Rafael Bridge and into the San Pablo Bay. One of the more interesting sights along this route is the East Brother Island lighthouse. Operating since 1874, it is well kept and now has a bed and breakfast.
After passing through the huge but shallow San Pablo Bay, Mare Island Naval Ship Yard will be on the left before entering the Mare Island Strait. Mare Island Naval Ship Yard was the first Navy base on the Pacific Ocean. Several old cranes and buildings fill the area, but it is hard to believe that over 50,000 people were building ships there during World War II.
The western span of the Bay Bridge
One of the spectacular views of San Francisco seen from the Oakland - Ferry Building ferry route. This particular ferry went from Oakland's Jack London Square to Pier 41 with a stop at the SF Ferry building. The images below were also taken from this ferry route.
The Perlata approaching the covered dock at the Jack London Square Terminal
The Alameda Ferry Terminal as seen from the upper-deck of the Peralta.
The inside of the San Francisco Ferry Building just after sunrise.
More photos taken from the ferry and around San Francisco
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