Visit Angel Island State Park in San Francisco Bay

Angel Island Beach with rocks dotting the sand and the San Francisco skyline visible across the water.

Looking across the water to the city of San Francisco from Angel Island Beach. Photo © klotz/123rf.

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The long history of Angel Island (415/435- 5390, daily 8am-sunset) begins with regular visits (though no permanent settlements) by the Coastal Miwok people. During the Civil War the U.S. Army created a fort on the island in anticipation of Confederate attacks from the Pacific. The attacks never came, but the Army maintained a base here. Today, many of the 19th-century military buildings remain and can be seen on the tram tour (1 hour, $10-15), on foot, or on a docent-led Segway or Digger electric scooter tour (both 2 hours, $68 pp). If you’d rather get around by pedal power, you can rent bikes ($12.50/hour, $40/day) to explore the island. Later, the Army built a Nike missile base on the island to protect strategically-important San Francisco from possible Soviet attacks. The missile base is not open to the public, but it can be seen from roads and trails.

Angel Island’s history also has a shameful side. It served as an immigration station for inbound ships and a concentration camp for the flood of Chinese attempting to escape turmoil in their homeland. While Europeans were waved through with little more than a head-lice check, the Chinese were herded into barracks while government officials scrutinized their papers. After months and sometimes years of waiting, many were shipped back to China. Today, poetry lines the walls of the barracks, expressing the despair of the immigrants who had hoped for a better life and found little more than prison. Docent-led tours (Wed.-Fri. 10am-3pm, Sat.-Sun. 10am-4pm, $5) show this poetry and the buildings of the camps.

Angel Island is a major destination for both casual and serious hikers. Trails of varying difficulty crisscross the island, creating fun for hikers and bikers alike. Adventurous trekkers can scale Mount Livermore via either the North Ridge Trail or the Sunset Trail. Each runs about 4.5 miles round-trip for a moderate, reasonably steep hike. Stop at the summit’s picnic tables and wooden benches for a rest and to watch boats sketch white lines on the bluegreen bay. This is also a great place to take in the expanse of the Bay region including the skyscrapers of San Francisco, the lonely rock of Alcatraz, and the Golden Gate Bridge—that is until the pillowy fog comes in to snuff out the views. For the best experience, make a loop, taking one trail up the mountain and the other back down. If you’re up for a long paved-road hike, take the Perimeter Road (5 miles, moderate) all the way around the island.

While there is no store on the island for supplies, the Cove Café (415/435-3392, Mar.-Oct. Mon.-Fri. 10am-3pm, Sat.-Sun. 10am-4pm, $9-15) serves hot sandwiches, wraps, salads, and even a gourmet cheese platter from Cowgirl Creamery. Craving oysters and a beer? Stroll next door to the Cove Cantina Oyster Bar (Memorial Day-Sept. Thurs.-Fri. 11am-3pm, Sat.-Sun. 11am-5pm).

Camping on Angel Island

Camping on Angel Island (800/444-7275, $30) is available at nine primitive sites that fill up quickly (successful campers reserve their campsites six months in advance). The campsites themselves are characterized as “environmental sites”; each is equipped with food lockers (a must), surprisingly nice outhouses, running water, and a barbecue. You must bring your own charcoal or camp stove, as wood fires are strictly prohibited. Three of the sites, the Ridge Sites, sit on the southwest side of the island, known to be fairly windy. The other six sites, the East Bay and Sunrise Sites, face the East Bay. Wherever you end up, plan on walking 0.5-1.75 miles from the ferry to your campsite. Despite the dramatic urban views, camping here is a little like backpacking.

Getting There and Around

Angel Island State Park is located in the middle of San Francisco Bay. To get here, you must either boat in or take one of the ferries that serve the island. The harbor at Tiburon is the easiest place to access Angel Island. The private Angel Island-Tiburon Ferry (21 Main St., Tiburon, 415/435-2131, adults $13.50, ages 6-12 $11.50, ages 3-5 $3.50, bicycles $1) can get you out to the island in about 10 minutes and runs several times a day. You can also take the Blue and Gold Fleet (415/705-8200, one-way $14.50-17) to Angel Island if you are departing from either Oakland-Alameda (2990 Main St., Alameda, summer-fall only) or San Francisco (Pier 41). Be aware, however, that scheduling the ferry can be a little tight.

Ferries have plenty of room for you to bring your own bicycle, or you can rent one (Mar.-Nov. Sat.-Sun., Apr.-Oct. daily, $12.50 per hour, $40 per day) at the main visitors area near the ferry dock. Rentals must always be returned at 4pm. Grab a map from the gift shop. Not all trails are open to bikes, but those that are include the easy five-mile paved Perimeter Road around the island, perfect for newcomers.


Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Coastal California.

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