A Visitor’s Guide To Angel Island State Park

Last Updated on 24 Jan 2023 by Fiona Perisone

If you're looking for a quiet adventure about 15 minutes from downtown San Francisco, then Angel Island State Park is perfect for you. It showcases the beautiful wilderness of California but has an interesting and important role to play in the military and immigration operations of the United States. Escape the hustle of cityside San Francisco, and spend a day (or two!) exploring the trails, beaches, and historical buildings of Angel Island.

What Is Angel Island State Park?

Angel Island is a mid-sized island of 740 acres located in San Francisco Bay near the Golden Gate Bridge. The State Park is supported by the Angel Island Conservancy and is the second largest island found in San Francisco Bay and isn't far from Alcatraz. Except for a small sliver, Angel Island is within the city limits of Tiburon and is separated from Marin County mainland by Raccoon Strait.


Angel Island has a long and dappled history. For centuries, it was used as a fishing and hunting ground during the summer for the Mohawk Indian tribe. When the United States federal government took over Angel Island, it began its use as:

  • a Civil War army post

  • an immigration center for Japanese, Russian, and Chinese immigrants

  • a detention barracks for unwanted Asian immigrants after the Chinese Exclusion Act

  • a POW camp for German and Japanese prisoners during World War II

  • a Cold War missile site

In the 1940s, the army decommissioned the island as a military site, which transitioned to a state park by the early 1960s.

This transition into Angel Island State Park has preserved not only its history but also its natural resources. On Angel Island, you will find coastal grasses, shrubs, and oaks. There are mule deer, sea birds, raptor birds, and one sole coyote. Seals, sea lions, and dolphins enjoy the water around Angel Island.

Best Time To Visit Angel Island

The best time to visit Angel Island is between March to October when the tour is running, and the cafe is open. Ferry services are available daily.

Things To Do On Angel Island

Museums And Historical Buildings

Because of Angel Island's varied history, it's considered a National Historic Landmark. There are two military forts, a handful of gun battery sites, and the immigration station. All of these sites can be visited and explored, and 3 of them have been turned into museums.


Visitors Center Museum

This visitors center, located on Ayala Cove, will meet you when you first step off the ferry. The building is the old officer's quarters for the various military installations on Angel Island. Two free documentaries are playing throughout the day. One documentary is about the natural environment of the island, and one documentary covers immigration history.


US Immigration Station Museum

The Angel Island immigration station served a similar purpose on the west coast as Ellis Island did on the east coast. It processed immigrants from Russia, Japan, China, and other South Asian countries. However, when the Chinese Exclusion Act was enacted, it also served as a detainment center and detention camp for Chinese immigrants. You can still see, carved into the wooden walls, frustrated and unhappy poems etched by Chinese immigrants. You can explore this museum yourself or join a guided tour led by park rangers.


Camp Reynolds Museum

The Camp Reynolds museum hearkens back to the first federal use of Angel Island - as an army post during the Civil War. Two buildings are open for visitors - the officer's quarters and the bakehouse.


Fort McDowell

Fort McDowell was a quarantine station for sick military troops. Later, it was used to hold immigrants who failed their initial medical examination upon reaching Angel Island. What is left standing today are the remains of the hospital, barracks, mess hall, and jail. These date back to 1899 and are fascinating to visit.


Fort Reynolds

Not much is left of Fort Reynolds, but it was the base camp of the government's efforts to take Angel Island from the Native American tribes who used it for hunting and fishing.


Gun Battery Sites

Three gun battery sites - Drew, Wallace, and Ledyard - are available for exploration along the perimeter road.


Hiking And Biking

Angel Island is a great place for hiking and biking. There are over 13 miles worth of hiking trails and 8 miles available for biking. Many of the trails intersect each other, giving you multiple ways to explore the island. Bikes are available to rent on Angel Island but can't be reserved in advance. You can bring your bike over on the ferries instead, but space might be limited.


Mount Livermore

The highest summit on Angel Island is Mount Livermore, reaching 788 feet. A round trip hike covering 5 miles will take you about 2.5 hours and reward you with a stunning view on a clear day of Alcatraz. Golden Gate Bridge, Bay Bridge, and the San Francisco skyline. This is a wonderful spot for photographers.


Perimeter Road

This 5-mile paved road will take you around the perimeter of the entire island and will hit many of the historical sites and museums mentioned above. Bikes are allowed on this paved trail, but not skateboards, rollerblades, or roller skates.


North Ridge Trail

The 4.5-mile North Ridge Trail is great if nature, more than history, is your interest. You'll enjoy the natural coastal forest on the way up and then connect with Sunset Trail to take you down, accompanied by seaside grasslands.


Baseball And Volleyball

Angel Island has you covered if you're looking for baseball fields and volleyball courts with a view. The baseball diamond is actually an old field used by soldiers when Angel Island was a military base. There are volleyball courts available at Ayala Cove and Fort McDowell, and the Ayala Cove court requires reservations.


Camping

With all of the beautiful views and interesting history, Angel Island State Park is a hidden gem for camping. You can camp overnight at any of the nine camping sites, but be sure to make a reservation first. The bay gets windy and foggy overnight, so be sure to come prepared with appropriate clothing for an overnight stay.


Guided Tram Tour

If you're interested in the natural beauty and historical landmarks on Angel Island, but you're either short on time or mobility, then consider hopping on the tram tour. It lasts one and a half hours and will tell you all about the island's history. There are also Segway tours that will take you to most of the museums and forts over 2 hours.

Eating Options On Angel Island

Angel Island State Park is the perfect place to spend a day, so you'll need to eat at some point.


Picnics

There are many great spots around Angel Island for a picnic lunch. A wide-open beach is available near Fort Reynolds. You will find picnic tables sitting on the top of Mount Livermore. Near the immigration station, visitor's center, and ferry dock, you can discover grassy areas to throw down a blanket and enjoy an open-air meal.


Restaurants

California State Parks operates two restaurants on Angel Island. The Angel Island Café is open year-round and has simple offerings. But it is cash-only, so be sure to carry some cash with you when visiting the island. On the weekends, they'll frequently host live music performances from local bands and musicians. The Angel Island Restaurant has heartier meals but is only open during peak season.

Angel Island State Park Map

angle island map

How To Get To Angel Island State Park

Ferry Services

Two ferry services will take you to Angel Island, and both land in Ayala Cove, on the island's northern side. Be sure to purchase your ticket ahead of time, as there are limited departures each day, and arrive at the pier with ample time to spare.


  1. Angel Island Tiburon Ferry - This ferry service departs from Tiburon and is less expensive than the Golden Gate Ferry service. It operates daily during peak season but mostly on weekends during the off-season. Parking in Tiburon also costs significantly less than in San Francisco. The Angel Island Tiburon Ferry is a great deal if you have your own car.

  2. Golden Gate Ferry - The ferries operating out of Pier 41 in San Francisco operate daily. If you live in San Francisco, this public ferry operated by Golden Gate Transit is perfect. You won't have to pay the higher prices to park your car, and you can pay the fee for the ferry ride with a Clipper Card.

Boat

Angel Island is also accessible by private boat, and you can dock it at any time of the day in Ayola Cove.


Ayala Cover has the largest public docks and mooring on the bay with 19 boat slips or 27 mooring buoys and slips ranging from 30' to 50' year round. You can use a dinghy to dock from the mooring to obtain access to the island until 10:00 pm.


The docks are on a first-come, first-served basis. There is a day pass with a fee of $15 or $30 overnight (pricing is subject to change). You can either purchase the pass with the Ranger or at a "self-pay" station near the head of the boat dock.

For more info, visit Angel Island Conservancy.

General Tips

Bring a jacket

The ferry ride can get chilly, and so can the trails as they gain altitude.

Bring plenty of water

There are water fountains available if you need to refill your water bottles.

Plan your visit ahead

There are only a set amount of ferry rides available each day, so choose your ferry times before mapping out the rest of your day. While you don't need to make reservations ahead, booking in advance is always a good idea, especially on weekends.

No Dogs

Dogs are not allowed on the island except service animals.

Bring cash

The cafe only accepts cash, as does the main detention building in the Immigration Museum.

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