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By Karen

Updated September 26, 2023.

Angel Island 
San Francisco Bay

A local's tips for visiting Angel Island

Angel Island is one of those wonderful San Francisco Bay "attractions" that every one knows about (it's a big island, right there in the middle of the bay) but surprisingly few people get around to visiting it.

I was guilty of that, too. When I finally got out to the island, I was amazed at how lovely it was! Don't miss it, if you've got the time.

View of Angel Island from the ferryView of Angel Island from the Ferry

What's Out There on the Island?

Angel Island has been a state park since 1962, with miles of hiking trails and abandoned buildings scattered here and there, left over from military uses starting during the Civil War and continuing through World War 2.

It also housed the Ellis Island of the West, the United States Immigration Station for would-be immigrants arriving across the Pacific Ocean, now a museum.

Angel Island Bench ViewView from the Island

Angel Island Attractions: Things to Do

The island's main attraction is its incredible beauty and tranquility. So close to San Francisco, but so peaceful and relaxing. And easy to get to.

There's a lot to do on Angel Island; in fact, it can't all be "done" in one day. Fortunately, you can have a great time without seeing and doing it all.

There are activities tailored for everyone's level of fitness and time restraints.

Things to do on Angel Island:

  • Hiking
  • Riding bikes (rentals available)
  • Tram Tour of the Island
  • Immigration Museum
  • Civil War buildings
  • Camping
  • Views of the Bay and Golden Gate Bridge

In the past, there was a Segway Tour as well; hopefully that will return.

When is Angel Island Open?

The Island 

The island itself is open to the public whenever the ferries to the island are running, sunrise to sunset.

The Golden Gate Ferry (from SF Ferry Building) runs daily year round and the Angel Island Ferry (from Tiburon only) currently has a rather limited schedule.

See ferries below for more info.

Services on the Island

The services provided by the Angel Island Company vary with the season.

Services include:

  • The Tram Tour, 
  • Immigration Museum, 
  • bike rentals
  • The Cafe.

September & October 2023 services schedule:

Open Wednesday - Sunday, 10 am - 3 pm

Closed Monday & Tuesday

Hours for the various activities vary somewhat seasonally; see Angel Island hours to check current hours.

Best time to visit Angel Island? September and October are some of the best months to go, weather-wise: warm, sunny and clear.

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The Angel Island Tours

There is one tour available on the island now:

  • The Tram Tour

The Tram Tour

This is the main "Angel Island Tour". If this is your first time out here, I would highly recommend taking it.

An open air tram leaves from the dock area twice a day (usually 11 am and 1 pm), and takes you all the way around the island.

There is a recorded narration which gives you the history of the island and explains the sights you are passing, and the driver adds more information at various brief stops along the way.

Angel Island Tram TourTram Tour

The tours schedule depends on the season. Most of the year, they run Thursday through Sunday. In February, March and November,  they run Saturday and Sunday only. And in December and January, they are closed.

Hours. There are two tours a day, at 11:45 am and 1:45 pm.

Tickets. The tour costs $18 for adults, $17 for seniors (65 and over) and $12 for children (5-12 yrs), under 5 free, and lasts one hour.

The tram tickets are sold at the cafe on the dock.

You can also book the tram tours on the Angel Island website, but it probably isn't necessary.

practical tip post itPractical Tip:

the best seats on the tram tour are those in the first carriage, and on the right side of the tram.

The tram goes counter-clockwise around the island so the view side is the right side, much easier for taking photos.

Also, you can hear the commentary better in the first car. There is a sign post near the cafe at the dock telling you where the line starts; get in line around five or ten minutes before the tour starts to get a good choice of seats.

The Segway Tour

(Currently the Segway tour isn't running)

This is the other Angel Island Tour.

The Segway Angel Island Tour is $68 per person, at 10:30 am and 1:00 pm daily. Lasts two hours. Long pants and closed-toed shoes required, no shorts or skirts. Age 16 and over.

You can book it through their website (when the tour is running). Angel Island website

Other Angel Island Activities

Angel Island Hiking

This island is truly a hiker's paradise. You can walk all around the island on the paved perimeter road, or take one of the two hiking trails to the top of Mount Livermore, at 700 feet above sea level.

The view at the top is spectacular: 360 degrees and you can see Mount St. Helens on a clear day!

The up and down takes about three hours and is moderately challenging; there are some steep areas, and the hike is better suited for those in reasonably good condition and accustomed to hiking.

The perimeter hike is 5 miles and not as challenging, but does have some long hills.

See details on hiking routes and a map.

Biking on Angel Island

You can bring your own bike on the ferry or rent a bike at the dock.

Mountain bikes rent for $16 per hour, or $64 for the day. They say it takes about an hour to ride around the island.

The bikes can't be reserved: first come, first served.

Something new: they have added electric bikes to rent, which I highly recommend, given the hills (see images below) unless you are a very fit rider!

E-bikes are $26/hour, $99 for the day.

I was considering renting a mountain bike until I saw the hills; they do warn you there are several steep hills on the perimeter road where the biking takes place (no off-road biking allowed here).

I would say the biking is for those who are in top biking condition. I was picturing a leisurely ride on a mostly flat road around the island, with a few steep spots; nope, that's not what it is.

I saw someone pushing her bike up the long grade below; she didn't look very happy. Not my idea of fun! So plan accordingly.

Angel Island steep curve in perimeter roadThe top of a long grade
Angel Island long grade in perimeter roadIt keeps on going, down and around the corner

This is just one of the steep hills; there are several.

Camping on Angel Island

(Campsites are not always available; check their website, link below.)

You can spend the night here. What splendid isolation and peace!

There are 11 campsites on the island; all sites have running water, tables, lockers, toilets and a BBQ. Only stoves or charcoal are allowed (no wood fires).

Tip: put your food in the lockers. Raccoons will be checking to see if you remembered.

To reserve a campsite, see park reservations.

Buildings to explore on the island...

Aside from the physical beauty of Angel Island and the views, there are two main things to explore on the island

  • The Immigration Station Museum
  • The abandoned military buildings.

The United States Immigration Station Museum

This immigration station (often referred to as the Ellis Island of the West) was the entry point for immigrants coming from the East, across the Pacific, mostly from Asia.

It processed potential immigrants from 1910 to 1940, and also was used to hold Germans and Japanese prisoners, named "enemy aliens", during world War 2.

Angel Island Immigration StationAngel Island Immigration Station

This is one of the stops on the tram tour, towards the end of the trip.

We got off the tram here, explored the museum, then walked the twenty minutes back to the dock (mostly downhill).

There is also a shuttle running from the cafe to the museum two or three times a day, depending on the season.

The detention barracks: ($5 entry fee for adults, open March through October) has recreated the bunk beds of the dormitories and the furnishings of one of the common rooms, outfitted with game boards and a ping pong table. 

The museum itself is free.

Museum & Barracks hours:  Wed-Fri 11-2:30; Sat-Sun 11-3:30. Check museum schedule for current hours and tour information.

Angel Island Men's DormitoryMen's Dormitory

Game Room ANgel Island Immigration MuseumGame Room

There are lots of Chinese inscriptions carved in the wooden walls of the building. Here is a translation of one of the poems found on the walls:

Random Thoughts Deep at Night
In the quiet of the night, I heard, faintly, the whistling of the wind.
The forms and shadows saddened me; upon seeing the landscape, I composed a poem.
The floating clouds, the fog, darken the sky.
The moon shines faintly as the insects chirp.
Grief and bitterness entwined are heaven sent.
The sad person sites alone, leaning by a window.
Written by Yee of Taishan
Suitcase from Immigration Museum Angel Island

Is the Immigration Station haunted? Some say yes. Check out the ghost story.

Germans on Angel Island

In December of 1939, a group of over 500 German crew members from the German luxury cruise ship Columbus were "captured" off the coast of Virginia and sent to San Francisco, to be returned home on a Japanese ship.

Things went wrong when the Japanese ship wouldn't enter the bay because of the U.S. warships guarding the entrance.

The Germans ended up being interned at Angel Island until 1941, when they were shipped to an internment camp in Roswell, New Mexico, where they spent the remainder of the war.

While the crew members were at Angel Island, they were allowed "shore leave" periodically and went into San Francisco for shopping, movies and other entertainment.

One of the men, Alex Rolfes, managed to marry a local San Franciscan while he was here.

Abandoned Buildings From Bygone Military Eras

The tram tour drives past a number of areas with empty buildings built for military purposes many years ago.

First you pass the Civil War era buildings at Camp Reynolds, then further on a more extensive collection at East Garrison (Fort McDowell).

Civil War buildings at Angel IslandCivil War Houses, Camp Reynolds

My impression of these abandoned buildings is that of a ghost town in a spectacularly beautiful setting.

I really wanted to come back and explore the area. There was no one around; you would probably have the buildings all to yourself (though there are warnings not to go inside because of instability).

East Garrison, Fort McDowell, had the largest collection of buildings.

East Garrison at Angel IslandEast Garrison

Map of Angel Island

Map of Angel Island
(Map data (c) OpenStreetMap contributors, CC-BY-SA)

Angel Island History

The Miwok Indians lived on Angel Island for thousands of years before the arrival of the Spanish explorers.

The Miwok were hunter gatherers who hunted the wildlife and fished on the island, but didn't build any structures. By 1800, the Miwok were no longer living on the island, having been absorbed into the Spanish mission in San Francisco.

The first Europeans to land on the Angel Island were the Spanish. A Spanish naval officer, Juan de Ayala, sailed into San Francisco Bay in 1775 and moored at the cove (now named after him, Ayala Cove).

He gave the island its name, Isla de Los Angeles. Later, one of the Spanish officers was granted possession of the island to use for cattle ranching.

During the Civil War, batteries were built on the island to defend against potential attacks from the Confederate naval vessels that were sailing up the coast (which never happened).

Angel Island was long used a a troop transit area, for soldiers coming and going in the Spanish American War, and both World Wars.

The island was also used to quarantine crews coming in on the ships, to avoid the spread of bubonic plague and other diseases.

Wildlife on Angel Island

There is evidence that deer have been living on the island for thousands of years. They are still there, in such large numbers that they have to be hunted periodically to prevent starvation since there are no large predators on the island.

The fauna are very benign; no mountain lions, coyotes or poisonous snakes have made it to the island.

They do have signs on the dock warning visitors about poison oak and ticks, but that is only of concern in the more heavily wooded trails up the mountain.

We came across a pretty, young deer not far from the cove, who wasn't particularly worried about our presence.

Angel Island deerAngel Island Deer

Getting to Angel Island

The island is only accessible by boat.

There are two ferries that go to Angel Island: the Golden Gate Ferry from San Francisco and the Angel Island Ferry from Tiburon.

Map of SF Ferries
  • The Golden Gate Ferry to Angel Island leaves from the Ferry Building Terminal, see the schedule. Roundtrip is $31 for adults, $16 for kids age 5+, and seniors 65+, and free for kids under 5. The trip lasts from 30 minutes to over an hour, depending on where the ferry stops. No reservations needed.
  • The Angel Island Ferry from Tiburon leaves from the dock in Tiburon, across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. Ferry frequency is seasonal (e.g. weekends only in winter). See the schedule. The trip costs $18 roundtrip, $16 for 65+, $15 for 6-12, $6 for 3-5, and takes about 12 minutes. Cash or checks only; no credit cards or Clipper cards. Pay on the boat, or book a reservation on their website.

Tiburon is about a 20 minute drive from San Francisco.

Ayala Cove Angel IslandAyala Cove and Ferry Dock, Angel Island

Tip: if you're coming by BART or Muni Metro in SF, you can get off at the Embarcadero stop and catch the Golden Gate Ferry from the Ferry Building to Angel Island.

Parking in Tiburon

The commercial areas in Tiburon have mostly 2-hour street parking.

There are a number of parking lots in the town of Tiburon near the ferry terminal, some pretty cheap ($5) and one close by that's not cheap; depends how close to the dock you want to be. Their rates may have changed.

  • Woodlands Market Lot: $5 per day.
  • Bank of America Lot: $5 per day.
  • Point Tiburon Parking Lot: $3 per hour, $13 for 8 hours.
Parking lots map of Tiburon

The Angel Island Cove Cafe

After you're done exploring, head back to the dock to the Cove Cafe.

Have a hot dog, or a Caesar salad, and sit back on the patio with a cold beer while you wait for the return ferry.

The perfect ending for a pleasant day on Angel Island!

Cove Cafe Angel IslandCove Cafe

More to explore...