What to Do in Angel Island in San Francisco Bay

Angel Island State Park
by Anisa // 6 Comments

Looking for an easy day trip from San Francisco? Maybe one with stunning views, beautiful natural scenery, and some history?

Angel Island, also known as the “Ellis Island of the West,” is a fantastic option.  It’s only a short ferry ride away.  While the main attraction for me was the Immigration Station, there are many other things to do on Angel Island like hiking, biking, and wildlife watching.

This guide includes everything you need to plan your day trip to Angel Island – tips for visiting Angel Island, how to get to Angel Island, the history of Angel Island, what to do, and where to eat.

Note: We were in San Francisco at the same time the Camp Fire was burning.  The air quality (as you can see in some pictures) was not healthy so some services at Angel Island were closed.

Note: This post contains affiliate links.  Please see disclosure for more information.

picnic tables on Angel Island
There are several amazing picnic spots on Angel Island.

What is Angel Island?

Angel Island is the second largest island in the San Francisco Bay. (Only Alameda is larger.)  Most of the island is considered part of the city of Tiburon.  It’s had many uses over the centuries, but since 1962, the entire island has been a California State Park.

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History of Angel Island

Angel Island has had several different uses over its long history. Originally, it was a fishing and hunting site for the Coastal Miwok Indians. Then, in 1775, it was “discovered” by Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala and given the name Isla de los Ángeles or Angel Island.

Abandoned building on Angel Island
Angel Island has quite a varied history. You can see several abandoned buildings.

Later the land on Angel Island was used for cattle ranching. During the Civil War, batteries were built on the island to defend against potential attacks from the Confederate Navy. Angel Island was also used as a troop transit area, for soldiers coming and going in the Spanish American War, and both World Wars. They would quarantine crews coming in on ships to avoid the spread of diseases. Angel Island was also a training base for troops before heading out to war.

From 1910 to 1940, the island processed hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Asia, earning it the nickname Ellis Island of the West. During World War II, Japanese and German POWs were held on the island, which was also used as a jumping-off point for American soldiers returning from the Pacific.

During the Cold War, the island was home to a Nike anti-aircraft missile base. It was one of eleven Nike batteries built in the Bay Area. While the missiles have been removed, the area is still closed to the public. Today, there are still two active Coast Guard stations – at Point Blunt and Point Stuart – on the island which are also off limits to the public.

Parts of Angel Island became a California State Park in 1954. By 1962, the entire island had become a state park.

Angel Island vs Ellis Island

Angel Island and Ellis Island were both processing centers for immigrants, but the similarities stop there. Ellis Island immigrants came mostly from European countries and were treated much better than the Asian immigrants that came to Angel Island.

One simple statistic that demonstrates the difference between the two immigration islands is the processing time. Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island waited hours to be processed while the immigrants at Angel Island waited weeks or even years.

Angel Island Immigration Museum
The entrance to the Angel Island Immigration Museum is haunting.

The level of scrutiny the mostly Asian immigrants had to go through was much higher than at Ellis Island. While Ellis Island was welcoming, Angel Island was not. It came to symbolize exclusion and discrimination.

In reality, Angel Island was specifically built to keep Chinese immigrants out, following the Chinese Exclusion Act originally passed in 1882.  When you visit the Immigration Station, you will see the conditions and learn more about how the immigrants were treated.  It is quite eye-opening.

Angel Island is a beautiful area with lots to do!
Angel Island is a beautiful area with lots to do!

10 Things to Do on Angel Island

It’s easy to fill a day on Angel Island, there are plenty of options for things to do. Outdoor lovers should take advantage of the trails and spend some time hiking or biking. History lovers will appreciate learning more about the history of the island at the museums.

Be sure to check the whiteboard located near the ferry landing for the latest information about schedules for activities on the island. Most importantly, note the times for the return ferry service – you don’t want to miss the last ferry of the day back to San Francisco!

Start at the Visitor’s Center

Since it’s not too far from where the ferry arrives, it’s a good idea to stop by the Visitor’s Center.  You can get more information about the history of Angel Island and the things to see.

Go Inside the Immigration Museum

The Immigration Museum is one of the reasons I wanted to visit Angel Island as I am interested in the history of the relationship between America and the diverse immigrant communities that have formed part of the country over the years.

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When we visited, we opted to see the museum on our own. Since there weren’t many other visitors on Angel Island due to the air quality conditions, one of the Rangers, Chrissa, gave us an informal tour.

Immigration Museum on Angel Island
It was important for me to visit the Immigration Museum and learn more about the history.

She showed us the different rooms where the immigrants were held, the recreation areas, and even the bathrooms. The immigrants were separated by sex and race. Europeans and those of higher social status usually managed to get through the processing center in hours or a few days. The rooms these immigrants were held in were not as shocking as the areas for Asians.

It was clear the conditions were cramped and uncomfortable in the rooms designated for Asians. Beds were rammed in so tight it was downright inhumane. I wouldn’t have wanted to spend a few hours waiting there much less the months that some immigrants did. I am not sure how anyone got any sleep.

Stacked Beds in the Immigration Museum on Angel Island
I would not want to have to stay in these cramped quarters.

It was fascinating how the immigrants tried to express themselves through carvings on the walls. Guards would try to cover up the carvings by filling them in with putty and repainting. We saw drawings, graffiti, and poetry that has now been restored.

The Chinese immigrants wrote poetry and continued to write more when it was covered up by the guards. Some of the poems describing the hope, sorrow, and anger written on the walls have been translated so that you can understand them.

We also learned about the stressful interrogations that the immigrants had to pass to prove they were related to American citizens. Some questions I am not sure I could even answer. (How many stairs lead up to your house? How many houses are in your village?) The immigrants would have to get through the interview in English, a language they might not speak well.

The Chinese immigrants expressed themselves by carving poems in the walls.

Chrissa told us about the humiliating medical exams that the immigrants had to endure. The examinations were deeply personal and invasive with no expectation of privacy. No human being should be treated like that.

The stories of the individuals held on Angel Island were moving. Especially Quok Shee, who stayed longer at the Immigration Center than anyone else. After 20 months (and several appeals) she was finally allowed to enter the US.

The Immigration Museum is open Wednesday to Sunday 11:00 AM to 3:00 PM.  It costs $5.00 for adults to visit or you can take a guided tour for $2.00 more.  Click here to check tour times. (Note: The museum is cash only)

memorial bench on Angel Island
This bench is a moving reminder of why it’s important immigrants are welcomed into the US.

Visit Camp Reynolds

You can visit two buildings of the old Civil War Military base, Camp Reynolds – the Officer’s Quarters #10 and the Bakehouse. Inside you can find out more about Angel Island and San Francisco during the time of the Civil War.

Explore Fort McDowell, also called the East Garrison

Fort McDowell is another interesting area to wander around and have a picnic. In addition to picnic tables, you will find several abandoned military buildings, a baseball diamond, a volleyball court, and restrooms.

Take an Angel Island Tram Tour

If you are not up to walking or biking around Angel Island State Park, consider taking a tram tour. It takes about an hour and follows Perimeter Road around the island. The tram stops briefly at Battery Ledyard to enjoy the beautiful view of the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, and Alcatraz. During the tour, the audio explains more about the history of Angel Island. You will pass by Camp Reynolds, the Nike Missile Site, Fort McDowell, and the Immigration Museum.

The tram tour starts at the cafe near the ferry dock. Check the schedule when you arrive and get tickets early, it can sell out. Try to get a seat on the right side of the tram to get the best views for taking photos. It will also be easier to hear the audio if you seat in the front.

Note: Due to the fires in the area and the poor air quality, the tram tours were not running the day we visited.

Go for a Hike on Angel Island

I had heard about the hiking on Angel Island. It’s actually the reason why I first became interested in visiting. I love hiking spots that are easy to get to and have amazing views (i.e. Breakneck Ridge). Unfortunately, with our late start and poor air quality, we didn’t get the chance to do much hiking.

For this trip, our hiking consisted of walking from the ferry to the Immigration Museum. Going to the Immigration Museum we walked up the bike route to Perimeter Road and then walked along it until we saw the museum. Heading back we took the steeper route, which consisted of lots of stairs from the Perimeter Road to the ferry dock. It was shorter than I would have liked, but we still saw some wildlife and spectacular views.

Russell on one of the Angel Island hiking trails
Russell on one of the hiking trails on Angel Island.

If you have more time there are a few more hiking options, just be sure to always stay on the well-marked trails to avoid poison oak which is native to the island.

  • Perimeter Road Hike – The easiest hike on the island is the Perimeter Road, but it does have some inclines.  It’s five miles long and circles the entire island. From the ferry landing, you can reach the Perimeter road using either the stairs or the bike path.  The trail passes picnic areas, the Nike Missile Site, Fort McDowell, and the US Immigration Station with amazing views of the bay.
  • Sunset Trail – This Trail goes to the highest point on Angel Island, the summit of Mount Caroline Livermore.  It is more difficult because of the 800 feet elevation gain, but you will be rewarded with stunning views. There are even picnic tables on the summit, so you can hang out for a bit there before headed down. If you go down the same way, it’s about a 6-mile hike.  You can also turn off on the North Ridge Trail if you want to go down a different way.
  • North Ridge Trail – The North Ridge Trail is a slightly longer route to the summit than the Sunset Trail.  It starts out with 144 stairs and eventually joins up with the Sunset Trail just before the summit. If you go back down on the North Ridge Trail it’s about 7 miles or you can shorten it by about half a mile by choosing to go down the Sunset Trail.
  • Fire Road Hike – This trail takes you around the island at a higher elevation than the Perimeter Road.  If you want to go to the summit, turn off at the Ida Trail.

Bike on Angel Island

Biking is a great way to explore Angel Island. You can bring your own bike on the ferry at no extra cost or rent one on the island.

There is a bike shed near the ferry dock that offers standard ($15.00 hourly or $60.00 for the day) or electric bike ($25.00 hourly or $90.00 for the day) rentals on a first-come, first-serve basis. (Note: Due to the air conditions it was closed the day we went). The rental includes a helmet as everyone under 18 is required to wear a helmet when biking on Angel Island. You will need to bring your own bike lock though.

The Perimeter Road is probably the best trail for bikes on Angel Island. It’s a 5.5-mile paved path around the island. If you are not used to steep grades, it might be best to pay more for the ebike. Bicycles cannot be taken on any of the hiking trails leading up to the summit.

Deer on the road in Angel Island
The deer on Angel Island were not shy!

Spot the Wildlife!

We saw several deer during the short time we were on Angel Island.  It was fun to photograph and watch them. You can also see lots of different varieties of birds (we may have seen a condor!), sea lions, or raccoons.

Angel Island Deer
We had fun watching and photographing the deer on Angel Island.

Relax on the Angel Island Beaches

If the weather is pleasant and warm, consider relaxing or going for a walk on one of Angel Island’s beaches – Quarry Beach (near Fort McDowell) or Perle’s Beach (near Battery Ledyard). The beaches could also be a fun picnic spot. Don’t plan on going swimming, as there are no lifeguards, the water is rough, and the current is strong.

Have a Bite to Eat

Since we visited during the fires, services were limited on Angel Island including food.  We decided to have a big breakfast at the IHOP near the pier and then skip lunch. You could also pick up breakfast at Boudin Bakery.  

If we would have been more prepared, we would have packed a picnic to take with us. I saw some amazing picnic spots with amazing views on Angel Island and made a mental note for next time.  (Some picnic areas can be reserved online in advance here.) The summit is also supposed to be a less popular spot for picnicking so keep that in mind if you plan on hiking.  They do allow you to bring alcohol too.

Angel Island picnic tables
Who wouldn’t want to picnic with a view like this?

There is a snack bar on the ferry that serves some food (fruit, chips, drinks, etc) but it’s probably better to either bring your own food or visit the cafe on Angel Island.  (Note: Due to the fires, the Angel Island Cafe was not open during our visit.) They serve sandwiches, salads, and appetizers beginning at 10:00 AM.

From June through October, Angel Island Cantina has live music and serves food on weekends from 11:30 AM – 4:30 PM.

Angel Island Video

Check out our video to see more of our visit to Angel Island, including some highlights from our special Ranger tour of the immigration center.


Should You Visit Angel Island with Kids?

Angel Island is an ideal day trip from San Francisco for kids. They will love traveling on the ferry to the island. Then once you arrive, they can go take the tram tour or do some hiking or biking. Older kids may also find the Immigration Museum interesting depending on their maturity.

Spending the Night at Angel Island

If you would like to spend more than one day on Angel Island, there are a few camping sites available.  They need to be reserved in advance here.  It’s about a two-mile walk from the ferry dock to the campsites.  There are pit toilets and water nearby.  You will be roughing it, but some say the views make up for that.

How to Get to Angel Island

Since it is an island, you will need to take a boat to get there.  The ferry schedule varies by season, so check here when planning your visit.  From San Francisco, pick up the Blue & Gold ferry at Pier 41. Depending on the timing of your trip (i.e. offseason weekends), it may not be a direct ferry, so it may take longer to get to Angel Island than you would expect.

The ferry costs $9.75 per adult each way.  You can buy the tickets at the booth where it is cash only or online in advance here.  Round-trip ferry tickets are also included in the San Francisco Go City Card.  Click here for more information.

There is also a ferry from Tiburon.  Get more information about the Tiburon to Angel Island ferry here.

Angel Island ferry boat
The Angel Island Ferry is a scenic ride!

Be sure to make note of the ferry schedule! If you miss the last one, you may have to pay a hefty fee to get a private boat to get you off.

There is also a ferry from Tiburon.  Get more information about the Tiburon to Angel Island ferry here.

Accessibility at Angel Island

Angel Island has made efforts to be accessible.  The ferries have ramps and the crew will make sure you can get on and off the ferry.  There is an accessible tram to take you around the island but you will need to confirm in advance by emailing goplay@angelisland.com. Most areas at the Immigration Station are accessible, although it is a steep walk to and from the Perimeter Road to the Museum, so wheelchair users may need assistance.

What to Bring to Angel Island

At Angel Island, most of your time will be spent outside, so come prepared for the weather conditions.  Always wear sunscreen and pack extra water. You want to have enough water for the entire day because while there is water at the Cafe by the ferry dock, I am not sure there are other places on the island that offer it.  Bring a jacket along, even in the summer, because it can get chilly. Don’t forget a camera (we use this one) to capture the breathtaking views.

Anisa with friends by Angel Island Sign
Anisa with her friends Julie and Diane who came along to Angel Island

You may also need to bring a few other things depending on what you have planned for your day.  If you want to picnic, it’s best to bring along supplies (picnic blanket, food, drinks, etc) although food can be purchased at the Cafe as well.  Bring a volleyball set or baseball equipment if you plan on taking advantage of the facilities at Fort McDowell.

Those coming to Angel Island with a bike should also bring along a helmet and lock.  If you plan on renting a bike, remember they will provide helmets but they do not provide locks, so it’s best to bring one like this with you.

Also, note that the only pets allowed on Angel Island are service animals.

Our Day Trip to Angel Island

We had a fabulous day on Angel Island.  It was fun exploring and the Immigration Museum was moving and interesting.  I hope to make it back to the island so that I can see more of it! 

If you are wondering if visiting Angel Island is worth it, I would say yes! It’s a nice escape from the city of San Francisco and offers things to do for all interests.

Have you been to Angel Island?


Pin for Later

angel island immigration museum

Expert Tips for Your Visit to Angel Island

  • Take the early ferry to Angel Island, there is much to see.
  • The Immigration Museum is definitely worth a visit.  It is an eye-opening experience.
  • Make sure to carry cash for the ferry and immigration museum.
  • Pack a picnic lunch, there are lots of outstanding picnic spots.
  • You can learn more about California history at the Oakland Museum.

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Last Updated on November 2, 2020

About the Author

Anisa is an experienced international traveler with extra pages in her passport and stamps from 41 different countries across 5 continents (and counting). She was born and raised in Texas. After a 13 year stint in NYC, she moved to England to live with her husband.