The Guardian of the Western Gate

Angel Island State Park

Angel Island is a state park and historial landmark in the San Francisco Bay. Roads and trails around the grass-covered mountain island boast spectacular views of Marin County, Mount Tamalpais, Oakland, San Francisco, and the Golden Gate.

Almost a year ago my friends Jaeha, Jen, and Jeremy managed to land a reservation to camp on Angel Island. Their photos were stunning and I quickly added the island to the ever-growing list of SF places I needed to visit. Fast forward to a few weeks ago when Nikki invited Chris and I to go camping with them. Unable to go the weekend the requested and wanting to make it up to them, I remembered Jaeha’s photos and started looking into campsites. I had been warned that camping on Angel Island was notoriously hard to reserve, so I wasn’t surprised when every Saturday until the end of this year was always taken. However, I was ecstatic to find an available Friday (October 18th) and purchased it immediately.

Unable to contain my excitement, I planned a trip to Angel Island the weekend after booking the campsite. (I wanted to check out the mystical island once before sleeping there.) I quickly learned that ferries to and from the island are infrequent and, for the most part, only in the morning. The first ferry of the day leaves from The Ferry Building at 9:15am. Knowing that we wanted to spend as much time possible hiking and hanging out, that’s the one we took.

Chris on the ferry.

The ferry from The Ferry Building stops at Pier 41 before leaving the mainland for the island. The boat was rather empty before the tourist took over like a swarm of loud monkeys. We passed closely by Alcatraz, saw some sea lions, and enjoyed the slowly-warming sunny day on the bay. The ride over took about an hour in entirety.

Alcatraz Prison Island. Photo by Chris.

Entering the Raccoon Straight.

Ayala Cove, where the ferry ports, is the only entrance into Angel Island unless you’re kayaking. There’s a ranger station, tour group (if you want to ride the open bus or segway around the island), bike rental, and two outdoor restaurants. In addition there is a large green outside of an historic hospital turned museum where many people picnic and BBQ. Chris and I pushed our way through the tourists and hiked up a small trail that brought us to Perimeter Rd.

Ayala Cove from Perimeter Rd

Perimeter Road “Trail” is a paved road that circles the entire island. It’s 5.8 miles and takes about 1-3 hours to complete, depending on how fast you’re moving and what you stop to check out. We chose to start our walk clockwise around the island.

Taking photos of Tiburon from Perimeter Rd.

Ten thousand years ago Angel Island was connected by land to the current Tiburon. A rise in sea levels at the end of the last ice age filled in Raccoon Straight and Angel Island was born. More recently whales have been spotted in the straight, but Chris and I unfortunately didn’t see any.

The mainland that used to be connected to the island.

I was surprised to see houses on the west side of the island. Having always seen it from the city or when crossing the bridge, I had always imagined that the entire island was an uninhabited park. Like most places we visit, I didn’t do much research before going and was pleasantly surprised by it’s rich military history.

What? Houses!

Miwok Native Americans once inhabited the island, and for nearly 100 years – from the Civil War to the Cold War – the federal government used it as a strategic location for military bases, a quarantine station, and an immigration station.

The first historical landmark we hit was the Angel Island Immigration Station. Commonly referred to as the “The Guardian of the Western Gate”, the station processed approximately 1 million immigrants from 80 countries entering into the US between 1910 to 1940. Immigration staff ensured that the new arrivals were healthy and self-sufficient. Many Chinese immigrants were detained for three to ninety days, a few for almost two years, waiting for entry due to the restrictions of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. In 1940 a fire destroyed the administration building, closing the USIS, and recently the first restoration phase of this National Historic Landmark has been completed.

Angel Island Immigration Station

Manicured lawn & bell.

China Cove

After passing the trail entrances to the East Bay & Sunrise (where we’ll be staying in October) camping sites along Perimeter Rd, we discovered Fort McDowell, also known as East Garrison. Mostly comprised of abandoned, dilapidated buildings, Fort McDowell is eerily beautiful. A tragic corpse of a once heavily populated World War I & II recruitment depot and discharge point. It wasn’t all sad. Some of the park rangers have fixed up and live in a few of the buildings. I don’t think I could ever do that – it would give me the willies.

Fort McDowell

Inside of Fort McDowell is the East Garrison Group Picnic Area and Quarry Beach, both of which seem like a perfect place to BBQ and hang out on a beautiful day.

East Garrison Group Picnic Area

Quarry Point & Beach

The road dips and then slowly inclines as you follow Perimeter Rd toward the Nike Missile Site. The view from the Missile Site is absolutely beautiful. The whole southern part of the island is gorgeous. It almost has a Hawaiian feeling to it… like we were back on the Road to Hana.

The view from the Nike Missile Site.

Golden Gate Bridge

Point Blunt

Viewpoint. Photo by Chris.

After passing Battery Drew and Wallace, both of which we couldn’t really see from the road, we found ourselves at Camp Reynolds – not the girl scout camp that my troop caused a ruckus and got banned from. Camp Reynolds was the first military base on Angel Island, built in 1863 during the Civil War. At the time the entire island was known as “Fort McDowell” and Camp Reynolds was a busy camp with over 2,000 soldiers and complete military camps or posts including a chapel, bakery, blacksmith, shoemaker, laundry, barber, trading store, and photographer. On the day we went they were shooting off cannons at noon and 1pm.

Camp Reynolds, also known as West Garrison.

We passed the Kayak Group camping site when leaving Camp Reynolds. It looked really nice.

Site 10

More beautiful views.

By the time Chris and I finally made it back to Ayala Cove we were starving. We grabbed lunch from the Angel Island Cantina and sat at one of the outdoor tables overlooking the cove. There was live music and the food was decent. (I really enjoyed their fish taco, but Chris hated their burger.)

Mmm… beer.

After finishing our meals we had an hour to kill before the ferry, so we walked over to The Quarantine Station. In 1891 it was opened in Ayala Cove (then known as Hospital Cove) and it is where ships from foreign ports could be fumigated and immigrants suspected of carrying diseases could be kept in isolation. Today it’s front lawn is littered with picnic tables and grills. It seems like most people who visit Angel Island hang out here, grilling and sunbathing. It was the most people we had seen on the entire island, so of course we didn’t take any pictures of them. Here’s some boats in the cove instead.

The cove was empty when we arrived and was packed with boats when we left.

Overall I absolutely loved Angel Island and can’t wait to return in October – maybe sooner! We purposely didn’t hike on any of the trails that lead to the top of Mt.Livermore so that we’d have another reason to come back. I was originally surprised by the houses, but my love of history won over my desire for the island to be an uninhabited park. Perimeter Rd was a great way to orient ourselves to the island; you really feel like you’re in the middle of everything the bay area has to offer. The views are worth the trip alone. My only gripe was the windowless mini tour busses that pass you from time to time. They are slightly annoying, but easy to get away from if you start hiking upward instead of following Perimeter Rd. If you need any more convincing to go, take a look through Chris and my Flickr sets.


I hope you enjoy the island as much as we did!