Angel Island’s Sunrise Campsite
Angel Island is my favorite park. It’s full of natural beauty and wildlife, rich in history, and small enough that you feel like you can conquer it in a day. Before camping on the island, I visited 3 times and each time I learned something new. However, when I started planning our camping trip to Angel Island I was surprised by the lack of information easily available. I found a few first hand accounts and a couple poor quality pictures, but even the pamphlets available on Angel Island didn’t contain everything a camper might want to know. The only way to really know is to go, but I’m going to attempt to capture all of my learnings so that your future Angel Island camping trip is the best it can possibly be.
If you live in San Francisco you already know the best weather of year is end of September, beginning of October. The rest of the country’s Fall is our Summer and you’ll see temperatures in the high 60s to low 80s. The campsite availability for prime days (Friday – Sunday) is scarce. I would recommend making a reservation at least five months in advance, even earlier if you’re looking for a Saturday. Blocks of open dates become available on the first day of each month. You can book up to seven months in advance. I booked our Friday, October 18th reservation around May 20th and there was already no Saturday availability.
A reservation for Angel Island currently costs $38.00 per campsite per night ($30.00 + $8 transaction fee) on Reserve America. The reservation also covers the entrance fee into the park.
Camping on Angel Island is the sweet spot between car camping and backpacking. At the Sunrise Campsite we had luxury amenities such as a pit toilet and running water from a spicket. The most you’ll have to walk is 2 miles, but keep in mind it’s mostly uphill so packing light is still necessary. Besides the usual camping gear (tent, pillows, sleeping bag, etc.), here are some of the things we found necessary for our trip:
- Tent Peg Mallet & Stake Puller The ground is extremely hard. We needed both of these items and still had a few problems where we couldn’t get the stake to go in all the way.
- Coordinate Food If you’re going with a large group, like we did, definitely coordinate food so no one has to carry more than they have to. There’s a cafe in Ayala Cove that’s open for lunch, but you’re on your own for breakfast and dinner. We grilled at night and did a light breakfast of granola bars in the morning.
- Charcoal Bring charcoal to grill and keep warm. The bag is large, but light and well worth it for the heat alone. 1 bag per grill is enough. We bought ours in the city and brought it with us, I’m pretty sure they don’t sell it there. Please correct me if I’m wrong.
- Sleeping Bags If you’re warm-blooded, like myself, definitely pack a light-weight, low temperature sleeping bag. I brought my Ledge Sports FeatherLite Sleeping Bag and was fine, but friends with warm weather bags were chilly.
- Clothes Layers, layers, layers. Hiking to your campsite you’ll want short sleeves (especially in October), but as soon as the sun goes down the temperatures drop fast and even hats become necessary. Bert and I were the worst and, even though we live in San Francisco and should know better, we ended up buying sweatshirts at Pier 41 because the breeze next to the water was freezing.
- Toilet Paper There is toilet paper in the pit toilet hut, but with our group of 14 we ran out by the morning. 1 extra roll should be enough if your packing for a large group.
- Hard Alcohol Why pack many heavy beers when you can pack 1-2 whiskey bottles?
- Don’t pack water! Good news! You don’t need to pack heavy water. Not only is there a spicket at the site, they also give you a water cooler per table. Not to mention various water bubblers along Perimeter Rd.
Chris and I don’t have fancy camping backpacks, so we ended up using our regular backpacks with bungee cords. Worked like a charm.
Getting to the Island
There are two ways of getting to Angel Island. The first, and more unlikely, is a private boat. The second is the Angel Island Ferry. You can take a ferry from San Francisco or Tiburon. If you’re leaving from San Francisco, like we were, you can take the Blue & Gold Fleet from either the Ferry Building or Pier 41. Unfortunately there are not many ferries to Angel Island – especially on week days. If you’re leaving on a Friday, like we did, you have 3 possible departure times: 9:15am at the Ferry Building, 9:45am at Pier 41, and 1:05pm at Pier 41. The 9:15 ferry from the Ferry Building is the same ferry as the 9:45 ferry at Pier 41. It stops at Pier 41 before making it’s way over to Angel Island.
We left on the 1:05pm ferry from Pier 41. The main reason being that the reservation check-in time is 2pm and we didn’t want to lug all of our stuff around the island while waiting. I would recommend buying your tickets at the ferry booth rather than online. A few people from our party who bought their tickets ahead of time had problems retrieving them & ended up having to buy new tickets. Round trip costs $17.00 per person on Blue & Gold Fleet, which includes the entrance fee to the park. Another bonus to buying in person is that if you show your camping reservation you should get the park entrance fee removed from your ticket price.
My best advice is to get there at least 20 minutes before departure. It gives you plenty of time to buy tickets amid confused tourists and find your ferry. Most of us where there with time to spare, but they change the gate location frequently and you might end up running to the ferry regardless. When we went pregnant Jen had to run over and force the ferry to stop from leaving while Jaeha re-bought tickets. We all watched, panicked, from inside the ferry. Fortunately they made it!
Checking in at 2pm was extremely easy. You get off the ferry, walk over to the check-in booth (the small hut next to the docks), and wait for the ranger to finish helping everyone off the ferry. When he arrives you tell him where you’re staying, how many are in your campsite, show him your printed reservation, and sign a form saying that you understand the following:
- No Dogs There’s a surprising amount of wildlife.
- No Fires After a pretty horrific fire in 2008, fire is no longer allowed on Angel Island.
- Night Hiking Zones He gave us a map of the places we were allowed to night hike and the areas we needed to stay away from. It’s mostly common sense – stay away from the ranger’s houses and abandoned buildings.
Only the person who reserved the campsite needs to sign in. He then shows you on the map how to get to your campsite. He also warned us that the Sunrise Campsite was right uphill from the Head Ranger’s house…
The Sunrise Campsite is 1.6 miles uphill from Ayaka Cove, where the ferry docks. This part is definitely full-on backpacking. The rangers will not help you bring your stuff to your campsite. The tram looks really tempting, but everything I read said they will simply refuse so we didn’t try it. Past campers brought wagons to carry their stuff, which is great for the paved Perimeter Rd, but as soon as they turned onto the gravel-filled Fire Rd the wagon becomes a bigger pain that it’s worth. Heeding their warnings we carried everything we packed and hoofed it.
Sunrise Campsite 007 – 009
The campsite was absolutely perfect when we arrived. The view of Oakland and the Bay Bridge is amazing. We all celebrated with the single beer we each bought at the cafe. I chose to reserve the Sunrise Campsite 007 for a few reasons. When researching the campsites, everyone said that Sunrise had the largest amount of space therefore good for groups and had a low amount of wind. Not to mention was the best spot to view the sunrise in the morning. After inviting a few friends, I urged them to reserve 008 and 009 so that we would have the entire campsite to ourselves. They did and it was the best thing we could have done.
Once we started putting up our tents we quickly realized that 007 was the worst of the Sunrise Campsites. It was perfectly situated where the top of the mountain carved a path for a constant wind tunnel. Nikki & Joe fought to keep their tent upright for 20 minutes before moving. With the exception of Bert & Iris – who pitched in 008, we all ended up pitching our tents closely together in 009 to avoid the wind.
As a mentioned in the Packing Light section, Angel Island is the sweet spot between car camping and backpacking. At each campsite (007-009 separately) they have:
- Picnic Table
- Raccoon-Safe Food Hutch
- Large Water Cooler
At the overall Sunrise Campsite they have:
- Pit Toilet with toilet paper, located next to the entrance and closest to the 007 campsite.
- Raccoon-Safe Trash located next to the pit toilet.
- Raccoon-Safe Recycling located next to the pit toilet.
- Water Spicket located next to the entrance and closest to the 007 campsite.
With 14 people we ended up using 2 of the tables, grills, and so forth – specifically 008 & 009. Looking back, we should have used 007 to avoid luring the raccoons so close to our tents, but you live and learn.
After 4:30pm the island is empty. With the exception of a few people at the other campsites, who are too far away to hear, and the occasional ranger you are there alone with nature. It is absolutely wonderful. After about 2 hours at the campsite we fell into the island’s shadow and the temperatures began to drop. A previous camper recommended hiking to the top of Mount Livermore to watch the sunset on their blog, so we followed their advice. We followed the Fire Rd to the Sunset trail-head. Sunset Trail switchbacks up steep, coastal-scrub covered slopes, to the top. We saw many deer and beautiful views of the city.
At 788-feet, there are 3 picnic sites. We hung out at the highest point of Mt. Livermore, where there was a 360 degree view of the Bay Area. San Francisco to the southwest, Oakland to the southeast, Tiburon to the north, and Sausalito and the Golden Gate Bridge to the northwest. Absolutely beautiful.
History The top of Mt. Livermore was replaced in 2002 and the island is now 16 feet taller than in prior years. The army shaved the peak off for the Nike Missile site in the 1950′s, flattening the top of the island. When funds became available for natural resource improvements, the decision was made to put the top back on the mountain. The dirt was never removed, only bulldozed over the edge, so crews pushed it back up and re-sculpted the island to a close approximation of its original contours. In addition, the road that scarred the face of the mountain in its approach from the west side was removed, and a winding trail created, leading to the top from the east side of the island. Three picnic sites on the original concrete pads are in place. Thousands of native plants, cultivated from Angel Island cuttings, were added as well.
We were fortunate enough to plan our trip during a full, Hunter’s Moon. As soon as the sun set in the west, a beautiful, gigantic full moon rose in the east. We used the sun’s last remaining light and the bright moonlight to guide us back to the campsite. If your trip isn’t as lucky, be prepared by packing flashlights for the hike.
Things That Go Bump In The Night
Raccoons. The raccoons of Angel Island are bold and vengeful. They don’t fear humans and they love food – specifically your food. As soon as the sun went down, they came out. We had accidentally spilled some popcorn near the 008 grill before our hike and attempted to clean it up, but didn’t get everything. While grilling dinner later that night a raccoon, who we lovingly named ‘Sir Bitey McPopcorn’, would run up into the campsite, grab some of the popcorn, and scuttle down the hill to eat it. As the night went on he became more bold, getting closer and closer to our grill until Bert splashed water on him. Just as the 009 side of the campsite laughed at our conundrum, a giant raccoon the size of the dog darted behind their tents. They were everywhere. Later in the night, while we were all in our tents, a crystal clear scream rang out. A raccoon was attempting to get into the part of Bert & Iris’s tent where they kept their backpacks – surely it was payback for the water incident.
Low-Tide. There’s a low-tide noise, best described a a low beep, that happens during low tide. It’s in the distance, but is still audible from the campsite. If that might stop you from sleeping – please bring ear plugs.
Fog. If there happens to be fog the night that you are camping, you are in for a treat. At 3am in the morning you will hear this wonderful sound and everyone will jump out of their sleeping bags in surprise. The shipping channel for large, departing tankers goes to the right of Angel Island. We heard that fog horn blast almost every hour and it woke us up every single time. Even the people who brought ear plugs for the low-tide beep couldn’t avoid it. It was definitely the most surprising part of our trip.
Sunrise at the Sunrise Campsite, as you can imagine, was gorgeous. Chris and I awoke to watch the sunrise and found a perplexed Eric standing at the picnic table. He asked us if we thought Bert had put his backpack in his tent for the night because although Whitney’s backpack was still on the table, his was missing. Chris and I looked at each other and replied in unison, “if your backpack isn’t here – it wasn’t Bert who took it.” We looked around the campsite for a bit until Chris found it down the hill in a bush. Eric didn’t believe that raccoons could get on tables, a false myth brought quickly brought to light in the morning. The sun burned off the fog as we drank our morning coffee.
Checkout is at noon. You don’t have to physically check-out like you had to check-in, but the ranger rides his bike around to make sure you’re out of the campsite.
Hopefully these tips help you on your next Angel Island camping adventure. Keep in mind these are the 2013 prices and most of the tips are specific for group camping in the Sunrise Campsites.