And here's why. First, the island provides a valuable opportunity to learn about and interact with Bay Area and United States history. The island was home to the Coast Miwok people long before anyone else set foot there, and the island was used for military purposes for most of the United States' wars; Camp Reynolds was built during the Civil War, the East Garrison housed soldiers from the Spanish-American war and welcomed troops returning from World War I. During World War II, soldiers shipped out from the island, and German and Japanese prisoners of war were kept there. And during the Cold War, the island housed the Nike missile site.
Besides holding the shadows of wars pasts, the island provides a glimpse into the darker side of United States history. One of Angel Island's nicknames is the "Ellis Island of the West" because it served as an immigration station from 1910 to 1940, and almost a million immigrants from all over the world suffered there while waiting for permission to pursue the American Dream. Many had to endure long and complicated tests meant to bar them from completing their journey, and the living conditions were miserable with living quarters stuffed beyond capacity. Some Chinese immigrants stalled on the island due to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act carved poems into the walls of the barracks to voice their misery. Those touring the Immigration Station today can still see one fully preserved poem and the ghostly outlines of others that have been lost to time and paint. The island's history encourages a greater respect for the struggles and suffering of immigrants and anyone who has been the victim of racist attitudes and unfair laws.
On a more positive note, Angel Island offers sweeping views of San Francisco Bay and its various bridges, especially on a clear day. You can see the Richmond/San Rafael Bridge, Bay Bridge, and the Golden Gate from various parts of the island. You can look across the Bay to Tiburon, San Francisco, and Alcatraz. You can watch every kind of ship imaginable sailing to and fro. And you can see a variety of wildlife from various birds and deer to sea lions and whales. Angel Island is one of the best places in the Bay Area for taking souvenir photos or even professional ones.
Finally, Angel Island is a pretty cheap but pretty dramatic Bay Area experience. You get to cruise the Bay, enjoy the beach, picnic and camp, hike and sightsee, and get an historical brush-up all in one affordable trip. The ferry ride will cost you the most, but you can pack as much food as you can carry onto the island. Entry to the U.S. Immigration Station costs just $5 per person, and if you choose to walk Perimeter Road, you have no other costs. The beach at Ayala Cove is lovely, though the water can be a little murky. And, thank goodness, there are nice bathrooms.
The last time I visited the island, I went with my sister and dad, and this is how we did it. To avoid the traffic snarl and parking drama of San Francisco, we made the lovely drive to Tiburon, one of the cutest and most charming little coastal towns you'll ever visit. We paid just $5 to park for the day near the ferry stop (don't make the mistake of parking in the pricier lot after the roundabout). We went on a weekend day because the ferry service is extended on those days with a final departure from Angel Island at 5:20 p.m. versus 3:30 p.m. on weekdays, depending on the season (visit www.angelislandferry.com for a full schedule breakdown). As I said, the ferry ticket will probably be your priciest item. From Tiburon, the round-trip ticket will set you back $15, and it's CASH ONLY. Keep in mind that the ticket from San Francisco is $18. Arrive early if you want first pick at seats and locations because that line gets long in a hurry. We took the first ferry departing at 10 a.m. Easy peasy.
Once on the island, you have to choose how to experience it; by bike, by tram, by Segway, or on foot. But first, if you brought a lot of things you don't want to haul around the island, there are lockers near the café you can rent. For the active and adventurous, biking or walking the Perimeter Road is best (be warned, the loop is about five miles long, and has a few inclines and declines that will make those muscles burn). For those who want a more leisurely experience, the Segway or tram are the best, though they'll cost you. A Segway is $68 per person, and the tram is $15.50 a person.
We wanted to keep costs low and set our own pace, so we chose to walk Perimeter Road. We went left from Ayala Cove and climbed a long and fairly steep staircase to get to the path. If you go this way, you'll feel every stair, but this is the fastest way to get to the Immigration Station. We chose to tour the Immigration Station and the area around it. There are more stairs, but it's worth it. To get inside and see the living quarters, mess hall, and poems carved into the walls, the cost is $5 per person, again CASH ONLY. There's a large group of tables in front of the Immigration Station where you can enjoy your picnic lunch, which we did, imagining what immigrants must have thought and felt while eating in the same place.
We then walked to Fort McDowell, where you can wander among deserted buildings, including a hospital, and feel the history sifting under your feet. If you take this route, make sure to stop for a bathroom break because it's the last restroom until Camp Reynolds, and that one isn't easily accessible for the exhausted. The views and photo ops were amazing on the five-mile trek around the island, but I have to admit, that tram looked lovely around mile three.
Once we dragged ourselves back to Ayala Cove, we sat on the cement wall near the beach to enjoy some refreshments. Kids played in the sand, people moved about their boats anchored in the cove, and families chatted happily around picnic tables and blankets on the grassy expanse above the beach. If you didn't pack a picnic lunch, there's a tiny café near the ferry stop. Hanging out on the beach until a ferry arrives is a nice way to finish your Angel Island experience.
We caught the 3:30 ferry back to Tiburon so we could make the short drive to Sausalito and do some shopping and dining. Sausalito is also a charming and bustling little place that has plenty of boutiques, restaurants, and lovely views, but it's also pricey. And it has a lot more tourists than Tiburon. This is the place where people who bike the Golden Gate stop to take the ferry back to San Francisco, so there are a lot of people and a lot of bikes. Pack extra food and picnic on the shore near the ferry stop if you want to save money.
Everyone says to only do Angel Island on a clear day, but a clear day can be hard to come by on the Bay, and you can't always match your day off with the fine weather. We planned well, but the forecast was still wrong the day we went with cloudy skies for most of our trip. However, this turned out to be nice because the cooler weather made for a more pleasant walk, and the views were still amazing. If you visit or live in the Bay Area, Angel Island is most definitely a miss-me-not and a nice break from the crowds.
Foggy Views in Tiburon
Inside the Ferry
Shortcut to the Immigration Station
The Immigration Station
A Poem in the Wall
The Golden Gate on the Horizon
Back at Ayala Cove
Bill Dan Balancing Rocks in Sausalito