Explore Angel Island for History and Spectacular Views

Become one with the wind on Angel Island.


Angel Island and its surroundings are full of history.

Photo by mariko/Flickr (CC)

When Spanish explorer Juan de Ayala first discovered San Francisco Bay in 1775, he steered his battered ship to the safest anchorage he could find: a small inlet on an island he christened Isla de Los Angeles. Now dubbed Ayala Cove in his honor, this idyllic harbor endures as the port of entry to the verdant refuge whose name has been Anglicized to Angel Island. Lack a three-masted schooner? A 12-minute, $15 ferry ride from Tiburon will get you there.

Since Ayala’s arrival, little Angel Island has played a surprisingly large role in American history—as a military base during five wars, the West Coast’s main immigration station, a quarantine hospital fending off global epidemics, and a launch pad for nuclear-tipped Nike missiles.

The most straightforward way to experience its intriguing history and astounding natural vistas is to circumambulate it clockwise on its mostly level, aptly named Perimeter Road. Bikes and Segways can be rented at the dock—but by exploring on foot, you become one with the landscape, the wind, imagining yourself a curious conquistador or anxious doughboy.

Start your 5-mile journey by following signs from the ferry to the Immigration Station, where a museum housed in a surviving clapboard dormitory chronicles “The Ellis Island of the West”—but its overly politicized displays are a bit of a downer.

Then continue clockwise along the road until you reach Fort McDowell, whose spooky abandoned hospital and atmospheric disintegrating military buildings conjure up ghosts of wars gone by.

Along the fort’s south side, don’t miss Quarry Beach, possibly the bay’s most picturesque shoreline, with pristine white sand and jaw-dropping views of San Francisco and the Bay Bridge.

To capture those views, which are arguably the main reason to visit Angel Island, make sure to bring your camera and arrive on a clear day.

Continue past the still-working Coast Guard outpost and along the island’s southern side, from which incredible panoramas of San Francisco rear up around every turn. Each vista takes you soaring, and you momentarily forget you’re even on land. But don’t accidentally bypass the Nike Missile base: Mini-nukes launched from here would have targeted incoming Soviet bombers.

Continue past Spanish-American War gun emplacements, a Civil War-era Army training ground, and more breathtaking views toward the Golden Gate Bridge. En route, keep an eye out for native deer emerging from the scrub and a sky full of reeling raptors. The truly adventurous can climb a precipitous dirt side-trail up to the top of Mount Livermore, to drink in a dizzying 360-degree spectacle of the entire Bay Area.

Back at Ayala Cove, picnic grounds and a cafe invite you to relax and refuel while awaiting your ferry back to the 21st century.


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