Hiking through History on Angel Island

Jump on the ferry and spend the day in the middle of the San Francisco Bay. You’ll get a hell of a hike, a lesson on Californian history, and incredible city and bridge views.

Story by Alex Lash / Photos by Lila Lash – The Frisc


The 2020 tensions of life on land — fires, toxic politics, pandemic rules, and paranoia — have turned my mind lately to the open water and my face to the Pacific winds blowing through the Golden Gate.

The last two explorations posted in our Get Out Now series were aqua-centric: in clear sight of, or even traveling over, the vast waters that surround us. This edition is no different.

To clear your head and fill your lungs, jump on the ferry and get over to Angel Island State Park. Now’s the time. The boats are running, the air is cooling, and once it rains, the landscape will be refreshingly green.

First thing to note as you approach on the water: Angel Island is surprisingly big. You almost certainly won’t explore every corner and canyon in one day. And you don’t have to.

From Ayala Cove, where the ferry lands, there are looped excursions of various lengths and difficulties and with various interests. A heart-thumping hike? Check. A dig through layers of resonant Bay Area and American history? Yes. There’s also overnight camping and picnicking, and except for a few winter months, just plain hanging at Ayala Cove with beers and barbecue and a small sandy beach for your bare toes, tide permitting. A small cafe is open through October.

The cafe’s patio probably has a cool breeze coming off Raccoon Strait, the sinewy mile-wide stretch of water between the island and Tiburon that’s one of the deepest spots in the bay; the roiling surface hints at the wicked tides that squeeze through around the clock.

But you probably won’t be paying the ferry fee (nearly $20 round trip) to lounge around. There’s too much to discover, even if some of the historical buildings are closed by coronavirus or by season. (Check the website or call ahead.) And it’s great exercise, either on foot or on wheels.

Bring your own bicycle, or rent one. Bikes will take you around the 5-mile paved ring road that circumnavigates the island, and that’s not bad. Along the way, you’ll find US immigration history, decaying buildings to thrill ghost town aficionados, military remnants, and restored Civil War-era architecture. All are worthy and rich and deserving contemplation, especially in the case of the Immigration Station, an entry point and detention center for roughly a million immigrants in the early 20th century. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act meant that Chinese immigrants were the main targets of long detentions; their history — even the poetry they etched on the barracks’ walls — is alone worth the visit.

Up and over

While you could stick to the near shore and the historical sites, you might also think of Angel Island like a layered wedding cake. Each tier promises different flavors, and you probably can’t eat them all. Up slope from the paved ring road is a dirt fire road, its wobbly circumference only 3.5 miles. The packed earth and overhanging trees on the north side of the island keep temperatures cooler. Depending on the timing of your visit, this could be a blessing.

There’s another way around the island: up and over. A hiking trail (no bikes allowed) snakes and switchbacks up from Ayala Cove, and at a certain height the private boats and comings and goings of the ferries below start to feel like a Lego town set, still detailed but not quite real. The thrum of engines wafts through the air.

Heading east from the cove, the single-track North Ridge Trail cuts through lush, fragrant canyons of pepper laurel and oak, still shady enough in the late summer heat to be fanned by hillsides of ferns. Still higher, it cruises through chaparral near the top. Western fence lizards skitter into the brush. There are plenty of deer on the island; you might spot some. You’re far less likely to sight the resident coyote, if it’s still there, or the Angel Island mole.

On my last visit, Labor Day weekend, it was hot as hell on Angel. It took some cajoling to get my preteen hiking partners all the way to the summit: Mount Caroline Livermore, 788 feet, with 360-degree views that will gobsmack even the most veteran Bay Area explorers. (The mountain was once shorter; the Navy flattened its top for missile defense, but 16 feet were restored in 2002.)

It’s possible to loop back to the ferry dock and Ayala Cove via the Sunset Trail, also single-track. The roughly six-mile round trip, up then down, leaves you feeling like you’ve done 9 or 10 miles and rivals any Headlands, Peninsula, or East Bay hill excursion.

Warning: On a warm day, let alone a 90-degree burner, the south side of the island is a different beast than the north. Even before a 2008 fire denuded much of the San Francisco-facing slope there wasn’t as much cover. Now there’s practically nowhere to hide.

The shimmering spectacle of San Francisco and much of the bay is always worth the view, but island-wise, there’s little to see on the south side. A Nike missile site is off limits; the bulk of the historical sites are on the western, eastern, and northern flanks. I’ve done the full circle on the paved path once; on subsequent visits, I stuck to other routes and avoided the long exposed trek across the southern flank.

For most visitors on foot, the summit visit will be plenty. Adding visits to the near-shore buildings would make for a busy, weary day. True exploration of Angel Island demands a return engagement. Or more.

How to get there

First, the obligatory pandemic caveat: Schedules are subject to change. Blue and Gold Fleet is currently running direct ferries Friday-Sunday from SF’s Pier 41. As of this writing, no trips are showing on the calendar for November or beyond, but a company spokesperson said availability is posted month by month. $19.50 roundtrip for adults. $11 for kids ages 5 to 11. You can also make your way to Tiburon and catch the Angel Island Ferry. If you’ve got the time, book a campsite on the island, say a prayer to the weather gods, and watch sunset glimmer on the City by the Bay.



Alex Lash – November 2020

ROAM Contributer   

Alex Lash is the editor in chief of The Frisc, covering in-depth news and analysis on San Francisco. This article originally appeared in The Frisc’s Get Out Now! column, featuring unique outdoor expeditions near the city written by locals. Click here to subscribe.

© ROAM Family Travel 2021 – All rights reserved


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