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An Insider’s Guide to Angel Island, S.F.’s Most Undersung Day Trip

No, not Treasure Island. The other one.

SLIDESHOW

Aerial view of Angel Island State Park.

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View of Camp Reynolds from the bay.

Photo: Angel Island Conservancy

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Quarry Beach.

Photo: Mark Hogan/Creative Commons

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Angel Island is something of a contradiction: It’s an isolated spot smack in the middle of the bay, a place that feels very much outside the city even though it’s right next door to San Francisco. And, oddly enough, the island’s bike paths, hiking trails, and 360-degree views from Mount Livermore are arguably more frequented by tourists than natives. Here, “Why haven’t I ever come to Angel Island?”—a question tour guide and state park interpreter Casey Lee gets at least once a day—is about as common a question from locals as “Which way to the bathroom?” Which means locals probably don’t know how to find the best picnic spots, campsites, and beaches, either. Here, Angel Islanders lay out their recs for making the most of the short trek across the bay.

Most Scenic Spot for a Picnic

From Camp Reynolds, hike down the hill toward the bay. Keep going until you reach the large brick building by the water. Make a right, and you’ll come to a set of picnic tables. “They’re hidden from view by the last part of the hill,” says interpreter and tour guide Ben Fenkell. “They have an incredible view of the bay and the Golden Gate, and they’re right next to the water, which is also a great beach at low tide.”

Best Place for a Good Cry

During the early part of the 20th century, Angel Island was the Ellis Island of the West, an immigration station that processed more than one million immigrants. Between 1910 and 1940, more than 175,000 Chinese men and women were detained on the island, some for months at a time. During their detention, which often coincided with long and grueling interrogations, many of the detainees carved poetry into the barrack walls to comfort themselves and future detainees. The poems were rediscovered by a park ranger in 1970 and have since been preserved and translated by Chinese scholars. They’re still visible on many of the barrack walls. “It gives a window into how people were feeling in that exact moment,” says Lee.

Best Places to Relax on the Beach

For clear views of San Francisco, Alcatraz, and the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges, head to Perles Beach, on the southwest side of the island. It’s a bit of a hike down from Perimeter Road, so be sure to save enough energy for the return climb, says Lee. Or head to the east side of the island, near Fort McDowell, to Quarry Beach. “It’s a little more sheltered, with views of the East Bay, the Bay Bridge, and a bit of San Francisco,” Lee says. “Even on the busiest days both these spots are not crowded.”

Best Spot for a Selfie

There are no really bad photo ops on the island, but some are better than others. Start out from any of the island’s three trails. Near the top, where the trails meet, there’s a landing before you take the final part of the trail to the top of Mount Livermore. Though the view isn’t a complete 360, you get the sweep from Richmond to the Golden Gate. “It’s quiet and the view is ridiculous,” says Fenkell. “In the fall, when the clouds have come back and the fog is spilling over the Marin Headlands and Sausalito, the sunset colors are breathtaking.”

Best Campsite

If you want to score one of Angel Island’s highly coveted 11 campsites on a Saturday night, you’d better book at least six months in advance. Some are more coveted than others. Campers who are looking for the money-shot view tend to go for Campsite 4, but its direct exposure to sun and wind are a downside. If you like a good vista but want to stay warmer, Campsite 5 offers the best of both worlds, says Lee: “It’s got views and access to shade and a little more shelter from the wind.” 

Tip for snagging a campsite on shorter notice: The Wandering Labs app scours reservation sites and flags cancellations for your selected dates. You’ll have to be willing to take what comes at the last minute, but that’s part of the fun.


Party alert
: On December 8, the Angel Island Conservancy is throwing its annual gala, Angel Lights, hosted by Gavin Newsom at the Corinthian Yacht Club in Tiburon. Tickets are here.  

 

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