Story and Photos by John Sundsmo.
Longing for a little recreational travel experience and a brief break in the pandemic humdrum, an Angel Island escape beckoned. My wife and I had been to the island twice before but hadn’t fully explored its history or beauty. With spring wildflowers reportedly in bloom, an outdoor adventure seemed perfect since Angel Island State Park is one of the largest (1100 acres) and most easily accessible escapes in the San Francisco Bay Area for nature, expansive scenic views, and the important role the island played in early California history. The Angel Island State Park is the largest nature reserve in the San Francisco Bay Area. It offers back-country trail experiences and tram and self-guided walking tours.
In California history, Angel Island featured the first contact of native Coast Miwok tribe members with Europeans. The Spanish arrived in 1775 on the fifth of August from what is now Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. The brig San Carlos, captained by Lt. Juan Manuel de Ayala, was sent to map and explore San Francisco Bay. Captain Ayala anchored and named the island Isla de Los Angeles as the namesake for the patron saint most closely associated with his August arrival. He and his pilot, José de Cañizares, literally put San Francisco Bay on the map by charting the coasts, depths, and shallows during his month-long stay here at Angel Island.
Angel Island to Tiburon Ferry
Family-owned and operated for more than 60 years. Now for two generations, Captain Maggie McDonogh and her brother (and the young third Irish-American generation), run the regular Angel Island Ferry service across Raccoon Strait into Ayala Cove, connecting Angel Island State Park with Tiburon. We parked the car in time for the 11 AM ferry and thoroughly enjoyed the fabulous views across the water as we approached Angel Island.
Once the site of seasonal Miwok fishing visits, the excellent anchorage and sheltered cove on the north side of the island is where captain Ayala met the friendly coastal Indians. From there, he charted the full extent of San Francisco bay. Later, during the Gold Rush, the cove played an important role in controlling plague and other diseases. Sailing ships entering San Francisco Bay were required to check in at the Quarantine Station on Angel Island and, if found to be infected, undergo decontamination with cyanide, sulfur, and steam. The historic buildings were unfortunately lost in a fire. This beautiful cove with sandy beaches is the arrival site for visitors entering Angel Island State Park. A café, restrooms, picnic tables, trailheads, and island tourist trams are located near the ferry terminal.
Arriving on the island before noon, we picked up some wonderful sandwiches from the Angel Island Café on the dock, ate at the nearby picnic tables, and then boarded the Angel Island Tram for a counter-clockwise tour of the island’s natural beauties and history.
Angel Island played important roles in California during the Civil War, Gold Rush, Spanish American War, and World Wars I and II, when it was a defender of the bay and the central embarkation point for soldiers leaving and then returning from abroad. Unfortunately, the island was also an enforcement site for the Chinese Exclusion Act. Unlike other historical sites where the old was replaced by the new, on Angel Island, the relics are all still standing as a testament to the past and its meaning for all of us today. After continuous military presence for more than a century, when the Army decided to leave in 1962, Angel Island was saved from development by conservation-minded angels. A short tram ride into the verdant hills quickly yielded stunning 360-degree views.
Camp Reynolds Overlook
The hill overlooking Camp Reynolds undoubtedly offers the best views in the Bay Area with: Mount Tamalpais to the North; the Golden Gate Bridge (West); San Francisco and Alcatraz (South; named Isla de Alcatraces – the island of the pelicans by Lt. Ayala); Terminal Island and Oakland (Southeast); along with the Carquinez straights, i.e., marking the mouth of the Sacramento River. (The Sacramento river channel extends West into the 90-foot depths of the narrow Raccoon Strait that separates Tiburon from Angel Island.) The panoramic views are nothing short of amazing.
The grassy parade grounds and 150-year-old officer’s quarters at Camp Reynolds are easily visible from Sausalito near the Golden Gate Bridge. In 1863, four artillery sites were built to protect San Francisco from Confederate privateers during the American Civil War. Stewart Point and Point Knox on Angel Island protected the Northern approaches to the bay. Additional forts on Alcatraz to the South, and West Fort at the entrance to the Bay (now located beneath the Golden Gate Bridge), secured the entrance to San Francisco. Fortunately, the canon was never fired in anger. Camp Reynolds on Angel Island was constructed for infantry protecting the artillery sites. The century-old Officer’s quarters, Bake House, and brick Quartermaster Warehouse are still standing at Camp Reynolds. The warehouse now serves fourth graders with a chance to experience the life of a soldier on Angel Island during the Civil War. The hard duty of standing watch at all times of the day and night, combined with sleeping in a cold brick warehouse, is rewarded each morning with pancakes cooked on a wood stove and fresh-baked bread and cinnamon rolls from the old brick ovens in the Bake House.
Perle Beach: Our tour guide told us that, as the Army depleted the deer population on the island, Daniel Perle was hired to provide beef for the troops. He ranched the South of the island for many years, and for trips to San Francisco, he launched his skiff from the beach that bears his name. Today it is a quiet, reflective getaway suited to a quiet stroll or scenic contemplation.
Hermit’s Glen: During the Gold Rush, squatters pitched tents anywhere they could, and one old hermit stayed well beyond his welcome and strongly resisted the calls to “move on.” Today, redwoods planted by the Army in Hermit’s Glen show blackened tree bark from a fire that started nearby in 2008. The fire has allowed the park rangers and conservationists to begin restoring the disrupted natural ecology when the Army planted Bluegum Eucalyptus, Coast Redwood, Monterey Pine, Norfolk Island Pine Deodar Cedar, and other non-native plants. Native trees include Scrub Oak, Bay, and Madrone.
Fort McDowell: The massive barracks complex at Fort McDowell on the Southeast corner of Angel Island mostly dates from World Wars I and II. Angel Island was the jumping-off point for Army soldiers headed into difficult life-challenging battles in France during World War I and the Pacific islands in World War II. A large “Welcome Home” sign adorned the hillside after World War II. It is said that coming back home under the Golden Gate Bridge; ships would play “California Here I come” on the loudspeaker. Troops would break down in tears, realizing that, contrary to expectations, they had survived. Today, the beautiful, tree-lined roads reminded me to give special thanks for all they gave (especially those who didn’t come home) to free us from the possible tyranny of authoritarian rule by foreign enemies. (It is perhaps particularly timely to reminisce and feel gratitude at these times of great international instability when war and threats of domestic violence are so visible.)
Angel Island Immigration Station
After the Civil War, times were hard, and many discharged soldiers could not find work. Employers who could pay, couldn’t pay much. Chinese immigrants, eager to send anything home to families in China, were willing to work for low pay. Frictions were inevitable. Under Governor Stanford, the California legislature passed acts to restrict Chinese immigrants’ rights, and subsequently, the US Congress passed the draconian Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The law was the only United States act ever passed to restrict a single ethnic group based on race or nationality. Immigrants from China were required to present evidence that they were directly related to a US citizen. As immigration fraud was believed rampant, about one million Chinese immigrants were subjected to extensive questioning, with some questions spanning generations of ancestors. For many, especially Europeans, the stay at Angel Island was as short as days or weeks. It was a long 2 to 3 years for some Chinese without good papers. At the same time, the hospital facility on the island monitored for infectious and parasitic diseases, including cholera, plague, leprosy, and tuberculosis. When the Administration Building burned in 1940, the processing Center was moved to San Francisco. The barbed wire-enclosed dormitories stand as a lasting witness to the trials and tribulations of Chinese immigrants at this “Ellis Island of the West” facility.
Back in Ayala Cove
Our circumnavigation of Angel Island complete, our tram dutifully returned us to Ayala Cove so we could catch the 3:20 PM ferry back to Tiburon. The entire island is designated a California Historic Landmark, and now we know why. From foraging, fishing, and hunting by Miwok natives some 2000 years ago to the Army with gun emplacements and camps continuously in operation for a century, finally closed in 1946, the island displays a remarkable living history. But for us, the simple beauty of wildflowers and green rolling hills was very special. Spring is a wonderful time of year for a visit if you get an opportunity, but any time of year is good. This destination is close by, often overlooked, and extremely welcoming, so consider it for your next escape into nature, transcendent scenic views, and California history.
IF YOU GO:
Angel Island Ferry: The fare for the Angel Island ferry includes the Angel Island State Park entry fee. The trip to the island takes about twenty minutes. If you don’t want to drive to Tiburon from the San Francisco Embarcadero ferry terminal, catch the Golden Gate ferry service to Tiburon. It arrives just a short distance down from the Angel Island ferry dock. During weekdays this Spring 2022, the Angel Island ferry leaves Tiburon at 10 am, 11 am, and 1 pm and returns at 10:20 am, 11:20 am, 1:20 pm, and 3:20 pm. On weekends an additional ferry departs at 4:20 pm. For updated schedules, check the ferry website at https://angelislandferry.com/schedule/ . If you only have an hour free, consider riding the ferry to-and-from the island. The views across the water to the Golden Gate Bridge, Sausalito, and Tiburon alone are well worth the trip.
The Angel Island State Park website has additional information. http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=468 . Additional information and Angel Island videos are available at https://www.angelisland.com/ .
Picnic sites have tables, running water, and barbeques. The Angel Island Café is at: https://www.angelisland.com/angel-island-cafe .
Campsites: There are only 11 backpack campsites on the island, and they are available on a first-come-first-serve basis. Group picnic and camping reservations are available, including kayak camping. Wood fires are not permitted. For a possible campsite reservation, see https://reservecalifornia.com/Web/ .
Tram tours: https://www.angelisland.com/tram-tours.
To inquire about Guided Nature Tours: email@example.com see also the natural history page at https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=1312 and the Angel Island Conservancy site https://angelisland.org/ .
Hiking trails: 13 miles – for more information, see: https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=1313, and for a trail map, see https://www.angelisland.com/hike.
Biking: 9 miles; speed limit 15 mph; helmet required; for bike rentals, see: https://www.angelisland.com/bike-rentals.
John, That was a fun day out. thanks for the reminder!
That’s a great article, John. Brings back good memories.