Angel Island San Francisco: History & Visiting Tips

Jill on a windy day at the Golden Gate Bridge

by Jill Loeffler  •

Updated: August 3, 2021

Angel Island San Francisco is the largest island in the SF Bay, slightly northeast of Alcatraz. Although it's a quiet California State Park today, this site has played an important role in US history. 

You'll find Angel Island just over a mile off the shores of Fisherman's Wharf. The only way to get to and from it is by taking one of the Angel Island ferry rides or your own boat.

Angel Island San Francisco from Fisherman's WharfHere is a view of it from Fisherman's Wharf. It's the larger one on the right side. The smaller one on the left is Alcatraz Island.

Angel Island is an easy day trip and a great way to spend some time outdoors away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Hiking, biking, and photography are its three key activities as you visit some of the historical buildings. 

Here is a map showing its location within the SF Bay.

A map showing where Angel Island is in the SF Bay

Before we get discuss the activities currently available here, let's take a step back a few decades and dig into its rich history.

Angel Island History

For thousands of years, Angel Island San Francisco was used by local indigenous people for fishing and hunting. In 1863, the federal government sought more land in the San Francisco Bay and took control of it.

It became a US Army base called Camp Reynolds during the remainder of the Civil War and for a few years after.

In 1910, at the height of the Chinese Exclusion Act, Angel Island San Francisco turned into a detention center for unwanted immigrants arriving to the US through San Francisco.

Almost all immigrants who crossed the Pacific from China ended up here first, some staying for months or even years while trying to become US citizens. While here, they faced tough questioning before entry was granted. 

After the main immigration building burned down in 1940, the military reclaimed it during World War II and used it to detain many prisoners of war, specifically those from Japan and Germany.

After WWII, the military moved off and it was vacant for a while. In 1963, the State of California declared it a state park and that is still its purpose today.

Angel Island Map

Here is a map to help you get acquainted before your visit. These are the key areas to visit during your time on the island. You can find out more about what there is to do at each location in the sections below.

Map of the main attractions on Angel Island in San Francisco

Historic Buildings

No one realized the importance and the history that remained in the buildings. The state scheduled the demolition of the buildings in the 1970s. However, shortly before demolition, a park ranger noticed poems and other writing on the wall and carved into the woodwork. The state decided to leave the buildings standing.

Many people and organizations stepped in to determine a way to raise funds to restore the buildings. The park was able to get money from both the state government and through private donations.

Restoration on the buildings started in the mid-1970s and continues to this day. The great news is that a few are already open and welcome visitors. 

There are three main buildings that house small Angel Island San Francisco history museums. Here is a little about the three buildings open for visitors:

  • Visitors Center Museum on Ayala Cove: The minute you step off the ferry, you encounter the first museum located in the visitors' center. The museum is set in an old officers' quarters building. The tours are self-guided and there are two free movies playing during the day. One is on the history and natural habitat on the island. The other is a movie of its history as an immigration station. Both are around 20 minutes long. 
  • US Immigration Station Museum: This museum is 1.5 miles east Ayala Cove. You can either walk or take the shuttle to this museum. It houses a more detailed view of its history during its time as an immigration station. The building is open Wednesday - Sunday from 11 - 3. Both self-guided and docent led tours are available and tickets are required. Stop by the Cove Cafe on the island for tickets and more information on the tours offered the day of your trip. All tickets are on a first come, first served basis.
  • Camp Reynolds Museum: Two buildings at the original Camp Reynolds site are also open for visitors: Officer's Quarters #10 and the Bakehouse. They house the history of Angel Island San Francisco during the civil war when this was an active military base. It is 1.5 miles to the west of Ayala Cove. 

If it is your first time here, I recommend starting at the Visitors Center. It contains all the information about activities and places to see. Even if you have your day planned, it is a great way to take a quick look at the layout of the island before you set out.

Hike, Bike, & Other Activities

Most people head over to Angel Island San Francisco for the outdoor activities. This is such a beautiful place to go for some hiking, biking and other outdoor fun.

Hiking, Biking & Photography

These are my three favorite things to do here. There are over 13 miles of hiking trails and 8 of those miles allow the use of bikes.

One of my favorite hikes is up to the highest peak, Mount Livermore. It is 788 feet high and is about a 2.5 hour round trip hike from the ferry drop off point. The summit is about 2.5-miles from the ferry, making it a 5-mile round trip hike.

From the top, you get some amazing views and pictures of a number of places around the bay. Alcatraz Island is just off to the west of the island, so you get a unique look of it from this angle. You can also get a great shot of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge.

A view of Angel Island from above

Baseball & Volleyball

If team sports is your plan, then you will find both a baseball diamond and two volleyball courts.

The baseball field is an old field used by soldiers when Angel Island San Francisco was a military base. The field is open for use on a first come, first served basis.

There are two places to play volleyball. The first is near Ayala Cove. Reservations are required for this court, so call ahead for availability before heading over. The second court is open and is at Ft. McDowell. The second court is more of a gamble, since the park does not guarantee availability of these courts.

Camping on Angel Island San Francisco

Angel Island San Francisco allows overnight camping. There are nine camping sites and reservations are required. Contact Reserve America at (800) 444-7275 to reserve a spot. 

I have never camped here but can imagine it would be fun! I recommend bringing along some warm clothes as the bay is windy and chilly at night.


There are a few tour options. The easiest is an hour tram ride. It picks up at Ayala Cove and drives along the flat fire road the circles the entire island. Do not confuse this with the shuttle ride over to the Immigration station.

Last time we were there, we also noticed that you can also take a Segway tour. It lasts two hours and takes you to most of the historical sites. This is a unique experience and it looks like a lot of fun.

The tours run a couple of times a day. Call the reservations office to book your trip at (415) 897-0715.

Eat & Drink

Angel Island San Francisco is also a great place for a picnic. They have a number of picnic sites. You can choose from a larger site for a big group picnic or one of the many smaller picnic sites around the island. The larger sites take reservations.

You can also grab a quick bit and a drink, after a long day of hiking or biking, at one of the two restaurants. One is a simple cafe but is open most of the year. The other is a restaurant, but only open during the busier times of the year.

Tips to Prepare for Your Visit

Visiting requires a little more planning, since there are only a few ferries back and forth during the day.

Make sure you bring layers to stay warm on your way over. The ferry ride is a little chilly most days, so you'll want to bring plenty of layers to stay warm. 

The weather here is unpredictable also. It's similar to San Francisco weather.

It is nice and cool one day, warm the next and really windy the following day. You can check out the San Francisco weather forecast on the page above for the day you plan on visiting to get a feel for the weather.

The hiking trails are pretty easy. You should bring along comfortable shoes, water, snacks and a lunch for your day. You can also stop at the cafe before or after your hike.

The same is true with the biking. The biking trails are mostly easy with a few steep areas. You should bring along food, water and a jacket to stay warm when you stop to take pictures. 

If you decide to camp overnight, prepare for a cool and windy night. Very little blocks the wind on Angel Island, so bring along warm clothes.

Most nights are between 45 to 55 degrees. In September and October, it is a little warmer with lows in the upper 50s to lower 60s. It rarely gets below the 40s on the island, so it should be a nice, cool evening. 

Disclaimer: I receive a small commission from some of the links on this page.

Angel Island Ferry Information 

Take the Blue and Gold Ferry to Angel Island.

The Angel Island ferry is the only way to get to and from this island in the SF Bay. Only a few ferries service it each day.

There are two ferry companies with service two and from the island.

The Blue and Gold Ferry Fleet Company is the only one that runs the between the island and San Francisco. The second company is the The Angel Island-Tiburon Ferry and their service runs between Tiburon and Angel Island.

Tips for Booking Tickets and Taking the Ferry to Angel Island

You can either purchase your tickets online or in person at the pier. The time of departure on the ticket is the time the boat pulls away from the dock. 

I recommend you get there at least 15 minutes in advance - or even earlier - to make sure you get on the boat before they close the doors and push away from the dock.

Bring along some warm layers for the ride. It can get a little chilly most days and sitting outside is the best way to see all of the sites along the way. 

If you are heading over to go biking riding, you can take your bike on the boat with you. They allow bikes on the first level. You will see a group of bikes when you board. Right before the ferry reaches the island, you will see everyone head to their bike and this is when you need to grab yours also.

Both ferries alter their schedules for major holiday such as New Years Day. They also close on Christmas Day. Always check the schedule before booking your tickets.

Maps for the Ferries to Angel Island

Here is a map that shows the terminals in San Francisco, Tiburon and where they drop you off on the island.

Angel Island Map

Blue & Gold Ferries from San Francisco

This is the only company that runs ferries to Angel Island from San Francisco. The cost is $19.50 per person for a round trip ticket.

They currently run just one to two ferries a day back and forth from the island. Here is their current daily schedule. Also make sure to check the boards so you know if they have a change for the day you visit.

Leaves Pier 41 in San Francisco

10:15 am

1:30 pm

Arrives at Angel Island

10:45 am

2:00 pm

Leaves Angel Island

2:15 pm

4:25 pm

Arrives at Pier 41 San Francisco

3:20 pm

5:30 pm

Angel Island-Tiburon Ferry from Tiburon

There is also a ferry that runs to and from Tiburon. This runs a little more often, but it only runs from Tiburon. It's run by Angel Island-Tiburon Ferry. Visit their site for a full schedule as it changes daily/weekly right now

Other Pages You Might Enjoy

Alcatraz History & Visiting Tips: If this is your first visit to San Francisco, a trip to Alcatraz is a must! This amazing attraction is also in the SF bay just a mile from the shores of the city and is close to Angel Island. Discover some of the great tours available to see this infamous site.

SF Districts: Not sure where to start planning your trip? Here you will find the best activities by district

Museums: You will find more than 70 museums in the city. Here you will find a list (and more details) on the different types of museums and some of the most popular options. 

Angel Island: Tips to Visit this San Francisco Gem

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