Growing up in the Bay Area, I vaguely knew Angel Island was out there in the San Francisco Bay. But it wasn’t until a coworker invited me to go on a hike with her there that I realized there are a variety of fun things to do on Angel Island!
We went to hike the Perimeter Trail, which spans the circumference of the island offering epic views of the city. But you can also bike, chill on a beach, camp, and learn about the role Angel Island played in Chinese immigration.
In this post, I’m going to share with you the best things to do on Angel island, along with plenty of other helpful tips for a day trip to Angel Island from San Francisco.
This post contains affiliate links, which means that, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a tiny bit of income if you decide to make a purchase or booking. For more, check out my disclosure.
San Francisco Travel Resources
- Not sure when to visit? Find out the best time of year to visit San Francisco
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- Must haves for your trip to San Francisco packing list: my favorite waterproof booties, this power bank to stay connected, and a reusable water bottle
Getting to Angel Island
The only way to get to Angel Island is via ferry. You can take the Blue and Gold fleet from the San Francisco ferry terminal or the Angel Island Tiburon Ferry from Tiburon.
Blue & Gold Fleet
The Blue & Gold Fleet operates only on the weekends; Friday through Sunday. It has two departures from San Francisco’s Pier 41; 11:00 am and 1:30 pm. To return to San Francisco there are two daily trips at 2:15 pm and 4:15 pm.
The return ferry ticket cost $19.50/adult.
To book your ticket on the Blue & Gold fleet, click here.
Angel Island Tiburon Ferry
My coworker and I took the Angel Island Tiburon Ferry. They’re currently operating Thursday through Sunday with 3 departure times (10:00 am, 11:00 am, 1:30 pm) and 4 return times (10:20 am, 11:20 am, 1:20 pm, 3:20 pm).
The benefit of taking the Angel Islands Tiburon ferry is there are more frequent times and it’s only a 10-minute ferry ride. However, you will have to budget in the time to drive across the Golden Gate and pay for parking ($16) in Tiburon.
The journey from San Francisco to Tiburon is about 30 mins.
The return ferry ticket costs $15/adult.
To book your ticket on the Angel Island Tiburon Ferry click here.
Top Things To Do on Angel Island
Visit the Angel Island US Immigration Station
Often referred to as the Ellis Island of the West, Angel Island served as an immigration port between 1910 and 1940. While people came from all over the world to the United States during this time, the overwhelming majority of immigrants processed (and detained) on Angel Island were from China.
Due to the Chinese Exclusion Act which severely restricted immigration from China, Chinese immigrants could spend anywhere from weeks to years detained on Angel Island while they were interrogated about their connection to naturalized Chinese relations.
A great book about what the Chinese experience on Angel Island is Shanghai Girls by Lisa See. While it is a fiction book, it is based on the realities of Chinese immigration.
Hike the Perimeter Trail
There are several Angel Island hikes you could go on with varying degrees of difficulty and length. The hike I recommend for your first visit is the Perimeter Trail.
This 5.5-mile trail encompasses the entire perimeter of the island. It follows the completely paved, but also completely exposed Perimeter Road. There are a few very steep hills along the way as well!
But trust me, it’s worth it. The views of the city are amazing! You’ll see from The Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, the city, all the way to the Bay Bridge. If you look closely enough at the city, you’ll be able to see the huge hills San Francisco is famous for.
The Perimeter trail is also good for seeing the rest of the island. You can add on a visit to Fort Reynolds, a gorgeous beach, and the Immigration Station.
When you disembark the ferry, you can either start the trail to the right or left. If you’re starting to the right, you can pay a visit to the Visitors Center before you begin and end with the Immigration station before the return ferry home.
Alternatively, you can start to the left and spend some time while you’ve still got energy learning about the history of the island at the Immigration station.
When I visited we started going right, which means we finished at the immigration station. If I were to do it again, I’d reverse it, because I’d have energy for the immigration station and when I reached the side with the city views, the Golden Gate Bridge would be in front of me the entire time, as opposed to behind!
Alternative hiking trails
- Sunset Trail & North Ridge Trail: Climb to the top of Mt. Livermore, the peak of Angel Island, 788 ft above sea level. You could take the sunset trail from Ayala Cove and climb 3 miles up to the top! Alternatively, you could follow the North Ridge Trail off of the Perimeter Trail up 144 steps and 3 miles to the top!
Check out this short hike packing list for what I recommend bringing to hike on Angel Island.
Ride a Bike around Angel Island
A solid, and faster, alternative to hiking, is biking Angel Island. I noticed this was an incredibly popular thing to do on the island.
You can either bring your own bike with you on the ferry or rent one upon arrival. They even offer e-bikes which would be incredibly helpful for the steep hills you’ll encounter.
You can rent a mountain bike or e-bike by the hour ($16/$26 respectively) or for the day ($64/$99).
For more information on Angel Island bike rentals, click here.
Take the Angel Island Tram
Not up for much activity but still want to see everything the island has to offer, take the Angel Island Tram. This is perfect for families with little ones as well! This is a mini Angel Island tour as the tram will provide you with historical facts along the way.
The tram tour runs twice per day at 11:45 am and 1:45 pm. It stops at Battery Ledyard for a photo opportunity of the spectacular views of the San Francisco skyline.
To book your Angel Island tram tour, click here.
Explore Camp Reynolds
Camp Reynolds was developed during the Civil War in anticipation of attacks from Confederates. After the Civil War, it became an army training ground. In the center, you’ll find a large open space that was the parade ground and on one side you’ll see original Army barracks.
Camp Reynolds is a great detour off of the Perimeter Trail for a bit of history mixed with stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Have a Picnic
I suggest packing a sandwich and snacks for your day trip to Angel Island because there are so many picnic areas. You could choose a bench or patch of dirt overlooking San Francisco or find the shade of a tree while watching the boats sail around Tiburon.
There are also plenty of picnic tables in front of the visitor center at Ayala Cove.
Chill on the Beach
You could even take your picnic to the white sand beach. Yea I was just as shocked when Quarry Beach came into view below Fort McDowell. It’s a small stretch of white sand you’d expect to see in the Caribbean.
There was only one person on it when I visited on a sunny and warm San Francisco day!
Visit Fort McDowell
Fort McDowell is where soldiers were trained for war and returned from war for about 50 years. Remnants of officer quarters, the mess hall, and the hospital remain. The hospital is actually “open”, you can wander around inside its vacant rooms. But be careful as it’s in a state of disrepair!
Have I mentioned the epic views of San Francisco all around Angel Island? Bring your camera for this trip, you’re going to use it at every turn!
I used my telephoto lens for the majority of photos, especially for the skyline. But a wide-angle lens would be great once you get to the old buildings. If you’re not a fan of carrying multiple lenses (I do it, and those things get heavy!) then a good walk-around lens (28-70mm or something similar) is perfect.
I’m also still rocking the iPhone 8, so if you have a newer iPhone you’ll be able to get great photos without the heavy camera gear!
Enjoy a Beer at the Angel Island Cafe & Cantina
Yes! There is food and drinks on Angel Island. Just steps from Ayala Cove and the ferry port is the Angel Island Cafe and Cantina operation by the Angel Island Company. Here you can enjoy a cold beer and a snack while you wait for your Angel Island ferry to take you back to Tiburon or San Francisco.
The cafe had just opened with limited service when I visited. They had beer and wine as well as a small assortment of food. However, in non-pandemic times there is a larger menu and live music! The perfect way to end a fun day exploring all of the awesome things to do on Angel Island.
Camping on Angel Island State Park
During our hike around the Perimeter Trail, I kept commenting about how epic both sunrise and sunset would be from Angel Island. However, with the last ferry departing around 4:00 pm, it’s not possible.
Unless of course, you camp! Imagine having this entire island mostly to yourself after 4:00 pm to watch the sun go down, stars come out, and the sunrise again. How legit would that be?!
There are a handful of campgrounds throughout the park. Some offer views of the city and others of Tiburon and Sausalito.
This is a very popular place to camp, so you’ll likely have to reserve a site 6 months in advance. However, right now camping is not available due to the pandemic.
Reserve your campsite at reservecalifornia.com
What to Bring for Your Day Trip to Angel Island
Now that you know what to do once you get to Angel Island, what should you bring?
There are so many epic views, definitely bring a camera. Whether it’s your smartphone or a DSLR, you’ll want to take photos on Angel Island.
While there is food you can get to go on the island, I recommend packing a lunch and snacks. Especially as the menu at the Angel Island Cafe is fairly limited right now.
Bring a full water bottle but know that you can refill it at various locations around the island.
What to Wear Visiting Angel Island
Like any time you’re considering what to wear in San Francisco, remember that layers are key. Visiting Angel Island is no different. You’ll want to wear comfortable, active clothing especially if you’re planning to hike or bike the island.
A good pair of sneakers or hiking boots are recommended. The Perimeter trail is almost completely exposed so please wear a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen.
For reference, I wore leggings, sneakers, a t-shirt, and a sweatshirt. I also packed a heavier jacket just in case the wind picked up that I didn’t end up needing.
A Few More Tips for Visiting Angel Island
- Start early. I recommend taking the earliest ferry possible so you can explore the island at a leisurely pace. We took the 10:00 am ferry to Angel Island and departed on the 3:20 pm ferry.
- Restrooms are located at the ferry dock, Camp Reynolds, Fort McDowell, and Immigration Station
- Masks are required the entire time on the ferry ride over
- Arrive at least 15 minutes before the ferry departs
- Downtown Tiburon is super cute, if you have energy at the end of the day there are good restaurants and more San Francisco views.
Where to Stay Nearby
You may consider extending your stay for a night or two in Tiburon and exploring this part of the Bay Area. It’s filled with a variety of fun activities, good restaurants, and gorgeous views. Both of the hotels below are treat-yo-self-style hotels. And totally worth it IMHO.
- Water’s Edge: This hotel is located on the Tiburon waterfront, just a few minutes away from the ferry which can take you to Angel Island or back to San Francisco.
- The Lodge at Tiburon: An excellent location just steps away from the Angel Island Ferry. Plus it’s absolutely beautiful!
There are plenty of hotels to choose from in San Francisco! Book your favorite here.
Things to Do Nearby
- Muir Woods: Spend a few hours walking among centuries old giants in the Redwood Forest in Muir Woods. All the details for how to visit Muir Woods right now are in this post.
- Mt. Tamalpais: Mt. Tamalpais has awesome hiking trails and views! If you’re up for a good, long hike check out the Dipsea Trail or Cataract Falls.
- Sausalito: Just down the highway from Tiburon is Sausalito. There are many excellent restaurants to choose from and epic views across the Bay to the city.
- Battery Spencer: On your way back to San Francisco, consider stopping at Battery Spencer for sunset. Battery Spencer offers awesome views of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay, Alcatraz, and the city skyline. It does tend to get windy here, though so layer up!