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Angel Island

Historic island displays century of military history


Many California residents may not be aware how close they came to losing an important part of this state's history in early October 2008. A wildfire blackened nearly half of Angel Island, but quick action by firefighters saved the island's many historical buildings and left many of the roads and trails on the popular San Francisco island intact.

Angel Island is a prominent part of the Bay panorama and has been a popular destination for hiking, biking and exploration for the decades since it became a state park in the 1950's. Only accessible by boat, the island is a quick ferry ride from Fisherman's Wharf and an especially good day trip for San Francisco visitors. When they arrive on the island, they'll find a quiet, peaceful, almost idyllic landscape with pretty coves, modest hills and picture-postcard vistas of the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin County.

The good news is that today visitors are able to enjoy all of the historic buildings that are normally open to the public, including the newly renovated Immigration Station.

Visitors arrive at Ayala Cove where most summer days and off-season weekends there are services such as a café and small store, and places where visitors can rent bikes or Segways for touring the island. There's also a one-hour tram tour around the island. But if you're on foot, be prepared for some exercise - it's about 30 to 60 minutes of walking to any one attraction, although there are plenty of stopping points and great Bay views all along the way.

One short trip from the landing is to the Immigration Station Barracks and grounds, just a 30-minute walk to the northeast. Most people have heard of Ellis Island and the immigrants who came to New York by way of that immigration station, but many don't realize that San Francisco had this very similar station on Angel Island. When you visit the Barracks, you'll see the dramatic wall carvings left by Asian immigrants who were detained here an average of two to three weeks while entering the country. Most immigrants affected where Chinese, who were the objects of legislation to limit their immigration to the U.S. The poems on the walls are written in Chinese and span the years from 1910 up until 1940 when the Immigration Service left the island.

But the Immigration Station is just part of the story of Angel Island, which offers a rich tapestry of military history that had soldiers based here for 99 years from 1863 to 1962.

A good way to see the island is to take the Perimeter Road to the southwest from Ayala Cove. In about a mile, you come to Camp Reynolds, where the officers' quarters are still intact and available for tour. Some of buildings are authentic from 1863, while others were constructed in the 1870s and 1880s and are positioned around a unique parade ground - odd because it's not flat. To march at Camp Reynolds, soldiers would have to march uphill or down, or at an angle. And, believe it or not, these Civil War-era soldiers actually participated in the Civil War by preventing gold shipments from California to the Confederacy. Visitors today can see the artillery batteries that were built near Camp Reynolds and at Point Stuart, Point Knox and Point Blunt - all positioned to counter any Confederate attacks on shipping in San Francisco Bay.

As you take the Perimeter Road around the island, you come across campsites that are quite popular on weekends and throughout the summer. There are 10 campsites altogether - nine eight-person sites and one 20-person site. Visitors bring their backpacks and tents on the Angel Island ferry.

Further along Perimeter Road we passed the trails to Mt. Livermore, the highest point on the island and destination for many hikers who visit the island. With an elevation gain of 788 feet, the hike is fairly hearty, but not difficult. It's possible to hike a loop where you take a more gradual route up the mountain and a steeper route back down. But be prepared: there are no restrooms or water in this more remote part of the island, and some of this area was impacted by the fire.

Keep an eye out for wildlife. The island has deer and raccoons, although you won't find skunks, possums, squirrels or any sort of predator. The island does have its own species - the Angel Island Mole - which is like a wild hamster with a pointy nose. The local moles like to make tunnels in the dry grass and you can actually hear them below the ground as you're walking on the Angel Island trails.

Further along Perimeter Road, we came across another big part of the island's military history: the remnants of the Nike Ajax missile site. These were cold war era non-nuclear missiles that were stored in magazines here on the island where they could be brought out and launched in time of hostilities. Interestingly, the operators of these missiles only practiced launching one missile a year and they did so at another location - so we can only wonder how accurate they might have been if called upon to hit multiple targets during a military engagement.

Next stop on the Perimeter Road was Fort McDowell, a beehive of activity during World War II, but operating on the island for all the years from 1900 to 1946. When World War II began, the fort became part of the San Francisco Port of Embarkation and more than 300,000 soldiers were shipped to the Pacific Theater of Operations through Fort McDowell. The busiest month of all was in December 1945 after the war had ended: More than 23,000 returning soldiers were processed here, with the Main Mess Hall serving more than 310,000 meals in just that one month.

We toured an old jail at Fort McDowell and walked around this cluster of historic buildings, several of which now are used to house park employees. At some point these buildings - like many others on the island - likely will be restored, but presently many are boarded up and not accessible to the general public. One reason they are in disrepair is that they were heavily vandalized after the military left and park officials say they often will have a visitor comment that they have a home fixture of some sort that was originally from Fort McDowell.

Traveling further around the island, visitors pass the Immigration Station and then return to Ayala Cove, where the visitor center offers more information about the island and presents a couple of short movies about its history. In fact, Ayala Cove is as far as many visitors get - they just come over for the boat ride, then picnic and enjoy the beach and scenery at the cove.

Angel Island has so much to offer that visitors typically make more than one trip so that they can spend more time in various parts of the island. A lot of visitors plan to take one particular hike, or to participate in one of the park service tours in which volunteers will dress in period costumes for full effect.

All of this could have gone up in smoke with a blaze that blackened half the island - but just like the military and immigrants who passed through this island, the history of the island continues to endure.


WHERE: Angel Island is in San Francisco Bay, just a short ferry ride from Fisherman's Wharf.

WHAT: Angel Island has an amazing history and retains many of the historic buildings that were part of military installations as well as an Immigration Station similar to New York's Ellis Island.

WHEN: Year-round, although services can be cut fairly drastically in the off-season. If you're visiting between Thanksgiving and March, be sure and call ahead to check availability of rentals and food service as well as the tour schedule.

WHY: The area is a treasure trove of historical buildings, as well as a quiet getaway just minutes from bustling downtown San Francisco.

HOW: For more information on Angel Island, phone 415-435-3972 or visit For more information on ferry service to the island, phone 415-705-8200 or visit,.

Photos, from top: 120 historic buildings are on Angel Island; Immigration Station was Ellis Island of the West; Camp Reynolds; Many visitors arrive by pleasure boat

Photos by Cary and Sandi Ordway

OTHER DESTINATIONS: Be sure to check out other California Weekend articles on Laguna Beach, La Jolla and Coronado.

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