Believe it or not, you can do a bit of island adventuring in the San Francisco Bay. Although world-famous Alcatraz commands most of the attention, the larger Angel Island is equally impressive, especially if you’d prefer to do some hiking, see some nature and historic buildings, and have a picnic.
It’s a bit oceanic out there, so probably the best times of the year to come are on one of those rare nice summer days, fall or late spring. Weather is variable but tends to be some variety of mild. The ferry trip, accessible from both the Ferry Building and Pier 39, takes some time—up to an hour. And the trek itself is about two to three hours, depending on how many stops you take. All this is why the trek is more of a day trip, rather than a quick hike. (Note as well that you can also get there from Tiburon. Here’s a full list of ferry departures.)
This being the SF Bay, the ride can be bumpy, crowded, foggy and windy, but affords sublime views of the bay and its environs. If you’re coming from the Ferry Building, you actually pass and get a good views of all the main islands, Yerba Buena and Treasure Island, and then—when just a few miles south of Angel Island—Alcatraz.
Generally, there’s a lot of people sailing off the coast of wealthy Marin County, especially on a nice day. Filling the water with an active brilliance, their boats waltz over the water. Mere mortals aboard the ferry can look on in awe and wonder at the spectacular affair.
Upon disembarking, there are two routes for those who came to hike: a somewhat more difficult path to and around the top of the island’s hill and a path circuiting the entire island. They both take roughly two-and-a-half hours.
As a long aside, if you don’t much like walking or simply want a guided tour, you can also spend a few bucks to take a bus around the island, stopping at the main sights along the way. Or, if you don’t want a full hike, it’s not a long walk to a private beach where you can barbeque and hang out. I should not forget to mention that bikes are welcome, the island having great paths all around it. And camping, let’s not forget . . . (But there’s no wood fires, which in my book kind of defeats the purpose.) If none of that interests you, you can also just go to the local bar, and sit and have a drink while watching the sun move across the water in the harbor. Personally, though, I’d save that cold beer for after a hike.
So anyway, we did the peripheral trail. Of notable interest on the hike are the abandoned barracks and army officer buildings. There’s even a sort of abandoned city, with defunct factories and stately mansions falling into ruin and disrepair. On a foggy day they are gloomily mystical, like old industrial centers, whereas on sunny days they probably take the cast of ancient Mediterranean ruins. (Just speculating on that latter point, as you can see.)
For those not as into the stark melancholia of decrepit buildings as myself, there’s a lot more to see on the island: an old immigration holding station, missile sites from the Cold War, a whole a lot of precipices, vistas and hidden beaches, and a small historical museum. You can really make a whole day trip of it if you want to, seeing everything, or just do it in bits and pieces.
One last reminder though is to make sure you catch the last ferry back to wherever you’re going, which is usually not very late. The last back to San Francisco for us was 4:30.