Angel Island: San Francisco’s Best Not-So-Hidden Gem
Words by Marissa Neely • Photos by Chris Neely
Since 2018, my husband Chris and I have lived aboard our 1979 Cheoy Lee 41’ sailboat, Avocet, preparing to sail the world. One of the biggest dilemmas that we faced when moving aboard, and even more so when finally leaving the dock, was deciding what items made the final cut to come along for the journey.
For years Chris and I were convinced that our mountain bikes were too big and bulky to bring aboard, but after spending the summer biking at our home resort we fell back in love with the sport and knew we had to bring our bikes with us. Luckily, we were able to find a way to effectively store our bikes on our sailboat, allowing us to explore greater distances and add to the fun factor while on shore.
Setting sail with our bikes in tow
Chris and I left Ventura, California on September 17th 2022 with a southerly wind on our tail and adventure on the horizon. After two days and seven hours of nonstop sailing, we sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge and arrived in San Francisco Bay where we spent a few weeks jumping from anchorage to anchorage. Out of all the places we explored, Angel Island was definitely at the top of our list for a few reasons but mainly because we got to prove that bringing our mountain bikes was a great idea.
“See? You fit!” Chris said, trying to fight back a laugh. There I was, sitting in the bow of our dinghy with two full sized mountain bike frames to my right, and all four tires to my left. Chris sat at the stern to drive us to shore where we would build out our bikes, excited for the day ahead of us.
Chris was no stranger to Angel Island. As a kid, he had partaken in a Segway Tour around the island with his parents. Chris remembers being a typical young boy, pushing the self-balancing scooter to its limits and paying the price with roadrash and embarrassment.
Biking Angel Island
The Segway Tours on the island have been replaced with a bike rental shop, which offers visitors the opportunity to bike the 10 miles of available trails.
Known as the “Ellis Island” of the West, Angel Island has had a very colorful history wearing many hats; A hunting ground for Natives, a military base for the Civil, World, and Cold Wars, an infamous Immigration station, and of course the State Park that it is today.
The Island is well situated as a tourist destination, sitting almost at the center of San Francisco Bay, it features great across-the-water views of San Francisco, the Golden Gate, East Bay, and of Tiburon. You can even get views of lower Marin County.
Other than a few small patches of land set aside for the Coast Guard, the entire island is a state park, providing visitors plenty of opportunities for hiking, biking, and camping as well as containing wonderful interpretation signs at various points of interest for history buffs.
Despite the island being covered with some fun and would-be-technical single track trails, the main permitted bike trail to ride is the paved Perimeter Road that traces the outline of the island near the shore.
This is the path used (in part or fully) by a majority of all visitors who set foot on the island. If you don’t count a couple of (very fun) short connectors and side cuts here and there, the only other bike-legal trail on the island is an unnamed fire-road loop that also circles the entire island but at an average elevation of nearly 500 feet.
The ride consists of one full loop of the Perimeter Road (6 miles), plus a full traversal of the shorter fire-road loop (3 miles). The connection between the two loops is a dirt road just under half a mile long with nearly 250 feet of elevation gain — which is truly the only part of the ride that is considered a “real” climb. Meanwhile, the Perimeter Road has a few uphill segments as well, but nothing too steep.
Chris and I started our ride at Ayala Cove where our boat was moored, then took the Perimeter Road on the riders right, peddling our way counterclockwise around the 755 acre island. Although we were bummed that we couldn’t ride on the single track that we had hiked the day prior, we enjoyed sightseeing along the paved Perimeter Road that was a very easy, non technical ride with mind blowing views.
Our first stop along the way was to admire the beautiful and haunting brick hospital that was built in 1904 to treat ill or injured soldiers far away from the barracks to prevent the spread of disease. The building was heavily boarded up, keeping us out and perhaps whatever spirits were trapped inside.
Below the hospital is what is called West Garrison; the infantry camp that served as a depot for recruits, and as a staging area for troops serving in various bloody campaigns. By 1876, this busy camp had over 2,000 soldiers and complete military posts including a chapel, bakery, blacksmith, shoemaker, laundry, barber, trading store, and photographer.
The wide open downward facing slope with a tall brick building sitting at the bottom caught my attention, but what really stole the show was the restored officers building #10 which was a stunning Victorian that I would move into in a heartbeat — ghosts and all.
Below the home were identical white houses that were also officer quarters but showing their age through failing paint, wood rot, and termites.
At the base of the hill we inspected the large brick building, which we later learned was the orderly room, with broken windows and nothing but darkness inside. Honestly, it made my skin crawl so we rode our bikes over to the small spit of beach right beneath one of the many batteries on the island. “Isn’t it crazy to think there was a cannon stationed here?” Chris asked, inspecting the area inside and out. The cannon would have been pointed directly where the Golden Gate now stands in all her glory, waiting to protect the bay from attack.
Having returned to sea level to investigate the orderly room, we had to bike back up the hill we rode down which was a pretty significant slope. As we continued along the Perimeter Trail we came across another battery on the westside where we stopped to rehydrate and listen to the tram tour that was passing by.
“Battery Ledyard was erected on the site of the old Point Knox Civil War battery, and armed with two five-inch rapid-fire guns. The battery was named on February 14th [Marissa’s birthday] 1902, after 1st Lt. August C. Ledyard, 6th U.S. Infantry, who was killed in action on the Philippine Islands on the 8th of December in 1899. Battery construction started and was completed in 1900. The battery was transferred to the Coastal Artillery for use on August 1st, 1900 at a cost of $20,044.58. The site was deactivated in 1915 when the guns and carriages were removed.” (Military Museum)
As we rounded the island we finally arrived at the infamous Immigration Station, where we locked our bikes up outside the gate (since bikes were not allowed) and walked in quietly to not disturb the deer that feasted on shrubbery nearby. The fire in 1940 may have burned down the administration building, but there is still 14.3 acres to explore including the beach, outdoor exhibits, and the two museums at the site; the barracks and hospital.
The barracks and mess hall museum is where visitors can learn about the history of immigrant detention and exclusion by walking through recreated living conditions for the 300,000+ detainees that were held for weeks, months, and sometimes years on Angel Island.
Unfortunately, this museum was by admission only and we had biked without our wallets – but you can take the virtual tour online for free!
Across from the barracks is the hospital building, which was restored in the early 2000’s when California voters approved a state bond measure of $15 million to rehabilitate the Immigration Station.
Chris and I thoroughly enjoyed touring the hospital museum, which was not only free but also vastly fascinating sharing the details of treatments, past medical practices and even how architecture played a role in wellness. In each ward, the walls were crowned by a coved ceiling which was thought to be beneficial for expelling disease from the rooms. Doctors believed that corners would decrease air circulation and harbor germs. In addition, each ward had nine foot windows to admit light for detainees as they recovered from treatments. A wonderful display was set up inside of one of the wards, showcasing the unique architecture and natural light with a view of the ocean.
Our bike ride continued along the east end of the island as we passed through Fort McDowell, also known as East Garrison, where a Detention Camp was established next to the quarry in 1899 to house returning troops who had been stricken with, or exposed to, contagious diseases including smallpox. In the summer of 1909, major construction began on what had been the site of the Discharge Camp and Fort McDowell expanded into a Recruit Depot. In just a few years, a 600-man barracks, a new Hospital, a Mess Hall, officers’ quarters, a guard house, and other buildings were constructed – and still (mostly) stand to this day, although many of the officers’ quarters are now occupied by park rangers.
Of course we had to stop and investigate the hospital that, unlike the freshly restored Immigration Station Hospital, had fallen into disrepair. Concrete crumbled all around with ivy crawling up the open windows and doorways as light flooded the empty corridors.
Chris investigated one end while I carefully read the various graffiti left by those before us; some chillingly poetic and others as basic as “Redrum.” There is not much left of this historic site: just corroded pipes and vents, a defunct heater, and remains of porcelain sinks and toilets. The stair have been removed for safety, and as you look up the stairwell there is no doubt why — let’s just say we were glad to still be wearing our helmets! The building has a discombobulating atmosphere that is not entirely friendly nor scary … if only the walls could talk I’m sure they would tell tales of tragedy that would even make Stephen King shiver.
Wrapping up our tour
“Not another hill” I gasped as my gears shifted rapidly. The chilling hospital and East Garrison was behind us as we came back around to “our” side of the Island. It was about there we peddled up to the dirt Fire Road Loop that encircles the island a few hundred feet above the paved road to remember what dirt felt like under our tires, then dipped back down to the Perimeter Road where we had started our day in Ayala Cove.
Although considered the “less famous” Alcatraz, Angel Island’s great trails, historical buildings and diverse recreational opportunities make the island an underrated gem in the midst of San Francisco’s urban landscape. This location exceeded both of our expectations. Its carefully curated interpretation signs made our self-guided tours a breeze and inspired us to dig deeper to uncover other stories about time long ago on the mysterious island.
Although the ride around the island doesn’t hold much pure biking appeal, especially since they cater to the lowest level of biker, the stellar scenery and historical attractions make it absolutely worth it. If you ever have the opportunity to visit Angel Island for a day trip, boat trip or even camping trip we cannot recommend it enough! Just be sure to bring a good pair of shoes, sunscreen, water and the excitement to learn something new – we promise you will not be disappointed. Happy biking!
Marissa lives aboard her Cheoy Lee 41′, Avocet, with her husband Chris and cat Cleo. The couple have been refitting the boat since 2018 and recently cast off for cruising life. You can follow their adventures on their website www.svavocet.com or their YouTube Channel Sailing Avocet. For more information on Angel Island, visit www.angelisland.com