Visiting Angel Island in San Francisco with Kids | Ciao Bambino!

Ellis Island of the West

Biking Angel Island. Photo Source Dana Rebmann

It’s amazing to me how easy it is to miss great travel opportunities in your own backyard. Last year, I spent a fair amount of time researching and preparing for a family trip to New York to climb the Statue of Liberty and visit Ellis Island. It was a fabulous trip. This summer, I discovered the “Ellis Island of the West” is about an hour from my front door. Who knew? The results, another fabulous trip, no plane tickets needed.

Angel Island State Park

Angel Island is the largest Island in San Francisco Bay and it has played a number of roles in it’s history. Thousands of years ago Coastal Miwok Indians used the island for hunting and fishing. Then Spanish explorer Lt. Juan Manuel de Ayala dropped anchor and created one of the first maps of San Francisco Bay. In the late 1800’s the military moved in, and in 1910 the Immigration Station opened it’s doors to nearly a million immigrants.

Private boats and ferries take visitors to Angel Island. Photo Source Dana Rebmann

Angel Island Ferry

You can’t get to Angel Island by car, it’s accessible only by private boat and ferries. Public ferries make numerous trips a day from San Francisco and other close- by ports. (Service is more limited during the winter. Check the ferry schedule when you’re making plans.) Relax and enjoy the million-dollar views as your ferry makes it way to Angel Island’s Ayala Cove. Most of the Island’s services are found here. You can talk to a park ranger, grab a map and even lunch if you need it.

If you haven’t already decided, now’s the time to figure out how you want to explore Angel Island. Tram tours will give you a good overview of Angel Island’s history, but expect to wait in line when you want to snap a shot of the perfect view. If you hike or walk you have 13 miles of trails and roadways to explore at your own pace.

Get Rolling

When my family invaded, we brought our bikes (just $1 extra on the ferry) and a great picnic lunch. In all, cyclists have access to nine miles of paved roadway. Perimeter Road offers a nice mostly-paved loop around the Island that’s about 5 miles, plenty for most families. There are a few short, but steep hills that your kids will most likely need to walk their bikes on. There is also one downhill section my 9-year-old daughter feared going too fast on, so we walked that as well, but overall it’s a family-friendly ride.

Along with passing endless panoramic views worthy of snapping a picture for your Christmas card, you’ll find that you ride through Angel Island’s history. There’s the brick hospital built in 1904 to care for sick and injured soldiers. The Batteries installed to defend the Bay, and the Nike Missile Site. Detailed placards make it easy to learn the history as you roll. Picnic tables are scattered along the way. You never know how early or how late the request for lunch will come.

U.S. Immigration station at Angel Island

Angel Island Tour of US Immigration Station

It’s easy to bike right by, but if you’ve got the time and your family’s got the energy, stop at the U.S. Immigration Station (USIS). The grounds are open to the public and fun to wander around with kids. There are placards and displays to give background and history, but if at all possible, take a guided tour so you can get inside the Immigration Station. The majority of tours are given during the summer, particularly on weekends, but you don’t need to make reservations. We rolled up just as a tour was about to begin, and jumped right in.

You’ll have to visit to truly understand and appreciate the history, but Angel Island essentially existed to enforce Asian exclusion laws. Chinese immigrants were interrogated and often detained while their applications to enter the U. S. were reviewed.Some immigrants stayed for weeks, some for months, a few stayed for almost two years.

The barracks have been restored to show what living at the Immigration Station was like. Photos, drawings and carvings are on display. But the most amazing things about the barracks are found on the walls. Hundreds of inscriptions or poems were carved into the walls by immigrants awaiting word on their future. Though mostly written in Chinese, almost a dozen different languages have been identified.Many of the poems refer to immigrants’ fears and hopes for the future.

The tour will take about an hour and costs $7 per person. My 11 year-old and 9 year-old only tired of it during the last 10 minutes or so — a success in my book. And once free of our volunteer tour guide (who was quite good) they lingered looking at pictures and various displays.

Time to Relax

After the tour we headed back toward Ayala Cove. We spent about an hour sitting on a small stretch of beach, with our toes in the sand, relaxing until our ferry ride home arrived.

Camping on Angel Island

I’m already planning another trip, this time to camp. While we were biking around Angel Island we checked out some of the camp sites. Stay tuned, I feel another adventure brewing.

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