Camping in the Middle of Somewhere

San Francisco Bay is dotted with islands. One of them, Angel Island, is a state park with camping facilities. The only way to reach Angel Island is by ferry and the campsites are a mile or more hike from the ferry landing, making it a backpacking adventure. The campsites are basic — there’s water, an outhouse, a picnic table, and a bear safe (for raccoons, since there are no bears on the island) — but no cabins or indoor plumbing.

It’s like a lot of backpacking camping locations across the country: you’re surrounded by trees and wildlife and can see some awesome views. Except that the view includes San Francisco and the other cities that line the bay.

Angel Island campsite

Fog rolling across Oakland and Berkeley, as seen from a campsite on Angel Island

Depending on the fog and our location on the island (which isn’t very large, so we walked all around it), we could see the Golden Gate, downtown San Francisco, the Bay Bridge, Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond, the San Rafael Bridge, Tiburon, Sausalito, and a number of smaller cities, all while walking in the woods.

SF in fog

This isn’t bad photography; it’s fog over downtown San Francisco as seen from Angel Island.

And we got there via public transportation: BART and the ferry, plus a little walking. We felt like we were in the middle of nowhere, but instead we were surround by one of the largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. Weird, but charming.

Angel Island is also a microcosm of U.S. history. The Spanish landed on it in 1775 when they discovered San Francisco Bay. It quickly became a cattle ranch, which did a lot of damage to native vegetation. Then in 1863, the U.S. Army built its first base there to protect San Francisco from attack by the Confederate Navy. (I have my doubts as to how much threat the Confederate Navy posed to the West Coast, given that they would have had to go around Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America to get there, but I suppose the part of the Army stationed on the West Coast during the Civil War needed something to do.) It had various military bases — including Nike missile sites — until 1963 (when it became a state park), and also served as an immigration station.

This history is documented by a number of buildings on the island, some of which are still in use as housing for park rangers, but most of which are falling down.


One of two former Army hospitals on Angel Island


For the last 50 years, the California Department of Parks and Recreation has operated the island and nature is making a comeback.


I liked the way the sun hit the hole in this tree.


It occurs to me that I’ve done a lot of posts lately that could be titled “What I Did on My Summer Vacation.” While I have been out visiting national and state parks more frequently of late, I suspect the real reason I’m doing these posts is that I finally broke down and got a good smart phone, meaning I actually have a camera handy when I see something I want a snapshot of.

But let me exhort you all once again to get out and enjoy the natural beauty around you. National and state parks are one of our best resources here in the U.S. Go visit them. And don’t forget to write your members of Congress and state legislators to encourage them to keep the funding coming. We can’t all live out in the country — city life is much more practical for most people — but we can all enjoy our parks.



Camping in the Middle of Somewhere — 11 Comments

  1. Beautiful photos! The geography in and around tectonic zones is so beautiful and fascinating.

  2. Thanks Nancy for the pick-me-up on a Thursday morning. One of the things I love about the bay area is that it has some of the most awe-inspiring landscape tucked into a huge cityscape. Very cool.

    As for Angel Island, it looks like a great place to camp. I’m also interested in its role as the Ellis Island of the west where Chinese immigrants were detained:

    • Yes, that’s pretty fascinating, though depressing, too.

      What intrigues me the most is that for 100 years, the US government used Angel Island for military and immigration activities, but although they built some impressive buildings, none of them seem to have been used for very long — 20 or 30 years, as a rule. Looking at the decaying buildings, many less than 100 years old, makes me think that a lot of these projects were not well thought out. And, of course, pretty much everything to do with US immigration policy has not been well thought out. Angel Island provides one bit of historical background; Ellis Island another. And today you can see similar issues along the Mexican border, with the huge border patrol presence and the prisons set up for holding “illegal” immigrants.

  3. My parents came to the US from China through San Francisco. I don’t believe however that the Angel Island facility was in use in the late 40s. I think they just came in through the city. It was sufficiently important in my father’s life that he has decreed that his ashes are going to be scattered under the Golden Gate bridge.

    • Looking at the history on the state park website, I believe the quarantine station was no longer in use by that time. If your father had been forced to stay on that island for a length of time for no real reason except to discourage immigrants — I’m sure there were some legit reasons for quarantine but I’m also sure that the facility was used for less savory reasons — he might not feel so sentimental about the Golden Gate.

  4. When Rudyard Kipling came to SF in the late 1800s – from China and en route to the UK – he observed (with satisfaction, one suspects) that the military defences on what was being touted as the finest natural harbour in the world could be overcome “by a couple of gunboats from Hong Kong,” should the occasion arise. He spoke of “a blockhouse on the point,” but he may have had Angel Island in mind also.

    • Maybe he came on a rare sunny day. I think the fog is a natural defense. The Spanish didn’t find SF Bay from the ocean until 1775, when they landed on Angel Island. They had been in California for quite some time by then, but the bay was hard to find, even though it’s a fine harbor.

  5. Thousands of immigrants came through Angel Island, though I can’t remember exactly when they stopped using it. I do remember that there were those unlucky [for the most part]men who spent many months there, within sight of San Francisco, yet out of reach… If there was any hint that one was ill or infirm (whether they were or not), the stay could be interminable, made worse by the lack of real modern medical facilities. One of the pluses/minuses of the 1906 Earthquake and Fire was that records in the City were all burnt to a crisp, allowing many to quickly claim US citizenship.

  6. I’ve held a decade long dream of camping on Angel Island, and this is living within an hour’s drive from San Francisco. Your pictures and post re-awakened the yearning to do so.

    Thanks for sharing!