San Francisco Area Hikes
Angel Island is a perfect day trip, where the journey to the trailhead rivals the hike for sheer relaxation and beauty. Since you can only reach Angel Island by boat, sit back and enjoy the ferry ride, then climb to the top of the island and back, with incredible 360-degree views nearly the entire trip. Just keep an eye on the clock to make sure you catch that last ferry.
If you start a journey to Angel Island from a location served by BART or Muni trains, it makes perfect sense to take public transportation to the ferry landing at San Francisco's Pier 41. Take BART or Muni to the Embarcadero station, come above ground and transfer to the F line (on the Embarcadero across from the Ferry Building), and proceed west to the Fisherman's Wharf stop. Ferries to Angel Island also depart from Tiburon and Alameda. If you want to drive, the easiest and most direct route to Fisherman's Wharf from the Bay Bridge is via the Embarcadero. From the Golden Gate Bridge, take Lombard to Van Ness to North Point, then park in one of the parking garages at Fisherman's Wharf.
San Francisco Bay's largest island, rising out of the water between Marin and San Francisco, has served as a cattle ranch, military base, quarantine station, immigration facility, prisoner-of-war detention center, and Nike missile site. When the federal government abandoned the island in the late 1940s, it became part of the state park system, although missile sites operated until 1962. Years of restoration, the elimination of planted non-native vegetation, and the passage of time have allowed coast live oak woods and grassy hills to make a comeback. Park staff have returned the island's highest peak, Mount Livermore, to its original state by restoring acres of dirt pushed off the summit by the military. With about 20 feet added back to Mount Livermore's summit, the hill is a peak again, and native vegetation has been reintroduced.
Angel Island offers two main hikes: a nearly level 5-mile circuit around the island on a fire road, and this loop, a combination of Northridge and Sunset trails, with a short out-and-back spur to the summit. The park is busy during tourist season, but when I visited with a friend in early summer, we disembarked from a nearly full ferry, then watched as the crowds made a beeline for the visitor center. On the trails, we crossed paths with only a dozen other hikerstrails are even quieter in winter, when clear days promise long views, and early spring, when the wildflower displays are legendary.
Begin from the ferry landing on the Northridge Trail, which sets off to the left (north) of the rest rooms. As it leaves the shoreline area, this footpath climbs through pine, toyon, and coast live oak, ascending some long, steep stairs past a few picnic tables, then reaches a cluster of eucalyptus and paved Perimeter Road at 0.1 mile. Continue on the far side of the pavement on the Northridge Trail, entering a more natural area where clarkia and Indian pink bloom in early summer, freckling patches of grass beneath coast live oak. The narrow path winds uphill through shaded woods of California bay and hazelnut. When the Northridge Trail emerges from the woods on the northernmost flank of the island, enjoy views north across Raccoon Strait to the Tiburon peninsula. Wind through a patch of manzanita charred by fire, where new shrubs are quickly reinvigorating the hillsides. At 0.9 miles, turn left onto a fire road for a few feet, then veer right, continuing on the Northridge Trail.
After one last foray through chaparral, the path, still ascending easily, takes a long tour through quiet woods of coast live oak, where you might also notice madrone, gooseberry, huge thickets of hazelnut, and poison oak. The Northridge Trail levels out as it reaches a grassy plateau dotted with coyote brush, home to iris, paintbrush, and zigadene blooming in spring; and coyote mint, venus thistle, and buckwheat flowering in summer. There are good views, west to Mount Tamalpais, and uphill to Mount Livermore's summit. Under a few pines at 1.8 miles, the Northridge Trail ends at a T junction. Turn right, following the sign to Mount Livermore.
At an easy-going rate, the trail climbs past coast live oak into grassland. You'll likely see butterflies, including California sister and a variety of swallowtails, fluttering about in summer, along with fast-moving swifts and more languid vultures and hawks riding the thermal air currents. After two bends in the trail, the path makes a final push to the summit, climbing through grassy slopes dotted with young coyote brush, reintroduced after the restoration of the peak. At 2.1 miles you'll reach the top of Mount Livermore, where views are simply incredible, and even in summer's haze include the Golden Gate Bridge stretching from San Francisco to Marin's rolling Headlands, Alcatraz Island, Mount Tamalpais, the downtown San Francisco skyline, Mount Diablo, Treasure Island, and the Bay Bridge. The picnic table and benches at the summit can be quite windy, but there are a few other sites, off the slopes of the peak, that are more sheltered. It can be tough to leave this idyllic setting, but remember that ferry schedule. Descend back to the previous junction, then continue straight on the Sunset Trail.
Dropping down onto the island's south slope, there are unobstructed views downhill to Point Blunt, an active Coast Guard station. This area is still scarred from development and restoration efforts, which have left some burned pines and a sense of disarray. The Sunset Trail crosses an old, closed road, and begins to angle across a hillside heading west. Bushes of sticky monkeyflower, coyote brush, poison oak, and sagebrush frame awesome views of the Golden Gate and the world's most famous span, with its distinctive "international orange" paint scheme so pretty against a clear blue sky. The Sunset Trail descends a ridge, offering splendid views of Sausalito, Belvedere Island, the Marin Headlands, and Mount Tam, then turns right into coast live oaks woods.
At one last little sunny viewpoint a bench invites a lingering break, and the trail then begins a campaign of switchbacks. Some shortcuts are worn into the hillside here, but please stay on the trail, which is well graded. Poison oak and Italian thistle crowd the trail in places in summer. At 3.5 miles veer right on a fire road for a few feet, then turn left back onto the Sunset Trail. Switchbacks continue, mostly through California bay and coast live oak woods. Just past a water tank and cluster of picnic tables, the trail bends left, runs along the road, then ends at 4.6 miles. Cross the road near a paved route descending to group picnic areas, then veer right, following the sign to the dock area.
This wide trail starts out paved but soon shifts to dirt. As you descend toward the visitor center, you might notice several non-native plants, including pride of madeira, a shrub with big purple flower spikes, and broom, a whispy bush that bears sweet-smelling pea-like blossoms. The trail turns sharply left, then ends at the side of the visitor center, where a grassy picnic area fronts the shoreline at Ayala Cove. Turn right and walk on a paved road the remaining distance back to the ferry landing.
If you'd like an extended Angel Island visit, you can stay overnight in one of nine primitive campsites, but you'll have to haul your gear about two miles from the ferry to the campsite. Visit www.angelisland.org for more information.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication