The Angelic Views
On Angel Island, you can take the high road or the low road — either way, you’ll have a bicycling experience unrivaled in the Bay Area.
Every bend reveals a sweeping view, starting with the sight of sailboats gently bobbing at the lovely landing cove.
The Angel’s cycling
Cycling from there, you’ll catch glimpses of Mount Tamalpais crouching over Marin County, the stunning Marin Headlands, the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco’s famously striking skyline, and the East Bay hills.
And then back around to Tiburon and Belvedere, whose residents look out from their hillside mansions on views that, sad to say for these wealthy folk, are far less encompassing than what you’ve just taken in.
Amplitudes and Magnitudes
Taking in views from low and high, the island on the paved Perimeter Road is closer to the shoreline as well as the upper Fire Road, a wide dirt avenue that rings the island a few hundred feet below Mount Livermore’s 788-foot summit.
The peak is named for Caroline Livermore, a Marin County conservationist who led the push to create the park in 1954.
Riders on skinnier tires will want to watch their velocity on the Fire Road for safety reasons.
The basic human decency suggests all riders should put aside the need for speed on these roads shared with hikers, walkers, and stroller-pushing families.
Heading counter-clockwise on the Perimeter Road, after a short jaunt up a connector from the ferry landing, you’ll encounter only a couple of moderate inclines between start and finish.
The smooth, wide road encourages leisurely cruising, with a premium on soaking up the vistas.
Fog shrouds the upper regions of Mount Tam and the tops of the Golden Gate Bridge and cut the Salesforce Tower in San Francisco down to a more decorous size.
The Dazzling Temperature
Overhead, the white, fleecy blanket dimmed a blazing summer sun and cooled the air to ideal-for-riding temperature.
At Marin with its gorgeous hills and ritzy residences, at the Golden Gate, suddenly revealed in its breathtaking splendor turn, at Alcatraz, the city, the other bridges, the sailboats leaned over on a white-capped bay.
During the occasional uphills, breezes kept sweating to a minimum but rarely gathered sufficient force for headwinds.
Moseying along the northern slopes in the dappled sunlight beneath the pines, oaks, bays and toyons, the spotted rattlesnake grass, orange sticky monkeyflower, and a great deal of poison oak beside the road.
History of the Angel Island
One of several sites on the island where 1,000 years or more ago, Miwok Indigenous people set up camps, gathered acorns and hunted deer, seals, otters, and ducks, and set out in reed boats to catch salmon in the Raccoon Strait.
The cove is named after Juan Manuel de Ayala, a Spanish naval officer who landed there in 1775 on a mission to map the San Francisco Bay.
Ayala, who let his shipboard priest name the island after angels, was a compatriot and contemporary of Father Junipero Serra, founder of the Catholic Church’s California mission system, who arrived in the Bay Area two years later and left a legacy of enslaving and abusing native peoples.
Ayala Cove also holds the four remaining buildings of 50 structures that originally made up the Quarantine Station.
Opened in 1892 to fumigate ships from foreign lands, the station detained immigrants suspected of carrying disease in 400-bed barracks.
Past and off-limits U.S. Coast Guard station at Point Stuart and before the turn-of-the-century gun-battery platforms that overlook the Golden Gate, the buildings of the U.S. Army’s Camp Reynolds remain well-preserved.
The Dark History Turn
This place seeps dark history: As a post-Civil War infantry camp, it served as an infantry staging area for bloody campaigns against the Modoc, Apache, Sioux, and other tribes.
Across the island, Fort McDowell also boasts a variety of historical structures, some refurbished and in use by the park, others succumbing to time and weather, roof tiles missing, paint peeling, and empty windows agape.
Completed in 1899 to serve as a quarantine station for U.S. troops potentially exposed to diseases during the Spanish-American War and Philippine Insurrection.
The fort became a processing center for hundreds of thousands of American soldiers heading out and coming home from fighting overseas through the 1930s.
Beside it runs a gorgeous stretch of beach.
Rounding Angel Island’s northeast tip, you’ll find the preserved U.S. Immigration Station, which a signboard note is often compared to Ellis Island but was not a place of welcome.
“It was used to keep immigrants, specifically those from China, out,” the sign reads.
“There are tens of thousands of poems on these walls,” one poem reads. “They are all cries of suffering and sadness.”
As disturbing as some of the island’s historical reminders maybe, what dominates here is the epic scenery.
Given the island’s proliferation of benches and picnic tables with panoramic views, adding a lunch stop to your Angel Island cycling adventure is highly recommended.
Or you can take advantage of the offerings at Ayala Cove’s small cafe, which provides, among other libations, the perfect cap to many a mountain bike ride: ice-cold beer.