49% FIRE ROAD51% PAVED
Angel Island is quite well situated as a tourist destination. Sitting almost in the "center" of San Francisco Bay, it features great across-the-water views of San Francisco, the Golden Gate, of a wide swath of the East Bay, and of Tiburon as well as of much of the rest of lower Marin County. Since tree cover on the island ranges between sparse and absent, these views are an almost constant accompaniment to whatever you choose to do on the island. Other than a few small patches of land set aside for the Coast Guard, the entire island is a state park, providing plenty of opportunities for picnicking, hiking, biking, and boating, as well as containing a number of points of interest for history buffs.
Among the things going on at Angel Island, mountain biking is not very high on the list. The place really only lends itself to the occasional casual ride by tourists. (I can't imagine anyone doing even a low-key, routine workout ride here either, since I don't expect anyone will be willing to bother with the ferry trip for a routine workout.) The main 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 in full) by 90% of all hikers and bikers who set foot on the island. If you don't count a couple of short connectors and spurs 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 on this page is an easy and non-technical ride with mind-blowing views that exhausts virtually all of the bike-legal trails on Angel Island. In terms of "scenery per unit amount of effort", this bike ride is easily number one in the whole Bay Area. The route does two "full-360" loops of the island, giving you views of all parts of the bay along the way.
This being an island, you need to take a ferry to get here. I would recommend taking the ferry from Tiburon. There is also one from San Francisco but it runs relatively infrequently. You can find the most up-to-date ferry schedule and fare information on the Angel Island Tiburon Ferry website.
If you'll be taking the ferry from Tiburon, as suggested, and driving to get there, you won't find any good free parking opportunities there, unfortunately. The Suggested Parking link on your left points out several parking lots, but you'll have to pay a fee to park in any one of them. The parking fee is based on duration (as opposed to being a flat rate) at most of these lots, if not all. Not only that, but at least at the Point Tiburon parking lot, only cash is accepted as a form of payment. I'm not sure if this is true of all of the other lots as well. Meanwhile, if you'll be setting out from San Francisco and can bike to Fisherman's Wharf, it wouldn't be a bad idea to bike your way to the ferry and eliminate parking considerations altogether.
The ride consists of one full loop of the Perimeter Road (6 miles), plus a full traversal of the shorter and higher fire-road loop (3 miles). The connection between the two loops is via a dirt road just under half a mile long with nearly 250 feet of elevation gain (which is the only part of the ride that is a "real" climb). Those who are not up for taking the second loop can easily bypass it and continue on to complete just the lower loop. Although the fire-road loop is, roughly speaking, flat on average; to anyone who is not in good biking shape, it's not without some short climbs that will feel like real work. So, I would actually recommend that groups with out-of-shape riders who are not regular bikers skip the fire-road loop. Meanwhile, the main paved loop has a few uphill segments too, but nothing too steep. The only one of these that could be significant arrives near the southeastern corner of the island (near Point Blunt) and it will be traversed in the comparatively easier direction if you do the main loop counter-clockwise, as suggested on this page.
Speaking of loop direction, you might notice that the upper fire-road loop is done in the direction opposite of the main loop on this particular ride. Regardless of whether you do the main loop clockwise or counter-clockwise, I would recommend that you do the fire-road loop in the opposite direction, because this will have you facing a different direction as you're passing through the same parts of the island a second time, presenting to you views that are somewhat different from the ones you enjoyed on your first loop.
The biking rules on the island are a little striking in how they seem to be geared toward the lowest possible level of biking skill. This is evident not only in the exclusion of bikes from all singletrack trails, but even more in the paranoid handling of even moderately steep slopes. The only descent on Perimeter Road that could qualify as "steep", near Point Blunt, actually has a "walk your bike" sign although its grade is merely -15%, which shouldn't be a problem even for most novices to coast down. There is also the driveway leading to Perimeter Road from Ayala Cove on whose moderate climb bikes are not allowed and riders are forced to take a longer bypass trail instead (which is actually a blessing, since this bike bypass is the only thing on this route that remotely approximates singletrack, at least for a very short distance).
Biking on Angel Island is just about as safe as it gets, because there is no public motor-vehicle traffic on the island. You still don't want to throw caution to the wind by letting the tricycle riders roam completely freely, though. There are some service vehicles that work on the island and that use Perimeter Road, as well as trams that give tours to visitors. They're not likely to be speeding past you like the wind, but it wouldn't be uncommon to encounter them.
Needless to say, there's not a drop of technical riding on this route. Even the upper fire-road loop can be done on townie bikes. The only point that I can imagine could be worth attention is the descent back down the connector path between the fire-road loop and Perimeter Road, where some gravelly patches can be loose enough to get inexperienced riders into trouble if they carry too much speed. That's about it.
While looking at the ride's stats to assess its difficulty (for inexperienced riders), it's worth keeping in mind that 300 feet of the total elevation gain is incurred by the two minor side visits that you can see along the route; one to Camp Reynolds and one to Fort McDowell. If you need to keep the ride at a more easy level, you can avoid that extra climbing as well as nearly one mile of riding distance by bypassing those. More crucially, skipping the upper fire-road loop will shorten the ride by another 4 miles or so and lop off over 350 more feet of elevation gain from the ride's total.
Having made a big deal about the great views available on this ride, I would be doing you a disservice if I didn't add a caveat about fog conditions. The Golden Gate and the areas of the bay including the location of Angel Island are some of the most fog-prone parts of the Bay Area due to the behavior of the marine layer. So, if you wake up on a sunny and bright morning somewhere, say, in the Peninsula and decide to head to Angel Island, it's entirely possible that you'll find just this portion of the bay under fog and cloud cover and staying that way throughout the day. This scenario is probably most likely during mid-summer, but it's possible throughtout the year. So, unless you have a surefire way of checking the existing conditions (by a webcam, perhaps), your best bet might be to plan your visit to coincide with the fall season, when the proportion of sunny days is statistically the highest.
Since the ride doesn't hold much pure biking appeal, the scenery and other attractions are what you'll be mainly getting out of riding on Angel Island. I've covered the great scenery already and, thankfully, there are a number of interesting attractions too. Having been in military use for a long while, the island features at least two abandoned military bases as well as a sprinkling of battery remnants and other facilities/equipment. There is one visitor center in Ayala Cove and another one in what used to be Fort McDowell, where you can find plenty of information on the island and its historic background. You'll also find interpretive panels generously sprinkled around the island, briefly explaining the nature of all major buildings and sites around the island as well as featuring fascinating historical photos. In addition, one big highlight of the island in its own right is the Immigration Station. In a nutshell, this is effectively "the Ellis Island of the West Coast". Today, it's a museum that is subject to a separate admission fee. Guided tours are also available. Those who decide to visit the Immigration Station as part of a bike ride will want to know that bikes aren't allowed on the museum grounds and need to be locked somewhere near the entrance to this fenced-in area (so, bring a lock) and that the museum closes at 3:00 PM. These and other details about the Immigration Station are available at the second link I've included in this paragraph.
One quite curious bit of trivia about Angel Island, in my opinion, is about its very peak. At one point, a Cold-War-era Nike missile site used to sit at the very top of the island and the peak area had been "shaved" in order to provide a flat surface on which to build this base. For quite some time after the dismantling of this missile site, the very peak of the island remained in this chopped-off and flattened state. However, in 2002, in an interesting bit of environmental restoration, the peak of the island was "re-sculpted" into its original shape, returning it to being the relatively pointy summit that we see today.
For some food or drinks after (or before) the ride, there is a snack bar ("The Cantina") in Ayala Cove, where this ride starts, and that's the only one on the island (as of the last time I've been there). However, it's not easy to tell when it will be open and when it will be closed. If I were you, I wouldn't make any plans that depend solely on eating there. If it's open, fine, but be prepared to have to find refreshments elsewhere after the ride, such as in the cute Tiburon town center after your return ride on the ferry (or in San Francisco, if that's where you originally embarked).
© Ergin Guney
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