Pros: views, convenience, interesting activities
Cons: fog, wind, buoy noise
Angel Island is a fantastic camping destination. It easily ranks in the top 10 most scenic campgrounds I've ever camped at. If it weren't for one serious defect, I'd rank this one of the best camping destinations I've been to.
Getting There. Ferries service Angel Island from Tiburon, San Francisco and Alameda. The Tiburon ferries operate frequently, but Tiburon isn't convenient unless you live in Marin. We took the Blue and Gold Ferry from Pier 41, which only operates a few times a day during the week. We took the 1:05 pm ferry to the island (which stopped in Tiburon along the way) and the 1:45 ferry back the next day, giving us about 24 hours on the island.
As an integral part of our adventure, we took mass transit almost the whole way: Caltrain from Mountain View to Millbrae (we drove to the Mountain View train station), BART from Millbrae to Embarcadero station, the electric streetcar from Embarcadero to Pier 39, the boat from Pier 41 to Ayala Cove, and then a hike from the cove to our campground. The mass transit added a couple hours of extra travel time, but the multiple transportation modes was exciting to my son, more earth-friendly, cheaper than driving plus parking, and didn't involve us leaving a car overnight in a San Francisco parking garage.
The Campground. We camped at East Bay #3. This site was huge and fairly well set-off from the other two East Bay sites. We didn't hear our neighboring campers or see them except at the water spigot (although we could hear some shouting from the workcamp at the Immigration Station). The East Bay sites are much more private than the Sunrise sites, which have effectively no visual or aural privacy from each other. Both the East Bay and Sunrise sites have favorable microclimates compared to the Ridge campsites on the island's southwest side. By being on the island's east side, they are shielded from the fog pouring in from the west. Indeed, our tent's rain-fly was barely wet in the morning. The mountain ridge also blocks some of the wind, but we did get a little wind.
When the fog lifts, the Ridge sites have jaw-dropping views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate. However, in summer, the fog rarely lifts for very long In contrast, our campsite had fantastic mostly fog-free 180 degree views of the East Bay from Richmond to Oakland. Among other points of interest, the shipping lanes run along the island's east side, so we watched ship after ship trundle past. At sunset, I watched the fog roll through the Golden Gate and across the bay, hit the East Bay hills, and spread progressively further north. I could have spent hours just watching the fog, the ships and the sunset. It was amazing.
The campsite required about a 45 minute hike from Ayala Cove. It wasn't very steep or arduous, but we had packed light. The campsites have a water spigot for fresh water, so you don't need to pack water. The campground has an outhouse. Our campsite also had a picnic table and food locker.
The campsite, including the reservation fee, cost less than $40/night. If you want a comparable view of the Bay at a hotel, expect to pay many hundreds of dollars a night. Camping on Angel Island is unquestionably one of the best bargains in the Bay Area. Even better, because we were willing to go mid-week, we had no problem getting a prime campsite with about 10 days advance notice. Weekend reservations will require more advance planning.
Now, about the major downside. From East Bay #3, we could hear a buoy warning signal going 24/7. It wasn't very loud, but I'm sensitive to those kinds of noises. Then, as the fog deepened through the night, other foghorns turned on. By pre-dawn, 3 or 4 different foghorns were going simultaneously along with the buoy warning, each with their own sound and cadence. It was like a discordant symphony--beautiful in a way, but not very peaceful. I take melatonin when I camp to help get some sleep, so I ended up doing OK overall; and my son slept through it all. If you can sleep with earplugs, bring those.
What to Do. Angel Island activities mostly relate to nature, military or immigration.
For nature, you can hike or bike around the island and to the top of Mt. Livermore. We did both. Mt. Livermore offers 360-degree views of the San Francisco Bay, but the view depends heavily on the fog situation. For the best views, go on a clear winter or spring day. In summer, it's highly likely that some of the iconic sights--such as the Golden Gate Bridge or downtown San Francisco--will be partially or wholly obscured in the fog. The good news is that the fog is aesthetically pleasing itself...so long as it's not on top of you! The loop around the island offers constant beautiful views with the same fog caveat.
For military history, Angel Island is remarkable. I was blown away by Ft. McDowell (on the east side) and Camp Reynolds (on the west side). They are exceptionally well-preserved ghost towns with interesting ruins set among beautiful views. I could have spent more time poking around Ft. McDowell, where visitors have effectively unrestricted access to most of the abandoned buildings (be safe, but many of the buildings still look very sturdy). Camp Reynolds has a totally different feel, and it was instantly obvious that it was from a different military era. I didn't get much out of the batteries and Nike missile installations, but they are an important part of Angel Island's military history as well.
For immigration, the immigration station has been nicely restored. Unfortunately, we missed the guided tour, but we still enjoyed taking the self-tour and inspecting the remaining buildings. I include the quarantine station at Ayala Cove in the immigration category; and while it's less interesting than the immigration station, it's a nice complementary destination.
It's hard to see all of the sites during a single day trip to Angel Island, even if you catch the first boat in and leave on the last boat out. Overnighting on the island left us with the perfect amount of time to do everything. I would have enjoyed another night on the island (except for the foghorns) but only to watch the fog and the ships; we saw virtually everything else we wanted to see.
On a day trip, you might choose to take the tram ride around the island with its pre-recorded instructions or rent a Segway or bikes. If you're a Bay Area local, bring your own bikes on the ferry if you don't want to hike.