Berkeley Art and Interreligious Pilgrimage Project

Angel Island Pilgrimage: A Reflection on Roots, Migration, Detention, & Border Control

Angel Island Pilgrimage

By Kenneth Schoon

Sometimes called the “Ellis Island of the West,” Angel Island was the first stop for hundreds of thousands of immigrants seeking entry into the United States between 1910 and 1940. Yet unlike Ellis Island, however, where during its prime years of operation only a small percentage of immigrants were detained or turned away, from the beginning many prospective immigrants were held for days, weeks, or months at the Angel Island Immigration Station, and many were deported back to their homelands. Whereas most immigrants who passed through Ellis Island came from Europe during the decades when European immigration was largely unregulated, most at Angel Island came from China, Japan, Korea, India, Mexico, and other nations that U.S. immigration law targeted with heavy restrictions.

This pilgrimage to Angel Island is intended to offer a spiritual journey of connection with past generations of immigrants to the United States. By revisiting the past, it attempts to transform understandings of the present in order to build a future where historical wrongs are repaired, trauma is healed, and people may be reconciled with one another.


Angel Island may be reached by ferry from San Francisco (Ferry Building Gate B) or Tiburon (call ahead for wheelchair accessibility). Once on the island, this pilgrimage occurs in two parts: 1) the core visit to the Angel Island Immigration Station, and 2) an optional hike to the summit of the island.

Part I: The most direct route to the Immigration Station is about 1 mile one-way and involves climbing 144 stairs. Most of the walk is paved, but the path from the ferry dock to the stairs is dirt. A slightly longer, 1.5-mile paved, accessible route avoids the stairs and dirt path. Alternatively, during the summer tourist season, bike rentals and round-trip shuttle tickets may be available at the ferry dock. Confirm with the Angel Island Company ( for up-to-date information, pricing, or if you will be using a wheelchair or require boarding assistance. Many park facilities, including those at the Immigration Station, are ADA accessible. California State Parks strongly recommends that persons with limited mobility call the main park line ahead of their visit at (415) 435-5390. 

Taken on its own, this part of the pilgrimage is 2.2 miles round-trip. Allow 3 to 3.5 hours start-to-finish from the time you arrive on the island.

Part II: This optional extension of the pilgrimage allows the pilgrim to see more of the island and to spend more time reflecting on the visit to the Immigration Station. From the Immigration Station the hike to the summit of the island and back to the ferry dock is almost 4 miles and ascends roughly 785 ft. Much of this route follows a narrow, dirt path. It is moderately challenging and should only be attempted by experienced hikers in good physical shape. This portion of the pilgrimage may also be completed virtually (see below). 

Taken together, Parts I & II of this pilgrimage amount to a five-mile journey. Allow at least five hours to complete the whole trek from the time you arrive on the island.


This pilgrimage entails moderate physical exertion (for both the shorter and longer options) and wrestling with potentially difficult questions and emotions. It is very important that you care for your physical, emotional, and spiritual health before, during, and after the pilgrimage.

A few sections of the route, primarily although not exclusively on the extended hike, are exposed to the sun with little shade. It is not recommended to attempt this pilgrimage in excessive heat. If you are unable to make the physical journey, this guide may also serve as an aid for virtual pilgrimage. The entire route is traceable on Google Street View, and you may tour some of the rooms in the detention barracks here and see some of the exhibits in the Immigration Museum here.

The day before your journey, begin packing anything that you plan to bring with you. Bring cash for the ferry ticket (if not purchased online), admission to the detention barracks ($5 self-guided / $7 guided tour), and for food, bike rentals, or shuttle transportation purchased on the island. Prepare to wear a good pair of hiking shoes, seasonally appropriate outdoor attire, sunscreen, and a hat. Bring snacks, plenty of water, and pack a lunch.

Think about your motivation for making this journey. Perhaps you have an ancestor who was held on Angel Island before being admitted to the United States. By taking this pilgrimage, you are keeping their memory alive and allowing their journey and struggle to shape your understanding of who you are today. Perhaps you do not have an ancestor who came through here, but you feel a connection to this place due to its prominent role in Asian American history and in the history of immigration to the U.S. Perhaps you are taking this pilgrimage because you have a more recent relationship with immigrant exclusion and detention. Consider prayer or mediation to prepare and center your spirit, and get a good night’s sleep so you can be fully present for this journey.

Plan to take the first ferry to the island in the morning. Make note of the return schedule, or take a screenshot of it on your phone. The ferry schedule is limited, so you must allow enough time to complete this pilgrimage before the last ferry returns to the mainland. Do not miss the last ferry!!

The Pilgrimage: Part 1

As soon as you board the ferry and depart the mainland, you have already begun your pilgrimage. Take some time to walk the deck and soak in the beauty of San Francisco Bay. This passage across the open water marks a liminal time and space in which you are separating from your habitual life on the mainland in anticipation of an extraordinary experience to come. Allow yourself to be transported in time and space, leaving behind the busy-ness of contemporary urban life. Immerse yourself in the natural world and embrace this opportunity to revisit history, to examine your own narratives, and to consider how the past has shaped the present and your place in it.

If you are coming from San Francisco, take in the views of Alcatraz Island and ponder how its past use as a federal prison compares with Angel Island’s uses as an immigrant detention center, quarantine station, and, briefly, a WWII Japanese American internment camp. Held in federal custody on these isolated islands in the 20th century were those whom the U.S. government, supported by much of the American public, viewed as threats or potential threats to the nation. Those imprisoned or detained on these islands lived in a liminal or marginal position without the legal rights and privileges of residents and citizens on the mainland. Separated from their loved ones, deprived of their freedom, some living betwixt and between their homelands and a hoped-for new life in an unfamiliar world, many had no idea if and when they would be released. Consider how the liminal space you inhabit on this voluntary pilgrimage contrasts with the liminal status of the people who were held on these islands against their will.

As Angel Island comes closer into view, think about some of the people who arrived on this island by boat before you. The Coast Miwok who made their home here. The Spanish soldiers who mapped, colonized, and claimed the region as part of New Spain. The ranchers granted title to the island by the newly independent government of Mexico. The U.S. soldiers who used the island as a garrison in their conquest of what become the American West. And, of course, half a million prospective immigrants from China, Japan, Korea, India, Russia, Mexico, the Philippines, and other nations who sought to enter the United States between 1910 and 1940.

When you depart the ferry, take the trail on your left up the stairs to the main road, turn left, and follow the road until you reach the gate to the immigration station (1.1 mi one-way). Alternatively, follow the road to your right up the hill until it ends at a T-intersection, turn left, and follow the road to the immigration station (1.5 mi one-way). If you are not proceeding with Part II of this pilgrimage you may rent a bike or reserve a round-trip shuttle to reach the immigration station (call ahead to ensure availability).


As you head to the immigration station, remind yourself why you are undertaking this journey today. When you reach the Immigration Station, head down the path from the gate and proceed to the large bell at the bottom of the hill. Tour the outdoor exhibits first before continuing on to the main tour of the detention barracks. Spend ample time reading the Chinese poetry etched into the walls by migrants who were detained here. You may also take photos of the poems and their translations to read later over lunch. When you are finished with the tour, you may visit the Angel Island Immigration Museum on your own. Allow 2 to 2.5 hours to visit the site and eat your packed lunch.

As you tour the exhibits and have lunch, give yourself permission to feel whatever comes up as you digest all that you have seen today.

Reflect further on how your story intersects with the stories that are present on this site. Are you remembering an ancestor or another figure who has impacted you on your pilgrimage today, and if so, were the outlines of their story told through the interpretation offered here? How do some of the other stories told here intersect with, depart from, and inform your own story?

If you are not Indigenous to this land, what migration journeys are responsible for bringing you or your ancestors here? Were you or your ancestors seeking opportunity, fleeing danger, or brought against their will? Was your/their migration journey difficult? Did someone have to lie about their identity or status, as did many immigrants at Angel Island, to skirt immigration restrictions and gain entry to the United States? How was your/their experience shaped by race, gender, ethnicity, or national origin? What broader cultural, economic, and political forces shaped your/their journey and experiences?

Remember the poems that you read today. Consider how they give expression to hardship and pain, how they give agency to those who were otherwise denied it, and how they transform the feeling and the meaning of visiting the detention barracks today. Reflect on the fact that, before the poems were rediscovered, the barracks were scheduled to be torn down. Why were these poems, and the stories they contain, nearly forgotten? Can art and pilgrimage help reclaim sites of injustice and trauma as sites of remembrance and healing? 

Although this site is primarily focused on the discrimination and hardship immigrants experienced as they attempted to enter the United States, their troubles did not end if and when they were admitted to the mainland. Immigrants who came through Angel Island faced prejudice, hostility, and violence after they had made new lives in the United States, as did many of their American-born children whose national allegiance was called into question solely on the basis of race and ethnicity. When the Immigration Station closed, it played another, shameful role in the history of U.S. anti-Asian racism when it served as a holding facility for World War II Japanese American internees, who were then relocated to other prison camps for the duration of the war. In what other ways does Angel Island connect to the larger story of nativism, racism, and xenophobia in the United States? How is this story playing out today?

Remember the poems that you read today. Consider how they give expression to hardship and pain, how they give agency to those who were otherwise denied it, and how they transform the feeling and the meaning of visiting the detention barracks today. Reflect on the fact that, before the poems were rediscovered, the barracks were scheduled to be torn down. Why were these poems, and the stories they contain, nearly forgotten? Can art and pilgrimage help reclaim sites of injustice and trauma as sites of remembrance and healing?  

As you reflect, if you are taking this pilgrimage virtually or have access to the internet, you are invited to listen to singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Kishi Bashi’s album Omoiyari, which was inspired by his visit to Japanese American internment camps as part of his search to understand this history and its relevance today. You may continue to listen as you move onward through the rest of the pilgrimage.

If you plan to continue this pilgrimage through Part II, please allow at least two hours before your ferry is scheduled to depart. You are responsible for keeping your eye on the time and arriving at the ferry dock at least 15 minutes prior to departure. Turn around if you are unsure if you have the time or ability to complete the hike.

If you do not plan to proceed with Part II, you may return to the ferry dock the same way you came.

The Pilgrimage: Part II

When you are finished at the Immigration Station, walk back up to the main perimeter road. Turn left, walk a short distance up the hill, and then head up the service road that runs between the two buildings on your right. Follow the road until it ends at a Y-intersection. Continue on the left fork, following the signs to Mt. Livermore. Continue past the campsites on your left until the trail ends at the junction with the Ida Trail (there is no sign, but it will be obvious when you are there). Turn right. At the next junction, turn right and follow the sign to Mt. Livermore along the narrow North Ridge Trail.

On a good day, enjoy the increasingly scenic views of the East Bay and the Bay Bridge. The complex visible below you on the island is Fort McDowell. 

At the next fork, keep left, following the sign to Mt. Livermore. Soon, you will reach the summit of the island.

Once you reach the summit, take in the panoramic views of San Francisco Bay. Identify the Golden Gate Bridge, downtown San Francisco, the Bay Bridge, Oakland, Berkeley, and the North Bay.

Nearly 8 million people live in this metropolis that borders the bay. Consider the physical and the human infrastructure needed to support this population. Who built these roads, bridges, commercial high-rises, apartments, and homes? Whose essential labor (as revealed during the pandemic) ensures that food makes the journey from farm to table? Who earns a minimum wage staffing the region’s kitchens, keeping its stores open, and cleaning its hospitals and workplaces? How many of these essential workers are immigrants? How many of them have legal status?

How many workers and leaders in the city’s other vital and essential sectors—healthcare, education, and technology—are immigrants? How does U.S. immigration policy treat immigrants differently based on their educational status, skills, wealth, or place of origin? 

Notice the barge traffic coming and going through the Golden Gate. Think about all of the goods coming and going through the commercial ports of the Bay Area—goods imported from across the Pacific Ocean and goods exported from the United States. Why is it that we live in a world that seeks to increase the flow of goods but restrict the flow of people across national borders?

Looking south towards San Francisco, identify Alcatraz Island. Looking north, identify the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. Just out of sight lie San Quentin State Prison and the West County Detention Center (Richmond). Think about the infrastructure of borders, prisons, and detention centers used to enforce immigration laws and other laws in the United States. What communities are disproportionately targeted by the legal, law enforcement, and criminal justice systems in the United States, and why? 

Take a few moments to ponder these questions, then continue down the trail from the peak. Please note that this short, steep section of trail is not marked on official park maps, although it is marked on Google and photographed on Street View. Proceed at your own risk and be careful not to slip. If you are not comfortable taking this section of trail, you may return the other direction following the North Ridge Trail all the way back to the ferry (it is 2.1 miles either way).

As you descend, observe the flora and fauna of the island.

The natural world, as well as the built environment, tells the history of this land and the people who have inhabited it. The island has long been shaped by human hands. The Coast Miwok who called this island home hunted and fished here, and they tended the landscape through controlled burns that prevented the kind of catastrophic wildfires that are a threat today. 

Colonization, beginning with the arrival of Spanish soldiers and settlers and the establishment of the mission system, changed Indigenous society and this landscape irrevocably. When Mexican authorities inherited Spain’s claim to the region, they gave title to the island to cattle ranchers. Cattle grazing and the planting of European grasses (annuals) led to the extinction of the drought-resistant perennial grasses native to the island. The U.S. Army, establishing operations here after taking the land from Mexico, planted non-native shade trees. Today, the flora of Angel Island remains a mix of native and non-native species.

Can you identify species that are native to the island (oaks, madrones, many wildflowers) and those that were introduced through colonization (eucalyptus, mustard plants, Monterey pines)? You may download a plant-identification app on your phone to help with this exercise. 

As past generations of immigrants have established themselves in the United States, some immigrants and their descendants have embraced dominant narratives that the U.S. is a nation founded in meritocracy and social progress. These narratives often minimize the ongoing harms of racism and xenophobia that many immigrants of color and their descendants face while dismissing those whose historical narratives are not of voluntary migration to the United States. How is immigration intertwined with the legacies of Indigenous dispossession and African slavery in the United States? What responsibility do immigrants and their descendants have in understanding this history? Can remembering the history of racial discrimination and xenophobia faced by immigrants on Angel Island serve as a foundation for building solidarity between the descendants of immigrants and those whose historical narratives feature stories of racism and discrimination—but not immigration?

How are Black and Indigenous communities leading conversations around reparations, healing from historical trauma, and environmental justice? What can immigrants and their descendants learn from these conversations? How can they support these conversations, and what can they add to them?

When you reach the bottom of the trail, you will find yourself at the intersection of the perimeter road and the road that returns to the ferry dock. Follow the signs down to the ferry dock.

As you reach Ayala Cove, the building to your left features exhibits chronicling the island’s history as a U.S. Quarantine Station. Consider how legitimate public health concerns have also been used as an excuse to keep unwanted immigrants out of the United States (a situation that continues as of this writing under Title 42). Explore the exhibits if you have time before your shuttle departure.

The Return Home:

As you board your ferry home, consider how this pilgrimage has revealed links between past and present. How has your family history shaped your life experience? How has U.S. history shaped your experience and that of your ancestors? How is your story linked to the stories you have heard today on Angel Island?

Think about the privilege you have in being able to return to the mainland, while many prospective immigrants—one-third of those who arrived at Angel Island—were deported back to their countries of origin after days, weeks, months, or (in a few cases) even years of detention. Reflect on how the various exclusion acts targeting immigrants from the continent of Asia during the time of Angel Island’s operation have served as precedents for more recent and contemporary exclusionary policies, including the ban on asylum seekers and the “Muslim Ban.” Contemplate how Angel Island is a precursor to the kind of immigrant detention facilities found today throughout the United States and along the Mexican border.

Are there any individual or collective actions you may take to advocate for immigrants in detention today? If you belong to a local faith community and/or a larger religious denomination, are they active in supporting immigrants’ rights? Where else do you see people working to ensure that the history of nativism, racism, and immigrant exclusion in the United States is not repeated today? What is your capacity for helping such efforts, and what gifts and strengths do you have to offer?

Allow yourself to wrestle with these questions rather than seeking easy answers. Consider prayer, meditation, or other forms of discernment to guide your actions and commitments moving forward. This pilgrimage is meant as an opportunity for transformation, a process that will continue as you incorporate what you have experienced today into your day-to-day living.   

Acknowledgements and Resources:

This pilgrimage follows in the tradition of post-colonial pilgrimage practiced by the Japanese American community at Manzanar and taught through GTU and PANA courses by Ken Butigan, PhD; Joanne Doi, MM, PhD; and the Rev. Deborah Lee.

The Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity has led pilgrimages to Angel Island and connects its history with their advocacy for those in immigrant detention today. Read about their recent Pilgrimage for a Better Future and check out their resource guide for ways that individuals, congregations, and school communities can take action.

Read or listen to artist Kishi Bashi speak about his album Omoiyari, its inspiration, and its meaning for life in the United States today. 

For more on Angel Island’s history and for up-to-date visitor information, visit the state park website and the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation.

My special appreciation and thanks to the Rev. Deborah Lee and Dr. Kathryn Barush for their feedback on this pilgrimage guide, and to Dr. Barush for introducing me to Omoiyari.

The photographs above are used with permission from George Han.