08/07/2014 09:58 am ET Updated Oct 07, 2014

Missiles, Poetry, and Stunning Scenery: California's Angel Island State Park

Angel Island State Park is definitely a hidden gem in California. In fact, it's so hidden that it can only be reached by boat or ferry -- which means it's a peaceful getaway, right in the San Francisco Bay. From the top of the mountain, you can see all the way into Alcatraz Island, Sonoma, Napa and San Jose (on a clear day, of course)-- and you can imagine how gorgeous the view of the Golden Gate Bridge is. But there's a lot more to this little island escape than scenery -- it's got a fascinating (and sometimes sad) history. 

The island got its name from Spanish explorer Juan de Ayala in 1775, when he anchored his ship just off the island in a cove now known as Ayala's Cove. Its role in American history began during the Civil War, when the Union Army built naval batteries and a garrison on the island to ward off any potential Confederate attacks on San Francisco. After the war, the garrison came in handy during the government's campaigns against the Native Americans in the West.

The island also housed a quarantine station, a discharge depot for returning troops, and an immigration station known as the "Ellis Island of the West". The station, which operated from 1910 to 1940, when the administration building burned down, processed over 1 million immigrants, mostly from Asia. However, unlike the many European immigrants who came through Ellis Island with relatively few problems, thousands of hopeful American citizens who came through Angel Island had an incredibly difficult time making it through, thanks to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Some were sent back, while others spent months, even years, confined to the barracks at the station, waiting for approval to enter the country. In order to cope with the soul-crushing wait and uncertainty, some carved poetry into the walls of the barracks in their native languages. The immigration officials didn't take too kindly to this, and had the walls covered over with putty as many as seven times -- but each time the putty wore off, once again revealing the beautiful artwork and heartrending poetry, which visitors can still visit today.

In 1954, a Nike missile station was installed on the island. The top of Mount Caroline Livermore was chopped off and the associated radar and tracking station was installed there. In 1962, the missiles were removed and the military finally left the island for good -- and although the radar and tracking station was removed and the mountaintop was restored, the launchpad still remains. 

The island, with its rich history and natural beauty, is just waiting to be explored!

Angel Island State Park, Truly, a hidden gem...