Travels & Exploring

10 things to discover visiting Alcatraz Island

Approaching Alcatraz Island.

It was another beautiful day in San Francisco as I headed to Pier 33 at Fisherman’s Wharf to board the ferry to Alcatraz Island. I felt so grateful and happy to be in one of my favorite cities, enjoying great weather and exploring the areas.

I purchased my ticket the previous day so I lined up with hundreds of people for our time spot. I chatted with a couple from South Carolina, a woman from Florida and a group from France. So many nice people! Once on the ferry, we set off for the short (approximately 15 minutes) boat ride across the bay to the island. As you approach the island, there are large signs from when the island served as a federal prison. Now it is part of the National Park Service.

Upon leaving the ferry, all visitors are required to stop for a short talk by a park ranger. Basically you get a few facts about the island. brief layout of the island (you can purchase a map/info brochure for $1, which supports maintenance of the park), and ‘the rules’ – no drinking/eating, etc. Once that quick talk is over, you’re free to explore the prison and island.

A reminder of the island’s history

I really enjoyed visiting Alcatraz Island. I love learning about history and cultures, especially unique places, and this fit the bill. Here are some facts and thoughts from my visit to Alcatraz Island:

1 – While it’s probably most famous as a federal penitentiary, Alcatraz served several other purposes in its history. It was first used as a U.S. military site, with construction of a fort beginning in 1853. After its various uses by the military, the Department of Justice took over to convert it into a federal penitentiary from 1934 to 1963. After that, the island sat  vacant for several years. A group of Native American activists occupied Alcatraz in 1969, staying 19 months to raise awareness and support of issues and treatment by the government.

2 – Alcatraz Island became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 1972. It opened to the public in 1973 and now has an average of 5,000 visitors riding onthe ferry over and back each day. Alcatraz Cruises is the only ferry allowed by the NPS (for the duration of their contract).

I was told I looked too happy behind bars!

3 – The Alcatraz lighthouse was the first lighthouse on the Pacific Coast, a shining beacon since 1854. It still lights up today.

4 – Plan to spend a few hours exploring the island. The audio tour is free with your admission and I HIGHLY recommend doing this. It is approximately 45 minutes if you move nonstop through the oration; although I encourage you to pause it at times to marvel at the different perspectives and facts offered throughout the prison. The audio tour is very descriptive, telling you where to walk, when to stop, what to look at, imagine. It’s  available in multiple languages but the actual guard and prisoner recordings are only available in English. You really should hear these as it kind of brings home the atmosphere in the prison and experiences of these people.

Alcatraz cell

5 – Prison wardens, some guards and their families lived on the island while the prison was open. A recreation hall, with gym and bowling alley, was built on the island (it was destroyed in a 1970 fire that burned through several buildings). A market, school, post office and gardens were also located on the island for the families.

6 – There were no female prisoners nor female guards. The U.S. was still in segregation and the Civil Rights era, leading to segregation of African American prisoners. Many prisoners were from the South and racist so when they tried to mix the population, it didn’t go so well.

7 – There were 14 attempted escapes during Alcatraz’s time as a federal prison. One famous attempt involved three men who used plaster and other materials to create ‘dummies’ to place in their beds during the escape. They dug holes through the cell walls and climbed up pipes. They did get off the island and although their bodies were never found, it’s believed they drown in the bay.

Great time exploring history.

8 – Although there were 336 cells, the average number of prisoners was 260, with a maximum occupation reaching 302.

9 – Prisoners came to Alcatraz Island because they were considered troublemakers and problems at other prisons. No executions occurred on the island.

10 – Alcatraz hosted 1,545 prisoners between 1934 and March 1963, including Al Capone. Attorney General Robert Kennedy ordered the closure of the prison after sentiments shifted toward rehabilitating prisoners to return to the general public rather than ‘lock away forever.’ An interesting fact is that Capone’s actual cell location is unknown (or not public knowledge) – where are the records?

BONUS: The park ranger forewarns that it’s a roughly 13 story climb from the dock to cell house. While it is a steady grade up/down, it’s gradual with spots to rest. If you are physically unable due to a wheelchair or other conditions, there is a tram. However, it’s small and not for strollers or someone who simply doesn’t want to walk. So be forewarned.

It was at times eery to wander the prison halls, sit in a cell, stand in the now empty library or walk the recreation area surrounded by cement walls and fences.

View of downtown San Francisco from Alcatraz.

Especially with the audio recording playing into your ear, describing various scenes from prison life. San Francisco is so close, yet so far away. I would not have wanted to be a prisoner on that island, seeing freedom every time you looked out a window. Okay, to clarify, of course, I would not want to be a prisoner in ANY prison at ANY time. I really enjoyed the tour, exploring the island and learning about this part of history. Check out Alcatraz Island when visiting beautiful San Francisco.

Have you been to Alcatraz Island? If so, what did you like best about the island?

If you missed my first blog on this trip to San Francisco, you can check it out here.


Sources: Golden Gate National Recreation Area; Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy; National Park Services.

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