Touring Alcatraz: What To See Plus Tips On Planning Your Trip
If you're visiting the San Francisco Bay area, don't miss the opportunity to spend a few hours of your time touring Alcatraz. While most people are familiar with the island which has been made notorious as a penitentiary in the movies, Alcatraz has a rich and interesting cultural history. This article offers a brief look at the island's past, as well as suggestions on what to see and do while you're there, and tips on how to make your trip more enjoyable.
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A Brief History
Military Use (1850 - 1933)
The island's name originated in 1775, when Spanish explorer Lt. Juan Manuel de Ayala named an island in San Francisco Bay "Isla de los Alcatraces", or Island of the Pelicans. Over time, the name was shortened to Alcatraz and attributed to the island we know today.
In 1850, the same year California became a state, Pres. Millard Fillmore reserved Alcatraz, among other locations, for military purposes. It was used by the military from 1850 to 1934. Some of it's military uses over that period of time were:
- In 1859, a military fort was completed and put into use
- It was a Union defense post during the Civil War
- The south end of the island was leveled to create a military parade ground
- It was designated the military prison for the Department of the Pacific
- Native Americans who had been in trouble with the U.S. government during westward expansion were imprisoned there
Because of the Great Depression and the negative publicity of being a military prison, the Army closed Alcatraz in 1933.
Federal Penitentiary (1934 - 1963)
At the time the Army left Alcatraz, the U.S. government had been looking for a location to establish a "super-prison" to house its most dangerous criminals. It needed to be remote and secure, with little access to the outside world. A location in Alaska was considered; however, with the Army's withdrawal from Alcatraz, it created the perfect opportunity to convert the island to a federal penitentiary.
Over the years, the penitentiary claimed that no one had ever successfully escaped. There were a number of attempts and while most escapees were either recaptured or killed, there were 3 men who were never accounted for.
The facility was extremely expensive to maintain, and the salt water air caused a great deal of erosion to the buildings. San Francisco citizens also complained about the amount of sewage from the island being dumped into the bay. Due to these factors, the decision was made to close the penitentiary in 1963.
Native American Occupation (1969-1971)
Several years following the closing of Alcatraz as a penitentiary, there was a 19-month occupation of the island by native Americans. It began on Nov. 20, 1969, and officially ended on June 10, 1971. The demands of the group were to have the deed to the island and to establish a cultural center, university and museum.
While the occupation ended in shambles, it awoke the American public to the plight of the first Americans and asserted the need for their self-determination. It was the beginning of a political movement that continues today.
A great deal more information on the native Americans and Alcatraz can be found in Kathryn Vercillo's article, "History of Native American Activism on Alcatraz Island".
National Recreation Area (1972 - today)
In 1972, Alcatraz was designated as a national recreation area, and as such, it is operated by the National Park Service. They offer day and night tours, as well as many special programs.
Access to the island is only by ferry service provided by a private contractor. Tickets sell out in advance, so book your tickets at least a week early - you can get them as early as about 60 days in advance. Tickets can be booked online through Alcatraz Cruises.
Departures start around 9 a.m. and leave every thirty minutes. Make sure that you're aware of the time of the latest return ferry heading back to San Francisco. You'll need at least 2 or 3 hours to look around. We actually stayed for 5 hours! We did walk everywhere that you were allowed on the island - I tell people that we left no stone unturned on the Rock!
The ferry ride over is pleasant and brief, about 15 minutes. If you're hungry, you can purchase food on the boat. There is no food available for purchase on Alcatraz and if you bring some with you, you can only eat it while at the dock. Water is the only beverage allowed as you tour the island, so you may want to carry a bottle with you.
On the way over and while there, keep an eye on the seagulls. They hover over the boat, waiting for an opportunity to snatch a morsel of food, sometimes right out of your hand! And of course, no one wants to be wearing seagull poop while touring the island!
Once you've arrived at the dock, you're free to explore Alcatraz on your own. A park ranger at the dock will advise you as to any programs taking place that day that you may want to arrange your schedule to see.
A good place to begin your tour is the cellhouse, which is located at the top of a very steep path up from the dock. There is a small tram available for those who may have difficulty with the climb. You may only board it at the dock and at the cellhouse - it makes no stops in between.
Once at the cellhouse, you pick up your audio tour with headphones, which lets you tour the cellhouse at your own pace. The tour is full of interesting details about prisoner life on Alcatraz and you can see their living conditions up close and personal.
Once you're done in the cellhouse, you can step outside to explore the rest of the island. On the southeast end of the island you'll see the burned out remains of the warden's house, as well the the Alcatraz lighthouse.
While you're overlooking the rubble of the officers' homes on the parade grounds, you can get a spectacular view of San Francisco across the bay.
When you're done in this area, you can walk down the west road to get to the recreation yard. Along the way you'll see beautiful examples of the plants and gardens on the island. Alcatraz was once rocky and totally barren. However, the military began bringing over dirt and plants for the military families, a practice continued for the penitentiary officers' families.
After 40 years of neglect, the gardens are being restored, thanks to funding by the Garden Conservancy and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy.
At the end of the west road, you'll climb a set of steep stairs to reach the walled-in recreation yard. More steps lead up from the rec yard back into the mess hall area of the cellhouse.
Upon leaving the cellhouse this time, take the east road, a switchback walking trail back down to the water. When you get to the bottom, turn left and you'll be able to view other historic structures, such as the water tower, officer's club, power plant and old work buildings.
The weather can vary from cool and windy, to warm and sunny, no matter what time of year it is. The best advice is to dress in layers so that you'll be prepared for anything.
Wear comfortable walking shoes. This is a must!
There are no wheelchairs available for loan, so if anyone in your party needs a wheelchair, you'll need to bring it with you. Some areas will not be accessible.
For more information and details on Alcatraz, visit the National Park Service's web site.
With a little planning, your trip to Alcatraz will be quite enjoyable and memorable!