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Tourist Destinations of the US: Alcatraz Island National Monument

Updated on December 3, 2014

Alcatraz Island

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Alcatraz Island National Monument

Alcatraz Island is found in the San Francisco Bay. It sits approximately 1.5 miles from the shore of San Francisco, California. This small island is only 23 acres in area, while being 121 feet above sea level. From 1934 until 1963 it served as one of the United States' most notorious prisons. It housed some of the country's most feared and violent criminals. As such, its location and design was ideal for prevention against escape attempts. In 1972, Alcatraz was designated as a national recreation area. During October, 1973 when Alcatraz first opened to the public, the park saw over 50,000 visitors in its first year of operation. Many historians have estimated that this was more people than have ever stepped foot on the island before that time. In 1986, the site officially became a National Historic Landmark. Today, the abandoned prison as well as the entire island both offers a close look at the first lighthouse and military fort built on America's west coast. This article will discuss the history of the island in further depth later. The site welcomes over 1.3 million visitors each year. There are several things to consider when planning a trip to Alcatraz Island.

Alcatraz Panoramic View

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Things to Plan for While Visiting Alcatraz Island

The first thing visitors learn about Alcatraz is the private ferry service that is necessary for accessing the island. This private company known as Alcatraz Cruises LLC strongly recommends that guests purchase their tickets ahead of time due to often overwhelming demand. They almost always sell out a full week in advance. Ticket prices for the ferry vary in time of day and the guests’ ages. Adults from the ages of 18-61 are charged $28 per person during the morning tour known as the “Early Bird” beginning at 9:10am. Youngsters from the ages of 12-17 are also charged $28 per person during the morning hours. Children aged 5-11 are admitted for only $17 during the morning. Senior citizens over the age of 61 are charged $26.25 during the Early Bird. Toddlers four years of age and under are permitted free entry regardless the time of day. The afternoon tours, starting at noon and continuing until 3:55pm are priced the same as the Early Bird tours, regardless of age. The nighttime tours, starting at 6:10pm and 6:45pm are a bit more expensive. Tickets for each adult are priced at $35. Youths from 12-17 are charged $34. Children from the ages of 5-11 pay $20.50 for admittance, while seniors are charged $32.35. There is no fee of admittance to enter and tour Alcatraz Prison itself.

The weather on the island is well known for being unpredictable while sometimes rapidly changing. Typically, the island is not subject to the same exact weather patterns of nearby San Francisco. While in the city, it might be sunny and warm while at the same time be cold and windy on the island. Oftentimes the season will not be a reliable indicator as to how warm or cool the temperature on the island may be. Summer days are frequently as chilly as winter days largely because of thick fog and intense winds. Regardless of the time of the year, most tourists arrive wearing multiple layers of clothing. By doing this, people are presented with the option of taking a layer or two off if the weather is too warm. Nobody is allowed to eat, drink, or smoke in almost every portion of the island, the only exception being the docking area. In addition to these rules, disturbing or feeding any of the island’s wildlife is not allowed. Alcatraz Island is home to thousands of seafaring birds.

Alcatraz's Various Weather Patterns:

The weather on the island is well known for being unpredictable while sometimes rapidly changing. Typically, the island is not subject to the same exact weather patterns of nearby San Francisco.

View of the burned out Warden's House on Alcatraz Island.
View of the burned out Warden's House on Alcatraz Island. | Source

What to See and Do While at Alcatraz Island

Visiting Alcatraz during the day is only done without the benefit of a tour guide. However, park rangers and staff offer a variety of programs throughout the day detailing the escapes, natural history, military history, and the Native American occupation of the island which lasted for 19 months beginning on November 20, 1969. When the ferry arrives at Alcatraz’s dock, guests are met by a National Park Service representative who gives everyone a brief orientation which quickly covers any special events going on that particular day. Once visitors reach the island they are welcome to stay for as long or as short as they desire. Ferries go back and forth from the island to San Francisco’s mainland every 30 minutes. Guests generally spend about two or three hours touring the island. Both within the former prison and on the remainder of the island are numerous amounts of informatively interesting exhibits and videos. The cells that were occupied by the most inmates offer audio tours which explain the lives of the individuals that were jailed in them. Many of the cells have been arranged in an effort to depict how they appeared when they were still operational.

The evening tour has many differences from the one given during the day. During the day, the ferries arrive directly to the island’s dock. However, during the evening, each ferry circles Alcatraz while a tour guide offers a narration about the island’s history. At night, guests are treated to a guided tour which leads them from the dock to the cell house. It should be noted that these guides are extremely knowledgeable in all things concerning Alcatraz Island. Places on the island possessing rough terrain are almost always closed to the public during the evening hours in the interest of safety. Tourists who enjoy exploring a site on their accord are advised to visit Alcatraz during the day time as no tours are given during these hours.

Visiting Alcatraz Island National Park

A Brief History of Alcatraz Island

The island was first documented by Spanish explorers in 1775. Shortly after the Mexican-American War, American president Millard Fillmore designated the island for military purposes. In 1858, the island became known as Fortress Alcatraz as it was heavily fortified by the US military for the purpose of protecting San Francisco Bay. Prisoners were first kept on the island in 1861 after the start of the American Civil War. The bay's cold winds and hazardous currents made an ideal prison for Confederate POWs and their sympathizers. Furthermore, while still a military prison in 1898, its inmate population rose from just 26 to more than 450 during that year. Alcatraz continued serving as a military prison until 1933. The next year it was converted to a federal prison. During the prison's 29 years of existence, it claimed that not a single prisoner successfully absconded from its confinements. Common knowledge about the prison claims that 36 inmates combined to account for 14 escape attempts (with two men trying twice). A total of 23 prisoners were recaptured, six were shot dead during their escape attempts, and three escaped and were never seen afterward. It has been debated as to whether these three prisoners survived the treacherous waters of the bay or if they just simply drowned. The prison was officially closed on March 21, 1963 due to its high cost of maintenance and damage. Inmates at Alcatraz cost almost $10 daily while other prisons throughout the US only took about $3 per prisoner daily. Immediately after the prison's closing, all 250 inmates were transferred to the United States Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois. The jail's employees were offered jobs in various prisons throughout the country.

The Native Americans that occupied the island in 1969 were doing so in protest against the US government and its handling of several 19th century treaties. After nearly two years, the occupation began falling apart after a young girl fell to her death on the island. Many occupiers had drug addictions; others were homeless and were using the island solely for sanctuary. However, most occupiers simply returned voluntarily to their lives in San Francisco. Most of those who remained eventually left after the power to the island was turned off by the federal government. In June, 1971, a large contingency of federal officers easily removed the 15 remaining people from Alcatraz.

Conclusion

Alcatraz Island is the perfect historical site to stop for a quick visit. The fare paid for riding the ferry to the island is the only cost involved in visiting it. It offers a close look at one of America’s most famous icons. Visiting Alcatraz Island is fun for all ages and families who are in the San Francisco area and looking for a few hours of educational fun.

An Aerial View of Alcatraz Island

An Aerial View of Alcatraz Island
An Aerial View of Alcatraz Island

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