Structures dating from 1854 come into view as the ferry approaches the dock at Alcatraz Island. Old Prisons photo by Claudia Elliott
SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA – Ahh, the mystique of Alcatraz. Whether shrouded in fog or shining brightly as a gem, the infamous and somewhat mysterious island attracts visitors from all over the world.
Infamous because although it operated as a federal penitentiary for less than 48 years (1934-1963), just the name “Alcatraz,” seems ominous, mainly because of the number of books and films about the maximum-security prison on the island in San Francisco Bay. And mysterious because it’s relatively inaccessible.
It’s an island, after all, and as a military installation and prison, it was off-limits to people for many years. What is there to discover? Much more than you’ll have time for on just one tour, for sure.
Plus it’s a fabulous piece of California real estate. The views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco Bay vistas are worth the price of the ticket all by themselves.
And the history!
From the first days of California’s statehood through its time as a federal prison, the Native American occupation, and more, there are so many great stories to be told about Alcatraz, “The Rock.” More than 1.4 million visitors tour Alcatraz Island each year, making it the most-visited old prison in the world.
The view from the ferry
The National Park Service has managed the island as part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area since 1972, nine years after the last prisoners left the island (and after the 19-month occupation by a group of Native Americans). Tours began in October 1973, with more than 50,000 people visiting during the first year.
Before the tours, the public was not allowed on Alcatraz. In fact, historians estimate that more people set foot on the island during the first year of tours than in its entire history.
Access is by ferry, and the ride from Pier 33 to the island is part of the fun of visiting Alcatraz. If you’re lucky enough to visit on a clear day, you’ll have fabulous views of San Francisco and the surrounding area in every direction.
As you approach the island, many of its famous landmarks will come into view. The highest point is also the oldest – the first lighthouse built on the West Coast. Completed in July 1853, it’s light began operating as an aid to navigation on June 1, 1854. Today only the column of the original lighthouse is standing.
The long multi-story building you will see above the dock includes the original brick building built by the Army in the 1860s and three upper stories added in 1905. The Army used the building as barracks and apartments, and the Bureau of Prisons remodeled the structure for use by correctional officers and their families. The dock itself has been enlarged several times since 1854.
To the right of the dock, you’ll see a restored guard tower. When operated as a federal penitentiary, Alcatraz had six free-standing towers manned by armed guards.
You will notice and later have a chance to explore, the remnants of several other buildings to the right of the dock. These include the guardhouse and sallyport, Post Exchange/Officer’s Club, a storehouse, power plant, and buildings used for prison industries.
The largest structure on the island is the cellhouse, located along the ridge of the highest point on the island, to the right of the lighthouse as you approach the dock. Originally, this building was a military detention barracks. When complete in 1912, it was the largest steel-reinforced concrete building in the world. And like other structures on the island, it was built by prisoners.
Once on Alcatraz, you will soon forget that you’re just a little over a mile from the bustling city of San Francisco. You’ll be transported back in time to discover the rich history of the tiny island.
Once you arrive, you can join a guided tour, but you are also free to go off on your own. A helpful pamphlet with a map is available for sale that will provide you with information about each of the areas – and there is excellent signage.
On the dock, you will find a theater, bookstore, and exhibits in the ground floor of the Barracks building. This section of the building was constructed between 1865 and 1867 when the military used Alcatraz.
From the dock, you will travel on a pathway toward the Guardhouse and Sallyport, the oldest structure on the island. It was built in 1957 and intended to be the first line of defense for the military in case of enemy landing parties.
The tumultuous times during which the United States government took possession of the island made the defensive capacity important. On Feb. 2, 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican War, and California became a U.S. territory.
Just a week earlier, John Marshall had discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill. The ensuing California Gold Rush transformed the sleepy Mexican town of Yerba Buena, with a population of about 500, into the bustling city of San Francisco.
By December 1849, on the eve of California’s statehood in 1850, San Francisco’s population had grown to more than 25,000. When California became a state, the federal government set aside certain lands, including Alcatraz, for “public purposes.” The government built the lighthouse soon after, and the Army began construction of a fort.
Originally, the Guardhouse and Sallyport at Alcatraz could only be reached by an oak drawbridge over a deep, dry moat. The entrance was flanked by two gunports, each with a 24-pound howitzer. And rifle slits lined the thick brick walls, allowing soldiers to shoot intruders. There were no attacks on Alcatraz, however, and the fort eventually was used to detain suspected Confederate sympathizers and military prisoners. In fact, during the Civil War, Alcatraz was the largest American fort west of the Mississippi River.
Following the Civil War, became more important as a military prison, and the Army removed the fort’s guns when the facility gained formal designation as such in 1907. Army prisoners built many buildings you will see on the tour, including the Post Exchange/Officers’ Club, military chapel, Warden’s House, the upper three stories of the Barracks building, and the Cellhouse. The military moved from the island in 1933 and Alcatraz was transferred to the civilian Bureau of Prisons in 1934.
The 45-minute Cellblock Tour is one of the most informative and interesting features of your day on Alcatraz. Visitors are provided with headsets and directed to follow the audio cues as they walk through the cellblock.
The audio tour is available in 11 languages and seems to bring history to life. The narration includes actual former Alcatraz prisoners and guards recounting their memories of events including famous escape attempts.
In addition to viewing the actual cellblock, visitors can see many exhibits referenced in the audio tour.
Adjacent to the cellblock are industries buildings used when Alcatraz was a prison. Inmates were provided with occupational training and assigned work. These areas sometimes house special exhibits.
Native American occupation
There is much evidence of the Native American occupation of Alcatraz on the island, mostly in the form of graffiti and defacement of buildings. Exhibits also provide information about the occupation, which is now believed to mark the beginning of a reawakening of American Indian culture.
A group of Indians of many tribes seized the island and claimed it as Indian Land shortly before Thanksgiving in 1969. The occupation continued until June 1971, when the last remaining occupiers were removed from the island by federal marshals.
Need to know
How to get there: The ferry to Alcatraz Island is operated by Hornblower Cruises and Events, an authorized concessionaire of the National Park Service. The ferry boards at Pier 33 on the Embarcadero in San Francisco. CLICK HERE for further details and essential information for travelers.
Available tours and dates: Alcatraz Island is open every day of the year except Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day. Tour options are subject to change, but at the time of this posting, there were six options – a Day Tour, Early Bird Tour (same as Day Tour but is the first to depart from Pier 33 in the morning), Night Tour, Behind the Scenes Tour, and a package that includes tours of both Alcatraz and nearby Angel Island. CLICK HERE for details on each option, and schedules.
The Night Tour and Behind the Scenes tours do not operate on New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, July 4th, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve, or Christmas Day. There are no special tours on Tuesdays or Wednesdays.
Tickets are available online 90 days in advance. The official website also offers alerts and helpful information if there are events that may disrupt tours or access to Pier 33. For instance, the federal government shut-down early in 2018 was a concern for a day we planned to visit; the website advised that the concessionaire (Hornblower Cruises and Events) would continue to operate and fund activities to allow cruises to continue even if the government shutdown continued.
Planning your tour
The official Alcatraz Cruises website recommends allowing at least three hours for the ferry rides and touring the main buildings on the island. We took extra time for photography and found that the four hours we spent was not quite enough time. When we return, we plan to see a few areas we couldn’t manage and will probably allow for five hours.
Driving Directions can be found here.
Parking: I found some excellent information about parking along the Embarcadero HERE. Especially in the summer and on weekends, it’s a good idea to prepay and reserve your parking. On our trip in early February, we probably could have found a space easily, but I wanted to be sure, so I reserved a space in a parking lot about four blocks from Pier 33 using an app (ParkWhiz). The only problem I encountered was that the parking lot attendant wanted some sort of paperwork from me and the app said I only had to enter some information, not print a document. However, I showed him the message on my phone and everything was OK.
Food and beverage policy: It’s important to know that bottled water is allowed on the island, but no picnicking or other foods or beverages are permitted. A variety of refreshments are available for sale at Pier 33 and on board the ferry. Cost: Advance purchase of tickets is highly recommended because some tours do sell out. Be aware that tickets are sold online at many websites, but some are more expensive than others. The least expensive tickets are sold directly by the concessionaire. You can buy them by phone, 415-981-ROCK (7625), or online. At the time of this posting, tickets for the Day Tour were $38 for adults and juniors (ages 12 to 17), $33.75 for seniors (ages 62 and up), and $23.25 for children (5-11). Children 4 and under are free. An adult must accompany all children (under age 18). Discounted family packs are also available for some tours.
Accessibility: Alcatraz Landing at Pier 33 is fully accessible; however, there is very limited accessible parking nearby, and no parking at Alcatraz Landing. Once on the island, people with mobility issues or other disabilities may access some areas via the Sustainable Easy Access Transport (SEAT) tram on a first-come, first-served basis. Roads and walkways are steep, and although it’s only about a quarter-mile from the dock to the cellhouse, the elevation gain is equivalent to walking up the stairs of a 13-story building. CLICK HERE for details about the tram.
Phone: 415-981-ROCK (7625)