Alcatraz Island is located about one and a quarter miles out into San Francisco Bay and which is only about 10 minutes from Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. It is reacheable solely by ferry boat. No admission tickets are sold on the island itself. As Alcatraz is very, very popular, it is wise to purchase your admission and excursion ticket combo in advance. Prior to our visit, we purchased our tickets directly online from "Alcatraz Cruises" (October, 2009) which apparently had the rights to transport all visitors to Alcatraz Island. Today "alcatrazcruises.com" has the concession to sell tickets to the park combined with the roundtrip ferry ride to get there and back.
Alcatraz (open every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas & New Year's Day) ferries leave every half hour beginning about 9:00 a.m. or so. Boarding is 30 minutes prior to your timed ticket. Alcatraz Cruises offers several tour options which now seem to be enhanced since we visited in 2000 (this may be due to the different company now running the ferries/tours or to the National Park Service itself). The ticket includes the roundtrip ferry ride, an orientation video, a 45-minute audio tape tour entitled, "Doing Time: The Alcatraz Cellhouse Tour," which is fantastic and makes all the difference. The audio tour, which begins at a cell block, is available in English, Spanish, German, French, Italian, Japanese, Dutch, and Mandarin. The audio will include comments and information from former guards and inmates and it is an eye opener!! When you leave the cell block, you are free to walk around the island on the Agave Trail, or visit the museum and book/gift shop. See the new Gardens of Alcatraz!
No food is available on the island, but is available on the ferry (see Restaurant Tips for info. on this). Leave your bikes, skateboards, luggage, roller blades, wheelie shoes, etc., in the hotel room -- they are not allowed on Alcatraz!
Prices for 2010 have remained the same as 2009 as per the website: Early Bird & Day Tour ticket prices $26 for adults; Family Ticket for 2 adults & 2 children (5-11) are $79. Night Tour ticket prices include a little more for your money but also cost more) are $33.00; no Family Tickets available for Night Tours. There are discounts for seniors 62+ and for children 5-11 for single ticket purchases. Toddlers 0-4 are free. There may be additional charges for purchasing online.
BEWARE, ALL SALES ARE FINAL!! When purchasing online, you may receive an E-ticket which you must present the day of your tour; check to see if prepaid tickets must be picked up at the "Prepaid Ticket" window on the pier.
Another inmate at Alcatraz, Henry Young, might be famous for a couple of reasons. Warner Brothers made a film entitled, "Murder in the First," portraying Young's early life as virtually the same as the Jean Valjean character right out of Victor Hugo's famous work, "Les Miserables"!!. Supposedly in the film, Young was a teenager convicted for stealing $5 in order to feed his starving sister. However, apparently the real story is that he was a bankrobber who brutalized his hostage and committed other murders beginning in 1933.
"Murder in the First" also seems to suggest that Young's attempted escape from Alcatraz was punished by his naked confinement in a dark dungeon for years afterwhich he murdered an inmate upon release from his horrific conditions. Again, movie makers took liberties with the real story. Some say although he was confined in solitary for some months, the murder of fellow inmate, Rufus McCain, took place more than a year after his release from solitary. The movie also intimated that Young died at Alcatraz in 1942. Not true!
Young was incarcerated at Alcatraz from about 1936 to 1948 after which he was transferred to Washington State Penitentiary to start serving another life sentence. He was released in 1972 and jumped parole. The kicker----his whereabouts are unknown to this day!! He could still be alive but unlikely!!
We caught the ferry at Pier 33 for the 10 minute trip out to the island and were so lucky as the weather was perfect.On arrival you are given a short welcome by a National Park Ranger and then free to explore the island and the prison.The 35 minute audio set tour of the Alcatraz cellblock gives you a good idea of how life was here.We found that 2.5 hrs was long enough to see most of the island.
Even with the likes of Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelley being inmates at Alcatraz, Robert Stroud, known as the "Birdman of Alcatraz" is its most famous prisoner. Stroud was portrayed as a short-tempered, but brilliant man by Burt Lancaster in the movie "Birdman of Alcatraz," a movie which Stroud himself was never allowed to see. Unlike his portrayal in the movie, Stroud was a vicious repeat murderer. Originally sentenced to death, his sentence was commuted to life in prison without parole by President Woodrow Wilson.
Contrary to the movie depiction, Stroud began his study of canaries while in Leavenworth Prison , Kansas. He was allowed to breed the birds and assembled a lab inside 2 adjoining cells as prison officials thought it was a productive use of his time. He studied bird diseases and concocted medicines to treat them. Stroud authored 2 books on canaries and their diseases and his observations benefited research on the canary species--no small feat and an indication of his latent intellectual potential. He might have made other significant contributions to veterinary medicine, human medicine, or general science had his life taken a different path.
Stroud wasn't transferred to Alcatraz until 1942, where he apprently wrote two more books, “Bobbye” (his autobiography), and “Looking Outward, A History of the US Prison System from Colonial Times to the Formation of the Bureau of Prisons.” He purportedly also studied law and several languages. He was transferred off The Rock supposedly for medical reasons in 1959. He died in November of 1963 from natural causes. Had he not had such violent tendencies, this man might have made many significant contributions to society -- not forgetting that he did make a significant difference for bird lovers. Sources say he is buried in Illinois.
As previously stated in another tip, Alcatraz was home to several famous or infamous criminals -- perhaps the most famous of which was Robert Stroud, the "Birdman of Alcatraz." But other notorious criminals called Alcatraz home at one time or another. Mafia boss Al Capone spent hard time at Alcatraz compared to other prisons he had been in. Unlike the other prisons he was confined at, Capone was not able to manipulate Alcatraz's wardens or guards into giving him privileges such as bringing his own furniture & bedding into his cell. He was also attacked several times while at Alcatraz, but lived to tell the tale. He spent 4 1/2 yrs at Alcatraz before being transferred to another facility, and was actually free at the time of his death in 1947.
George "Machine Gun" Kelly whose real name was George Kelly Barnes, came from a wealthly Memphis, Tennessee family and even attended Mississippi State College for a short time before leaving to marry. He & his young wife quickly had 2 children and found themselves on hard times. He soon took up with petty gangsters and bootleggers and was known for using his "Tommy machine gun". He ended up doing stints at various other prisons including Leavenworth Penitentiary before being placed at Alcatraz in 1934. Warden Johnson considered Kelly a model inmate and many inmates of the time remember listening to Kelly's "tales". In 1951 Kelly was transferred back to Leavenworth where he died of a heart attack in 1954. Kelly spent his years in Alcatraz on Tier 2 of B Block.
We visited Alcatraz last August. We took the last ferry 6:45pm out. I would advise do not take the last ferry out. Definitely the 6:10pm would have been better. Being the last group of people on the island was good but I felt it was a little rushed at the end. In the dark we could not walk around outside either, there are a couple of pathways outside. This may not be what you want to do anyway but it would have been nice to have been given the choice.
When we got off the ferry we were split into two groups for a bit of a walking tour that pointed out some of the parts of the island. We then got the audio tour inside. This takes a bit of time to dish out as well. At the end there were presentations in the isolation block and within the main cell block. We could not go to all of the presentations as some were running at the same time. The presentations by the staff appear only to be on the night tour according to the website but others may have more info about this. Everyone gets an audio tour so you can wonder around at your own pace. Take the headphones off and you'll notice how quiet it is. Just a warning, the exercise yard was out of bounds to all but it was that cold, I would not have ventured there anyway.
Once you get on the island you can stay there as long as you want as long as you get on the last ferry.
If you want the presentations thrown in at the night tour, make sure that you get booked on the 6:10pm ferry. If you are not bothered about that, get a ferry that gives you enough time to explore and return at your leisure. The website as above states how unique an experience it is to watch the sunset over Golden Gate Bridge. Based on my experience, that expectation would be a bit ambitious. The sun was never out in the evening during our stay there, the mist and fog had rolled back in.
Don't forget to book. We did and on the day we got there, signs showed that there were no tickets available for the next 4 days.
As far as I know there is only one tour company running this visit, as above but you can by tickets from all sorts of agencies. I would go direct. Alcatraz was a real highlight of our stay in San Francisco, you must go.
If you do the tour the Alcatraz Tour, choose the one that has the Audio option. You are given individual headsets and controls, and are directed where to go to fully experience the area where the cells are. There are narrations/recollections by inmates themselves, sounds from when the prison was operational, etc. It's a well-developed audio tour, tells the story of the place and the people (including escape attempts) who once lived within its walls...
If you book the tour via Blue and Gold, the audio option is already included in the $16.50 fee.
A new attraction on Alcatraz that was not present when we visited in 2000 is the "Gardens of Alcatraz"! Throughout the island's history of various uses, the cultivation of gardens on "The Rock" represented the softer side of life for those individuals and families who lived there. This was also true for a privileged few Alcatraz prison inmates who had gained the trust of the Prison Warden and who were assigned to work in the gardens.
These gardens provided an inviting area for outdoor entertainment and relaxation for the families of prison guards, etc., who lived there in contrast to the rather harsh reality of prison life. Also, considering that Alcatraz Island is a rather rocky bit of land as I recall, it is amazing that many plants continued to survive & thrive without care after the closing of the prison in 1963.
Since 2003 several groups have been working together to re-establish the gardens on Alcatraz with the plants that have survived over the decades and mostly likely adding a few new ones to the mix. You can join a docent tour of the gardens. Starting at Alcatraz dock on the island, garden tours leave every Friday and Sunday at 9:30am (check website for verification). There is no extra charge for this garden tour, but tickets for the combo ferry ride and Alcatraz admission are required.
When Alcatraz functioned as a federal prison, it was known for its harsh rules and regimen. (Click on the picture to see the list of rules.) Nearly every minute of the inmate's day was structured and accounted for. There were virtually no breaks during the day. Silence was expected at all times except at meals and in the recreation yard. Breaking the rule of "silence" was strictly forbidden and harshly punished. Inmates were allowed only one visitation per month by permission of the warden, and no physical contact was allowed. Communication with visitors was through a type of intercom system and the content of speech was prohibited from relating to prison life --- guards listened to make sure there was no inappropriate content. Less than perfect conduct resulted in loss of visitation privileges.
On the other hand, some prisoners praised the fact that every man had a cell to himself. Privacy was a cherished commodity. It was said by some prisoners that the food served at Alcatraz was the best in the federal prison system. Prisoners with good conduct were assigned jobs, such as cooking and cleaning, which meant they were allowed outside of the cell block.
Our self-guided tour was enlightening to say the least and the accompanying audio, narrated by former Alcatraz prisoners, was excellent. The former prisoners explained a great deal about life at Alcatraz.
Alcatraz is unlike almost all other prisons in that it has natural barriers to thwart escapes. The fact that it is basically a big piece of rock surrounded by the strong, cold currents of San Francisco Bay, and a distance of 1 1/4 miles to San Francisco itself is formidable enough; however, those cold currents also sweep out into the Pacific Ocean. Even so, over its lifetime from 1934 to 1963 there were 36 escape attempts.
There have been several fairly famous escape attempts but the one most people will think of is that which was portrayed in the movie "Escape from Alcatraz" starring Clint Eastwood. It was a complicated plan (the complicated part is how they managed to acquire all the materials necessary to pull off the escape plan) executed by real life inmates Frank Morris, John and Clarence Anglin involving the making of false heads to fool guards into thinking the they were the heads of sleeping inmates, false wall segments and making raincoats into vests & inflatable rafts. It is not known whether the escape was successful because the men were never found. A body found floating in the bay sometime later could not be positively identified as one of the escaped inmates so the mystery as to whether they made it to freedom or not remains open to speculation to this day.
Once thought impossible, it has been proven that it is indeed possible to swim to or from Alcatraz given that the person is conditioned and in good shape.
Alcatraz was originally known as "La Isla de los Alcatraces" or "Island of the Pelicans" when it was given the name by a Spanish explorer, Juan Manuel de Ayala, who charted the San Francisco Bay in 1775. It was uninhabitated except for birds. In the mid 1800's, the "Island of Pelicans" was recognized as having strategic military value and subsequently a fortress as well as lighthouse (the Pacific coast's first) were built there by 1853. The fortress played a role in protecting California during the Gold Rush Era when shiploads of "goldrushers" from around the world came to seek their fortune. It was feared that other countries would attempt to seize the land and resources if not protected. "The Rock" became the symbol of the country's west coast military might.
A short time later, the Army began to use Alcatraz as a military prison because it seemed the perfect location as it was surrounded by freezing water, swift currents and general isolation. It began receiving Civil War prisoners in 1861 (the year the Civil War began) and Spanish-America war prisoners in 1898.
When the Great Depression ushered in a surge in crime, Alcatraz was transformed into a federal prison and was known to some as "Uncle Sam's Devil's Island.". It became famous for housing some of the country's most infamous criminals such as Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelley, and the Birdman of Alcatraz. The prison, as formidable as it was, became too costly to operate and was closed down. In 1969 a group of Native American Indians claimed it as Indian property and occupied the island until 1971.
"The Rock" is known for its famous or infamous prisoners, for harsh conditions, and some very notable escape attempts and it is still fascinating people years after its last inmate left and its doors closed in March, 1963. Each year over 1,000,000 visitors "willingly" enter Alcatraz!!
The old prison/island that is now a tourist destination. I did the tour in October 2005 with some friends from work. It was an interesting and educational experience. To be in a real, hard-core prison was surreal... I felt like an intruder.
I think most visitors feel that way because inside the prison itself, there were fewer conversations, not a lot of smiles (even while taking pictures), no loud laughters... It's a nice place to visit for the historical value, and to see first-hand the approximate conditions of the hardened criminals that once lived within its walls.
Tickets cost $16.50, inclusive of the audio tour and ferry. Buy your tickets beforehand because they only have limited trips and it's difficult to secure them on the day itself.
Alcatraz is not all decaying cement and cold prison cells. There are many beautiful flowers and plants now growing in the wild on the island. During the 1860's the island was a military fort and prison. Homes were built and formal gardens were started. The gardens were maintained by the military until the Federal Prisons occupied the island from 1934-1963. During this time the gardens fell to disrepair and neglect. The flowers that grow in the wild here today are a remnant from the original gardens in the 1860's and are now protect ed by the National Parks Service.
Before returning to the boat we took a few minutes to take some more pictures in the dock area. Here is the entrance to Alcatraz with the now famous writing on the wall from the Native American occupation of the 1970's.
Based on oral Native American stories Alcatraz was once used as a place of isolation or ostracization for tribal members who violated tribal laws or taboos. So even hundreds of years ago Alcatraz was still a prison of some type. In 1969 Native Americans once more occupied Alcatraz. The occupation lasted 17 months. The island was claimed in protest for "Indians of all tribes". The US government responded to the occupation by taking a postion of non interference. The FBI was told to remain clear of the island. The occupation eventually lost public support and fell to disarray. Finally in 1971 the US government removed the remaining six men, five women and four children from the island.
As we concluded our tour the sun was starting to drop in the sky casting an eerie shadow over the guard tower leaving us with the perfect impression for the end of our tour. Although the docks and the boat were just a few steps from us the dark imagery of Alcatraz was still real and very evident in the background.