Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay
June 30, 2019
| By
Maria Mancuso

San Francisco Things to Do: Visit Alcatraz

This San Francisco Visitors Blog article, ‘San Francisco Things to Do: Visit Alcatraz’ gives you insight on what to expect and how to have a great time visiting this top San Francisco attraction.

You can see it from almost anywhere along the waterfront, from Fisherman’s Wharf and from the ferry’s traveling across the bay. It’s Alcatraz, or ‘The Rock’ as it was called and made famous by the movie of the same name.  No matter what you call it, Alcatraz has long been a top San Francisco attraction.

Interior of Alcatraz Prison
Alcatraz became a U.S. Military Prison in 1907 to 1933 when the prison became a Federal Prison.

Here are some interesting facts about Visiting Alcatraz Island:

  • Before Alcatraz was a federal prison and home to felons like Al Capone it was a fort or military reservation in 1850. On June 1, 1854 Alcatraz became the first U.S. Lighthouse on the west coast. You can see the Lighthouse from the outside when you take the Alcatraz Tour.  Today the Lighthouse use an automated electronic light and foghorn for a navigational aid. 
  • Alcatraz became a U.S. Military Prison in 1907 to 1933 when the prison became a Federal Prison.
  • During the time when Alcatraz was an active federal prison, the families of the officers who lived on the island planted gardens and flowers.  After the prison closed and the residents and prisoners left, the plants were able to thrive for decades and in 2003 the ‘Gardens of Alcatraz’ partnered with the National Park Service to maintain the gardens.   Guided Tours of the gardens are available a few days a week which include accessing the Officers Row and Rose Terrace, these areas are off limits all other times.
  • They offer guided tours of the gardens a few days a week, taking visitors to Officers’ Row and the Rose Terrace, which are off-limits to other visitors. 
  • No prison overcrowding!  The prison at Alcatraz is relatively small by today’s standards.  The highest number of prisoners housed at the prison was 320 with as few as 222 prisoners calling Alcatraz ‘home.’
  • No Death Row.  Despite its tough reputation, unlike many of the most notorious prisons today, Alcatraz did not have a ‘Death Row’ and therefore no executions.  Although several prisoners did meet their end at Alcatraz. Five prisoners committed suicide. 8 people were killed by other prisoners. Fifteen inmates died of natural causes.
  • You can’t escape. A reported 36 inmates attempted to ‘leave Alcatraz early’ via an escape.  Of the inmates who attempted an escape, 23 of them were captured, 2 drowned and 6 were shot dead. The other 5 escapees were presumed dead by drowning.  In 1962 three men, John and Clarence Anglin and Frank Morris escaped their cells in the middle of the night.  Their bodies were never found leaving many to speculate that they got away.
  • The cells at Alcatraz were only 9 feet by 5 feet where they spent up to 20 hours each day.  Inmates were given only basic food, clothing and medical care.  But on the positive side the inmates had access to a library, magazine subscriptions and a monthly movie.
  • Warden’s House: You can see the remains of this structure on the island as it was left after a fire in 1970.  This large, 17 room home was the residence of the military commander and then the prisons first warden, James Johnston lived here.
  • It was possible to swim to shore…or so it was thought. An inmate by the name of John Paul Scott escaped the prison by sliding out a window.  He swam to shore but was so exhausted that he collapsed upon reaching the Golden Gate Bridge where the authorities found him.  Now, the adventurous athletes swim the 1.5-mile Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon and do so in fairly easy fashion.  So, it is more than possible to swim to shore.
  • Getting around the island.  The island is very rocky, and the walkways are fairly steep, so it is advisable to wear comfortable walking shoes or tennis shoes.  The distance from the dock where the Ferry will let you off to the prison cell house is approximately ¼ mile.  There are areas along the trek to the cellhouse to stop and rest and to take in the amazing views of the San Francisco city skyline.
Interior of Alcatraz Prison
The cells at Alcatraz were only 9 feet by 5 feet where they spent up to 20 hours each day.  Inmates were given only basic food, clothing and medical care.

How to Tour Alcatraz: You have several options to take a closer look at Alcatraz and even walk the grounds and ‘spend a little time’ in a cell inside the prison.

Alcatraz Cruises - www.alcatrazcruises.com
This is the official tour company for Alcatraz Island Tours.  This agency offers several tours, Early Bird Tour, Day Tour and Night Tour.  Each of these tours last approximately 3 hours which includes the time to cruise to the island, take the guided tour of the prison, view the cells, visit the rest of the island and historical exhibits.  The tours begin as you leave the Pier 33 Landing where you will enjoy a Ferry ride around Alcatraz Island.  

The guide will point out all the interesting spots around the island from the water’s perspective including areas of attempted escapes and other structures on the island not accessible by foot.   

Upon arrival at the dock on the island, a ranger leads the group up the hill to the prison.  The tour continues  inside the prison, the cells and other areas of the grounds.

Interior of Alcatraz Prison
You have several options to take a closer look at Alcatraz and even walk the grounds and ‘spend a little time’ in a cell inside the prison.

They also offer a ‘Behind the Scenes’ Tour and an ‘Alcatraz and Angel Island’ Tour – see their Website for details.

This article, ‘San Francisco Things to Do: Visit Alcatraz’ gives you just a few of the highlights about how to visit and enjoy this amazing San Francisco.  You’ll enjoy learning the incredible history of this one of a kind national landmark.  You’ll walk where some of the most notorious prisoners in the country stood, slept and lived years of their lives.  It truly is an amazing tour you will not forget.

Sign from Alcatraz Prison
Take a tour of Alcatraz and you’ll walk where some of the most notorious prisoners in the country stood, slept and lived years of their lives.  It truly is an amazing tour you will not forget.

And the upside is you get to leave on a relaxing Ferry ride back to San Francisco!

Check back on our San Francisco Visitors Blog for more entertaining and informative articles about making the most of your next visit to San Francisco.

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