When my daughter and I went to Santa Clara, California, to attend Stitches West, we also spent some time exploring the city of San Francisco. The two cities are about an hour apart with the airport located between them.
Although I have been to San Francisco a couple times before, I had not visited Alcatraz, so it became a priority on this trip.
History of Alcatraz
Spanish explorers documented the island as early as 1775, and although they built a few small buildings on it, they did not establish a community there. In the mid nineteenth century, the owner, Francis Temple, sold the island to the United States government. It was set up as a fort and later became a military prison. The huge concrete cell block was built during this time.
In 1933, ownership of the prison was transferred from the military to the Department of Justice. It became a federal prison in 1934. Due to its location on the island and the perceived difficulty of escaping, the prison was used for many notorious bank robbers and murderers – Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Mickey Cohen, among others.
The jail claims that of the 36 prisoners that tried to escape (14 different attempts) over the 29 years of the prison’s existence, none of them were successful. While most of the prisoners are accounted for, five of them are still “missing and presumed drowned.”
The most violent attempt happened in 1946, when six inmates tried to escape. Three of them were killed, along with two corrections officers, in the three-day event now known as the “Battle of Alcatraz.”
The most interesting attempt happened in 1962, when brothers John and Clarence Anglin and Frank Morris tried to escape. They were never recaptured and their bodies have not been found. Over the years since the escape, controversial information has come forward to show that the men survived. A letter, supposedly from John Anglin in 2018, caused the FBI to reopen the case.
In order to secretly escape, the men enlarged the air vent holes in their cells, so they could escape to the roof of the prison. From there, they made their way down to the shore where they floated away on a makeshift raft. The men had made dummy heads in the arts and crafts area adding hair from the barber shop. The heads were placed on the cots in their cells so their escape would not be noticed as quickly. More about this and other stories can be found in the book, Alcatraz Escape Files.
The prison closed in 1963 due to the excessive cost to operate and upkeep the facility. Starting in 1969, a group of Native Americans held a protest on the island which lasted for over a year and a half. Although it was unsuccessful in establishing a permanent community or having its demands met, the protest brought attention to the poor treatment of Native Americans across the country.
Since 1973, the island has been a national park, welcoming visitors to tour the prison and grounds.
Tickets are not sold onsite – they must be purchased in advance on the Alcatraz Cruises website. Note: Alcatraz Cruises is the official tour company for the National Park Service. They do not charge a service fee. If you go through another organization, the ticket price will likely include a fee and therefore be higher.
Purchasing tickets several days or weeks ahead of time is recommended, especially during a busy season. We purchased ours about a week before we planned to visit. The process was simple – select the number of tickets and add them to your cart. Check out with a credit card and the tickets are emailed to the address you provide.
When you purchase a ticket, you will be asked to select a time. Do not do as I did and skip this step. I thought that by not choosing a time, I would be able to go to the island at my convenience. When I looked closer at the tickets, however, I realized that a time had been chosen for me – 8:45 am. I realized it at 8:45 am that morning.
I found a phone number and called to see if I could change the tickets, but I was told that I had to go to the pier. The online tickets were sold out. When we arrived at the pier, we were told the same thing – sold out – but because we had purchased tickets for the wrong time, we were able to get in line for stand-by passage. Thankfully, we were able to get on the ferry and tour the island.
We were there in February, which is probably not a peak visit time. I don’t know what would have happened if we had been there during spring break or during the summer. Don’t do as I did – be sure to choose a visit time when purchasing your ticket.
How the Tour Works
The visit begins with a ferry ride across the bay to the island. When we arrived and disembarked, we were asked to remain close so we could hear instructions for the tour. Once instructions were given, we were allowed to explore on our own.
Part of the visit includes a tour of the cell block. Visitors are given headsets and instructions for the audio tour that is followed. It is best to listen to the guide as he speaks into your ears. In addition to telling stories about the prison, he directs you through the maze of rooms, telling you when to move from one room to the next. The instructions were clear and the pace was good – I only paused the audio one time.
I paused the audio to listen to a separate, live guide that was speaking in one of the rooms. He was telling the stories of the most notable escape attempts. The guide was interesting to listen to and it was nice to remove the headset for a few minutes.
The ferry back to the island can be taken whenever you are ready. The ferries leave every half hour or so. The total time we spent was round three hours including the ferry rides to and from the island. We could have spent a little more time exploring the gardens and watching the birds, but chose to head back to the mainland.
Food, Amenities, and Gift Shop
There is no food available for purchase on the island. It can be purchased at the pier or on the ferry. There are picnic tables near the dock, so if you bring a picnic lunch, you can eat it on the island. Large coolers and over-sized backpacks are not allowed on the ferry, though, so keep that in mind when planning. My daughter and I had a snack on the ferry and then ate lunch as soon as we were back on the mainland. In hindsight, I wish we had more to eat on the ferry or had brought another snack. We were not able to eat lunch until close to 3 pm and by then we were hungry.
There are bathrooms near the dock and by the prison, although there may be lines to use the facilities. The island is handicap accessible and there is small cart that brings people who need help up and down to where the tour starts at the top of the island.
As we left the cell block tour, we had to walk through the gift shop – common among similar sites. The gifts available included books about the prison, replicas of prison memorabilia, and souvenirs of San Francisco.
An Interesting Day
Our visit to Alcatraz was interesting and I’d recommend it to anyone visiting the area. If I were to do it again, I might make a couple changes.
- First, I’d be sure to pick a time that was convenient
- I would bring a snack or a picnic lunch
- I’d plan a little more time on the island to make sure I didn’t miss anything.
- Finally, I would read more about the fascinating history before the visit.
Have you visited Alcatraz? What was your favorite part?