Alcatraz – Our travel guide for the prison island in San Francisco (USA)

Categories: Travel reports, North America, USA, California

A L C A T R A Z… just when you speak the word, you automatically think of crime fiction, prison outbursts and crooks. The island fortress radiates a special myth in stories and legends are formed around it. Since a visit to Alcatraz is an absolute obligatory program during a visit to San Francisco, we took a closer look at the prison island in the San Francisco Bay 🙂


The history of Alcatraz

The island of Alcatraz, which is about 2 kilometers from the mainland, has a very long history – as a military fortress, as a lighthouse, as a prison and today as a tourist attraction and national park.

Alcatraz, Prison Island, High Security Prison, Day Tour, Excursion, Alcatraz Cruises, San Francisco, California, USA, Travelreport

The prison island of Alcatraz in San Francisco

Where did Alcatraz get its name from?

In 1775, the Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala sailed to the Bay of San Francisco and gave the islands in the bay Spanish names. He referred to today’s Yerba Buena Island as “Isla de Alcatraces”because of the birds found there. The name of the island was transferred in 1826 by a naval captain and geographer to what is now Alcatraz (“Alcatrazes Island”). It was only after California became a U.S. state in 1850 that the island received its final name, Alcatraz Island, by the U.S. Coast Guard. The term “The Rock”, the nickname of the island, is also on everyone’s mouth today.

The lighthouse & the military use as Fort Alcatraz

In 1853, the United States began to fortify the island of Alcatraz, and a year later the first lighthouse on the Pacific coast was commissioned here. One of the main reasons for the construction of a lighthouse was that many ships had already sunk due to the heavy fog formation in the Bay. Around the same time, the construction of Fort Alcatraz, which was used for military purposes, began in 1861, with the first prisoners of war, including the crew of a Confederate merchant ship. By 1903, the prison had already fallen into disrepair that it was decided to close it. After the setbacks caused by the great earthquake in 1906 and subsequent extensive construction work, a new reinforced concrete building was used as a cell tract in 1911. Fort Alcatraz was completely closed in 1933 because of new plans for construction.

The conversion to a high-security prison

In 1934, Alcatraz was formally handed over by the Ministry of War to the Ministry of Justice and reopened as a federal prison. As a high-security prison it should be breakout-proof and if a prisoner were to manage to escape, he would not make it far in the freezing water of the Bay and due to the strong currents anyway… whether the plan worked out, we will see…

“Break the rules and you go to prison, break the prison rules and you go to Alcatraz.”

The first 53 inmates arrived in the same year. It often housed prisoners who had proved to be a problem in other prisons in the country: troublemakers and breakouts. A total of 1,576 men were in car here – but never more than 302 at the same time. Among them were well-known criminals such as Al “Scarface” Capone, “Machine Gun” Kelly, the German spy Erich Gimpel or Robert Stroud, the legendary birdman of Alcatraz.

A map of the prison island of Alcatraz

The closure of the prison

Due to rising entertainment and operating costs, U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy ordered the prison to close in 1963,29 years after it opened. The remaining 27 prisoners were transferred to other prisons.

Occupation by the Sioux Indians

After the prison is closed, you think about what to do with the island. There was talk, for example, of the construction of an amusement park. But that didn’t happen. A group of 40 North American Sioux Indians chose Alcatraz as the site of their political demonstration three times. They first arrived in 1964, but only stayed for four hours. The aim of their occupation was to buy the island from the American state. They cited the Treaty of Fort Laramie as the basis for the use of former federal land by Native Americans if it was no longer needed. In 1969, an 80-strong group of Sioux Indians landed on the island and occupied it in the name of the “Indians of all tribes”. Her offer to buy consisted of pearls, colorful fabric and other merchandise worth the equivalent of 24 USD. 11 days later, the occupation began, which lasted a total of 19 months. Initially, the media impact was very great, but over time this support declined. The group of Indians who were on the island was shrinking more and more. In 1971, about 30 FBI agents removed the remaining activists from the island and brought them to the mainland.

Alcatraz as a tourist attraction & filming location for movies

Since 1972, the island of Alcatraz has been part of the Golden Gate National Recreational Area. The administration has since been taken over by the National Park Service. Today, the island is a tourist attraction and for many is as much a sightseeing program in San Francisco as a visit to the Golden Gate Bridge. More than a million visitors flock here each year to see the site and listen to the scary stories of the notorious prison. The island is also an important nesting place for various bird species, such as pigeons, gulls and herons. Since 1976, Alcatraz has been listed as a Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places. The island has been a National Historic Landmark since 1986.

Several films have been made on the island, such as “The Rock – Rock of Decision” with Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage, “Escape from Alcatraz” with Clint Eastwood or “X-Men: The Last Resistance” with Hugh Jackman and Halle Berry.

A trip to the prison island of Alcatraz

Tickets, Opening Hours & Prices

Alcatraz can be visited all year round, except on Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Year’ Day. The official website gives the best time to travel from April to May or September to October. Departures are possible about every half hour of the day from 8.45 a.m. In any case, you should take care of tickets for the visit to Alcatraz in advance, because the number of visitors who are allowed to visit the island every day is limited. In addition, the tours are often booked out days in advance. The official ticket sale takes place via Alcatraz Cruises.

Alcatraz Cruises

Various tours are offered here:
Early Bird Tour (38.35 USD/person): This is the first tour of the day we have also taken. The advantage is that there are not so many people on the island yet. For example, we were able to photograph the cell block completely without other tourists.
Day Tour (38.35 USD/person): This is the normal day tour.
Night Tour (45.50 USD/person): A visit in the evenings with a beautiful view of the nightly sykline of San Francisco.
Behind the Scenes Tour (USD 90.50/person): This tour shows areas that are not normally open to the public. The guided group has no more than 30 people, but is not offered every day.
Alcatraz & Angel Island Combo Tour (USD 76.60/person): This ticket includes the normal day tour on Alcatraz and a tram ride via Angel Island, a nearby island.

All tickets include at least always the round trip by ferry to Alcatraz Island as well as the free audio tour in the cell building. Basically, you can stay on Alcatraz Island in one day as long as you like. One should only make sure that you definitely get the last ferry back to San Francisco 😉

As a rule, you should plan about 2.5 to 3 hours for the round trip, the audio tour as well as for the rest of the exploration of the island.

By boat to Alcatraz Island

Boats to Alcatraz depart from Alcatraz Landing at Pier 33. There are also ticket counters, waiting and entry areas, some exhibits and a café. Ideally, you will be here half an hour before the departure time to join the queue. The journey to Alcatraz takes only about 15 minutes. From the boat you have a nice view back to San Francisco, but of course also in the other direction on Alcatraz. A good moment to capture the island in a photo.

A tour of the high-security Alcatraz prison

The different buildings on the island

If you arrive at Alcatraz by boat, you will first land at the pier. The large four-storey building, directly at the berth, used to be a military barracks. When Alcatraz later became a high-security prison for civilian prisoners, the prison officers and their families were housed in the building. If you walk up the path to the cell building, you will automatically pass the Guardhouse, the oldest building on the island from 1857. It served as the first defense against enemy attacks. A few meters further is the garrison shop or the officer’s club,where members of the Garrison of Alcatraz or soldiers and their families could buy food and other consumer goods. When Alcatraz was converted into a federal prison, the building was converted into a leisure hall with an officer’s casino – including a dance floor, gym, two bowling alleys and a bar. Due to a fire, only the remaining walls of the building can be seen today. The most interesting building on the island is certainly the cell buildingthrough which you can be guided with the help of audio devices. Right next to the cell building are the prison director’s house and a lighthouse. The impressive director’s house consisted of 17 rooms, ornamental gardens and a glass house for the cultivation of plants. But the most spectacular was the view of the panorama of San Francisco as well as the Golden Gate Bridge. Today, unfortunately, the building is only a ruin.

The cell building and the cell tract

Since we went to the island with the first tour, we quickly walked towards the cell building and were actually the first to get the audio devices pressed into their hands. With the help of these audio devices, which are also available in a German-language version, one is very well guided through the different places of the cell building.

The most impressive is certainly the cell tract with the prisoner cells,which was completed in 1912. When the prison was converted into a high-security prison, this building also had to be renovated: for example, cut-proof steel bars were installed, shooting ranges were built and other watchtowers were built. The cells were only about 1.5 x 2.7 meters in size and were equipped with a sink, a toilet and a bed. Most of the day, the prisoners stayed here. Participation in the work programme or other special treatment was granted only with good management. They were released into solitary confinement for violations of prison rules.

As a visitor, you can even go into individual cells – that’s kind of scary, especially in the dark cell, the “hole” 😉

We then looked at the dining room, the courtyard, the library and the administrative wing and listened again and again to our audio guide. At one point or another, it’s cold to your back when you think back to the past. It is also very interesting to note that the prison was probably the only one in the country to have hot water showers. Maybe you wouldn’t have expected it now. But the whole thing had an ulterior motive. If the prisoners get used to the warm water, it might prevent an escape, because the water in San Francisco Bay is icy cold. If they had only had cold water showers, they would have been accustomed to this water temperature at some point and would have hardened.

Has anyone managed to escape from Alcatraz?

In the 29 years of its existence as a high-security prison, 34 prisoners in 14 escape attempts dared to break outof prison. The majority of these escape attempts failed. On 11 June 1962, however, a legendary attempt to escape occurred by three inmates, whose fate has not yet been clarified.

In a night-and-fog action, Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin sat down for water. They planned this action months in advance and dug night after night with spoons they had from the dining room, a path through the thick concrete walls and ventilation shafts into a corridor. As the walls of the prison were severely attacked by the salt water and humidity on the island, the mortar became brittle over time. Very to the advantage of the three occupants. They reached outside through the roof of the cell block and fled in an inflatable boat, which they had assembled from rubber raincoats and glue themselves. In their cell, they left behind head dummies made from cotton, soap and human hair. That’s why their disappearance wasn’t noticed until the next morning, when they were already having an hour-long lead. Apparently the remains of her inflatable boat and a bag containing her belongings were found on another island, so the three were believed to have drowned. The bodies were never found…

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The story of an outbreak

It remains the biggest mystery in Alcatraz’s prison history,what really happened to the three inmates and whether they may have made it alive. In 2013, San Francisco police received a letter purportedly written by one of the three fugitives. But a handwriting analysis by the FBI found that the letter was not authentic. According to this, the 3 are still on a “Most Wanted” criminal list.

All travelogues from California (2018)

For our 2 weeks in California we have put together a nice self-drive route, which includes city sightseeing as well as shopping and great nature. Our start is in San Francisco and from there we continue with a rental car to Sacramento and Lake Tahoe. Along the U.S. Highway 395 we drive over the 3,000 meter high Tioga Pass to Yosemite National Park before we head back towards the Pacific coast to Monterey Bay. The last part of the journey takes us along the Pacific Coast Highway (California State Route 1) to Los Angeles. All in all a nice route (see Google Maps) with a total length of about 1.500 kilometers 🙂

Travel Route California » San Francisco: 2 weeks in California – Travel planning & our flight with WOW air
» San Francisco: Tourist Attractions, Things to do & Photo spots
» San Francisco: Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco – Things to know & Photo spots
» San Francisco: Alcatraz – Our travel guide for the prison island in San Francisco
» San Francisco: Muir Woods – A visit of the Coastal Sequoia Trees in California
» San Francisco: Cable Car – Travel Guide for the famous tram in San Francisco
» Sacramento: Tourist Attractions & Things to do in the Old Town
» Lake Tahoe: Tourist Attractions & the most beautiful photo spots
» Bodie Town: The most beautiful ghost town in California
» Yosemite Nationalpark: Things to know & Tioga Pass
» Yosemite Nationalpark: Mariposa Grove & the Grizzly Giant
» Yosemite Nationalpark: Glacier Point & the Yosemite Valley
» Monterey Bay: Whale Watching with Discovery Whale Watch
» Monterey Bay: The Monterey Bay Aquarium in Cannery Row
» Monterey Bay: 17-Mile Drive – Travel Guide, Things to Do & beautiful photo spots
» Highway 1: The Scenic drive between Monterey and Los Angeles
» Highway 1: Hearst Castle – The castle on the Pacific Coast Highway
» Los Angeles: 3 famous Instagram photo spots in Los Angeles