It's been ten years since I last sailed on San Francisco Bay to Alcatraz Island. Last weekend I was finally able to visit Alcatraz again when my husband's family was visiting us, and their wish was to see Alcatraz. On this exceptionally rainy spring, we were lucky and got to enjoy the warm spring weather.
Alcatraz Island aka The Rock, is located in San Francisco Bay, right by the city of San Francisco. Originally the island was used as an army base, and California's first lighthouse was built there. After Alcatraz served as a location for a military prison, a federal penitentiary was built in 1934. Alcatraz had a reputation of being a tough place, and prisoners who caused problems in other prisons were moved there. One of the most infamous prisoners must of been Al Capone, who was a known gangster. Other prisoners were for example Alvin "Creepy" Karpis and Robert Franklin Stroud aka " the Birdman of Alcatraz". He got this nickname because in the previous prison he was in, he was raising birds and made several studies about them. When he was moved to Alcatraz, they would not allow him to raise birds anymore. Actually, the whole island has gotten it's name after the birds nesting there. The Spanish word "Alcatraz" means pelican.
Since it was extremely expensive to maintain Alcatraz, and people believed it also contaminated the environment, the prison finally closed in 1963. In 1969 some American Indian activists took over the island. Their purpose was to raise awareness of how the American Indians were being treated in the United States. They occupied the island for almost two years and at the same time, destroyed many of the buildings there. Some of the graffiti's they made can still be seen at Alcatraz today.
Many remember Alcatraz for it's famous escape attempt which is also the storyline in the movie "Escape from Alcatraz". The star of the movie was Clint Eastwood, and it premiered in 1979. It tells the story of three prisoners who managed to escape from the island. They dug through the wall around the grille in their cells with a spoon and some other self made tools, until they were able to access the ventilation shaft. They also left some hand made dummies in their beds so that it would seem like someone was fast asleep. They left the island with a raft they made out of rain coats. No one knows for sure what happened to them. The water in the bay is very cold and the currents are dangerous. Even though it looks like that San Francisco is so close, it is actually far away from the island. Most people think that they drowned, but there are also many theories of how they survived and where they are now. If they did survive, they would be over 80 years old today.
Today Alcatraz Island is part of the National Park System. To visit, you will have to hop on a ferry which takes about 15 minutes to get there. Inside the prison you can do an audio tour which makes visiting there easy and flexible. You can also walk around outside and enjoy the view of the city of San Francisco. We were also able to meet a former inmate, William Baker, in the Alcatraz book store. He had come over to promote his book which talks about his time at the island.
If you plan to visit Alcatraz, you should remember that they don't sell any food there. If you want to bring something over, you will have to eat it by the dock. There is a cafeteria at the pier where the ferry leaves and also on the ferry itself. Alcatraz Island is also accessible to people with disabilities. Visiting the prison with small children is a little bit more challenging because the audio tour is not very entertaining for kids. Some parts of the prison might also seem scary. We had our four year old with us who was a little anxious to get out of the prison but we did ok. After the audio tour we went outside to see the birds and she loved it. Kids under 4 years old visit Alcatraz for free.
I would recommend to book your tickets as early as possible because Alcatraz is one of the most popular attractions in San Francisco, if not the most popular. It is easier to get them during the winter and during the week. The official ticket sales goes through Alcatraz Cruises. We took the 12:30 pm ferry to the island, and we were ready to return to the city sometime before 4 pm. When booking your tickets they will want to know at which time you will depart, but you can return with any available ferry. However, I would recommend not to wait for the last one, since it often gets very crowded. The ferry to Alcatraz departs from Pier 33.