The island is one of the most famous sights in the city of San Francisco.

The island is one of the most famous sights in the city of San Francisco.
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Alcatraz: San Francisco’s historic National Park

USA Travel Essentials

The Rock is one of the most famous prisons in the United States, and is now a protected National Park which is open for historical tours.

The Rock was once a notorious island to which the most dangerous prisoners were sent, such as Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud and George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly. The prison officially closed in 1963, and now the island, which sits out on San Francisco’s famous bay, is one of the most famous sights in the city.

Although the small island, which is covered in nesting seabirds, looks beautiful from the water, it is very isolated and the crumbling grey buildings, empty cells and graffitied walls, along with the rough waves and cold wind feel immediately haunting and it is clear both why it was used for incarceration as well as how terrible it must have been to be stuck there for both prisoners and guards. 

Arriving at Alcatraz

Upon arrival at the island, visitors are greeted by a ranger from the National Park Service who gives a short talk on what to expect from the island, including information about any demonstrations or talks and how to get around. From here, visitors are free to explore, either by wandering around or following the long path up to the cell block. The most recognisable sights along the way are the Residential Apartments, which were once the home of the prison guards and their families, as well as a water tower and the morgue, which was used for deceased prisoners, which, although you are not allowed into, gives a creepy insight into life on the island.

The Cell Block

Audio guides are collected from within the cellblock, in the area which was used as the shower room for inmates; it is visitors first introduction to the prison and the room is stark and disturbing, with just a few bare taps and no cubicles. The guides are available in almost all languages, and each point is referenced by a number seen on signs in the cellhouse. Inside, visitors can wander through the rows of cells, see inside each one and discover how the prisoners lived and how the guards dealt with living on the island amongst the inmates. It is fascinating to see the items kept by prisoners, who took up hobbies such as playing the guitar and painting to pass the time, although the 9ft by 5ft cells are impossibly small and it is immediately clear why many were driven mad.

Two cells have a large hole in the wall, where you can learn about the infamous and amazing escape attempt which took place using just a spoon, and visitors can also explore the visitation room, Prison Warden’s office, the dining room and the yard, which is surrounded by high concrete walls to prevent escape, which is made even more moving due to the misty view over the beautiful city of San Francisco.

Along with exploring the prison, the audio guide is voiced by real guards and ex-prisoners, who explain what life was like on The Rock, including their day-to-day lives, the crimes they committed, and the various unsuccessful escapes which took place. Outside on the island, visitors can explore almost all the way around, visiting the different buildings that housed the island’s staff, such as a fire station and the Prison Warden’s house, which is now rubble. The island has magnificent views over San Francisco, and the Golden Gate Bridge is clearly visible on sunny days. Prisoners are said to have loved the view, and could even hear and see the fireworks and celebrations in the city each New Year’s Eve, although there is certainly a sense of melancholy as many prisoners the view would certainly have tormented the prisoners who were stuck in such a desolate place.

History of The Rock

Alcatraz was first named after Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala, who called the island La Isla de los Alcatraces, meaning Island of the Pelicans, since it is home to a variety of protected seabirds. In 1850, the then American President Millard Fillmore decided the island should be used by the military and began holding military prisoners. Eventually, a new prison building was built on the island, which was taken over by the Justice Department of the United States. The prisoners who were held here were classed as those who were too dangerous to be held in other prisons, although at its maximum capacity, Alcatraz held up to 275 inmates. Al Capone was regarded as the most famous prisoner, spending four years on the island, while Machine Gun Kelly was jailed there for 17 years, and Alvin Karpowicz, one of the most wanted criminals in America, served 25 years. The prison finally closed its doors in 1963 and is now one of the most popular tourist attractions in San Francisco.

How to get there

Alcatraz can be reached via ferry, which picks passengers up at Pier 33 in San Francisco and takes around 15 minutes. Tickets must be bought online in advance, and the average time spent on the island in order to see everything is around 3 hours. Visitors have the option of buying a standard day tour ticket which includes the ferry, costing $42, or the night tour option which is $31, and tours are self-led using an audio-guide.

There is also a ‘Behind the Scenes’ tour option which is $90, but which also covers areas not generally open to the public. The island has no food outlets, although some food and drink can be purchased on the ferry, and no food is allowed on the island, so it is highly recommended to eat before or after a visit.

Like the city, the island is extremely windy and often colder than surrounding areas, so warm clothes are advised. Also note that the walk from the ferry dock up to the Cell House is up a very steep hill, approximately 136ft high, however those with accessibility issues can opt to take a golf-buggy to the top instead.

India-Jayne Trainor

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