What to Expect When Landing on the Rock

Katherine RivardTravel Ideas
View of Alcatraz Island in California
NPS Photo / Alison Taggart-Barone

Looking out from the Bay area’s northern waterfront, Alcatraz Island is visible just over a mile from shore. Most famous for its years as a federal prison, the island is now preserved by the National Park Service as a part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It keeps alive the stories of its inmates, as well as the island’s many other layers of history. Consistently named a must-see spot in the Bay area, Alcatraz ranks as the number one activity to do in San Francisco according to TripAdvisor.com — ready to start planning a #FindYourPark / #EncuentraTuParque trip to the Rock?

More Than a Prison

Image of sign on Alcatraz Island that say "Indian Property"
National Park Service

The U.S. government first took notice of the island shortly after California became a state in 1850. Soon they decided there was a need for defenses on the island and in 1853, the construction of Fortress Alcatraz began. A year later, the lighthouse was built, making it the first one on the Pacific coast. Even before the war started, the fortifications on the island were used to contain soldiers who had committed crimes, and by 1861, it was officially considered a government military prison, which it remained until its transfer to the Federal Bureau of Prisons in 1933.

The most famous stories of the prison center began during the Great Depression, including stories about gangsters like Al Capone or the infamous escape of two prisoners during the 1960s. But the island has long been tied to the native people. Ten to twenty thousand years before the Bay area was mapped by Europeans in the late 1700s, Native Americans already lived in the area. They utilized Alcatraz Island as a place of isolation, a camping spot, an area for food gathering, and more.

Native Americans continued to spend time on Alcatraz throughout the next century. In 1895, the government jailed 19 Hopi Native Americans on the island. The group spent one year in the prison — retribution from the U.S. government after the Native Americans pushed back against forced education and assimilation attempts.

After the super-prison closed in 1963, another group of Native Americans, many of them students from various nations across the U.S., returned to the island. Thus began the first of 3 occupations by Native Americans between November 1969 and June 1971. The hope was to receive full title to the land and to establish a Native American university and cultural center. They did not reach all their goals, but they succeeded in bringing national attention to the plight of Native Americans and the need for self-determination.

How to Get There

To get to the island, visitors must purchase ferry tickets through a private company, Alcatraz Cruises LLC. The trip is approximately 15 minutes long. The island is open every day except Christmas, Thanksgiving, and New Year’s Day and cruises depart every half hour. Despite frequent ferries, open hours change based on the season and tickets should be bought in advance, as they frequently sell out.

What to Do

A lush garden with rows of green comprises brightly colored annuals and perennials alongside a gravel walkway on Alcatraz Island

Officers Row Garden

National Park Service

Arriving on the island, you’ll receive a brief orientation about what programs and tours are available that day. Almost daily hikes enable rangers to teach visitors more about everything from the Marin Headland’s wild plants to the history of Fort Baker. Visiting during the day provides opportunities to see more of the island as several areas are closed to the public during the evening. Nevertheless, evening tours include narrations during the ferry ride, as well as a guided tour from the dock to the cellhouse level and other added programs.

Visitor center information and exhibits can be found in Building 64, a Civil War era fortress just up the road from the dock. After enjoying the orientation video full of historical footage, take the self-guided audio tour which brings the penitentiary’s stories to life through the voices of former guards and inmates. Many guests are also surprised by the beautiful gardens and the premier views of colonial nesting seabirds.

From late September until February, visitors can hike the historic parade ground and down the Agave Trail to the water. No matter when you go, be sure to dress appropriately for the weather! Weather on the island is always unpredictable so it’s best to dress in layers and to be prepared for rain during the winter.

The Rock’s many layers of history continue to draw crowds to this beautiful island each year, surprising many with the island’s diversity of stories, birds, and horticulture. No matter your interest, you’re sure to find a story or activity that resonates with you when you visit Alcatraz Island.

Start planning now for this day trip just a ferry ride from San Francisco.

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