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Alcatraz Island – San Francisco, CA

The Alcatraz, or “The Rock”, offers a close-up look at the federal prison long off-limits to the public. Over its history, Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay has served as a Spanish fort, U.S. Army military base, the West Coast’s first lighthouse and, most famously, as a maximum-security federal prison.

During its 29-year use as a penitentiary, it housed some of the country’s most dangerous criminals, including Al “Scarface” Capone, George "Machine Gun" Kelley, Henry Young, and Robert "The Birdman" Stroud.

Alcatraz is fixed in the American psyche as the ultimate prison—thanks in part to films such as the Clint Eastwood classic Escape from Alcatraz. These days, it is one of San Francisco's top attractions; with over one million people a year taking an Alcatraz tour.

Alcatraz’s famous prisoners

From the mid-1930's until the mid-1960's, Alcatraz was the final stop for

America’s formerly ‘most wanted’. These hardened criminals boasted crimes ranging from kidnapping to espionage, and bank robbery to murder.

The most famous inmates to call Alcatraz Island in San Francisco, CA their home were:

Al “Scarface” Capone was a notorious gangster much feared in the city of Chicago. By 1924, Capone controlled various rackets, including prostitution rings, bootlegging, and gambling houses. At its peak, Capone's empire was worth over $1.1 billion (in today’s dollars)

George "Machine Gun" Kelly, an extremely violent criminal, was first caught smuggling liquor and sentenced to three years in the State Penitentiary of New Mexico. He earned a trip to Alcatraz after falling in love with Kathryn Thorne and killing her husband.

Henry Young had an extensive criminal record including bank robbery, brutalizing a hostage and murder. Young attempted to escape from Alcatraz in January 1939.

Robert Stroud, brutally murdered a bartender and went on to become one of the most infamous criminals in the United States, hence his nickname: “Birdman of Alcatraz”. During his many years in prison, he reared birds and became a respected ornithologist. Stroud was inmate #594 at Alcatraz and was never released from prison.

Whitey Bulger was an organized crime boss and FBI informant who led the Winter Hill Gang outside of Boston, Massachusetts. Whitey was famously involved in a secret program that researched drugs like LSD for the CIA.

Inside Alcatraz

When new prisoners arrived to serve time in Alcatraz, they were assigned to a private cell and provided with necessities, like clothing, food, water and medical care. Anything more had to be earned through good behavior.

Alcatraz had a strict silence policy. Inmates were allowed to talk only during meals and recreation. At night when all activities stopped, inmates and guards alike could see and hear the bustling city of San Francisco from Alcatraz.

The most trusted prisoners in Alcatraz worked as servants cooking, cleaning, and attending to household chores for the families of the island guards. Some inmates were even trusted to care for the staff’s children.

Escapes from Alcatraz

Alcatraz  is just 1.25 miles from San Francisco but there was never a confirmed escape during the time it operated as a federal penitentiary.  As a precaution, the prison in San Francisco Bay was equipped with only hot showers so the prisoners could not become acclimated to the icy cold bay water.

There were 14 attempts to escape Alcatraz. All ended with the escapees being recaptured or killed…except one.

In 1962, Frank Lee and Clarence Morris and John Anglin used homemade tools to break out of their cells and make their way off the island using rafts fashioned from prison-issued raincoats. Their bodies were never found, and it is still debated whether they survived.

Fun fact: Great White Sharks, common off the coast, rarely come into San Francisco Bay near Alcatraz – but who knew? Prisoners were told they would be pursued and eaten if they swam in the water.

Alcatraz history

Before adopting its current name, the island was named “La Isla de los Alcatraces” (in English, “The Island of the Pelicans”) by Spaniard Juan Manuel de Ayala as he charted the San Francisco Bay in 1775.

President Millard Fillmore designated the island as Fort Alcatraz in the 1850s. When the American Civil War broke out, Alcatraz was loaded with cannon to protect the San Francisco Arsenal and valuable deposits of gold and silver.

In 1934, control of Alcatraz shifted to the federal Bureau of Prisons as they were struggling to deal with a surge of thugs and mobsters terrorizing America’s cities. The island’s steep cliffs, perilous currents, extreme tides, and frigid water temperatures made it the perfect place to lock away the country’s most violent criminals.

Much later, Alcatraz Island was the site of a year-and-a-half-long occupation by 89 members of The United Indians of All Tribes. The ‘red power’ activists claimed the island by rights granted in the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868). While the occupiers were removed in 1972, the protest led to the passage of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act.

Alcatraz Tours

Alcatraz Island falls within the boundaries of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Alcatraz Island tours are conducted by the National Park Service and its rangers. Private tour guiding is not permitted. Access to the island is limited to a single ferry service provided by Alcatraz Cruises.

Alcatraz Day Tour

The standard Alcatraz Day tour is no Disneyland ride. It is an experience with raw and rough edges to it. The tour begins with a 15-minute ferry ride over to the island. The views of the city skyline, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay Bridge, San Francisco Bay and Angel Island, are spectacular—have your camera ready.

After arriving on the island, groups are assigned a park ranger for a brief orientation to the island. The ranger will lead you up the hill to the prison entrance, where you will find the equipment for the Alcatraz audio tour.

A 45-minute Cellhouse Audio Tour is available and included with the purchase of your Alcatraz ferry ticket.  It directs you to see key spots, like Al Capone's cell B 181. and includes recordings from actual prisoners and guards who lived there. Besides English, the audio tour is available in French, Spanish, Italian, German, Dutch, Japanese and Mandarin.

Beyond the cell blocks, you can roam the island freely and at your own pace. There are many old structures, courtyards, a guardhouse, exercise yard and lighthouse to explore.

If you are into bird watching, Alcatraz is a special place. Among the species, you'll see are cormorants, orange-footed pigeon guillemots, snowy egrets, black-crowned night herons, and Western Gulls. Get more information about seabirds on Alcatraz here.

If you are feeling energetic, try the island’s 0.7-mile Agave Trail. The succulent-lined path built by prison guards, meanders through a eucalyptus grove, then descends to the water’s edge where you’ll find dazzling views of San Francisco, Golden Gate Bridge, Marin County, and nearby Angel Island.

Insider tip: Go outside and explore the grounds and views, then come back to do the audio tour. Most do the audio tour first, and people tend to get bunched up around the points of interest. This way, you have the cellblock portion of the tour (almost) all to yourself!

The Golden Gate National Recreation Area offers three other “special” Alcatraz Island tours to the public.

Alcatraz Night Tour

Duration: 2 hours 40 minutes

The Night Tour Alcatraz ferry makes a trip around Alcatraz Island before arriving at the dock and the tour includes activities and special presentations not offered during the day tour. Book early, the tour is popular and has only a few hundred tickets.

Alcatraz Behind the Scenes Tour

Duration: Approximately 4-5 hours

This tour starts with a guided 2-hour tour of the island with a park ranger, going to places where other tours don't, like the dungeon cells, a Civil-War-era tunnel, A Block cells, the prison chapel and the eerie prison hospital.

Alcatraz & Angel Island Combination Island Hop Tour

Duration: 6 hours

Angel Island is lovely  and considered to be the Ellis Island of the West Coast. Thousands of immigrants came through Angel Island, especially during the Gold Rush era. This combination tour gives you both islands in one tour.

We want you to really enjoy your time on the island, so here is some advice for your departure day:

  • Go to the Will Call booth at Pier 33 Alcatraz Landing
  • Arrive 30 minutes prior to your scheduled departure time
  • Bring a passport or photo ID as proof of your identity
  • Alcatraz tickets are issued to a person and are not transferable
  • Eat before you go. No food or drinks are allowed on the island
  • Bring a jacket even if it feels warm in the city
  • Don’t bring bags larger than a standard size backpack

Alcatraz Island tours are not offered on and New Year's Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day.

Insider tip: The first tour of the day is called the Early Bird Tour, leaving at 8:45 am. It is extremely popular because it's the first boat out to the island and you can explore before it gets really crowded.

Buying Alcatraz tickets

Each day, a limited number of tickets for San Francisco Alcatraz tours are sold. Since they are always in demand, getting Alcatraz tickets is not easy. During peak season, they can sell out weeks (or months) in advance.

The hardest times to get Alcatraz tickets are: June to August, the Christmas/New Years holidays, Easter break, Memorial Day and Labor Day.

Tickets for Alcatraz Island go on sale 90 days before the tour date. There are three ways to get Alcatraz tickets:

  1. Buy online. Only one company is authorized to ferry the visitors to Alcatraz. During peak season Alcatraz may be sold out, so book your tickets early!  To purchase Alcatraz tickets, view the schedule and/or for more information, visit the Alcatraz Cruises web site at www.alcatrazcruises.com.
  2. Line up. Alcatraz tickets for future tour dates are available for purchase by walking up to the Alcatraz Cruises kiosk at Pier 33. During peak season people line up before dawn for same-day Alcatraz tickets but even that is no guarantee.
  3. Book a tour package. Many local tour operators have Alcatraz tickets and offer them as part of a package bundled with other attractions. If your San Francisco plans include doing a tour of the City, Muir Woods, the Napa Valley Wine Country, or Yosemite National Park, this is a good way to get your Alcatraz ticket and save money.

Extranomical Tours has several Alcatraz package options.

Read more from the National Park Service.

Frequently Asked Questions About Alcatraz Island

How do you go to Alcatraz Island?

Only on ferries operated by Alcatraz Cruises. They depart from Pier 33 on The Embarcadero in San Francisco. Private vessels are not allowed to doc at Alcatraz island. Daily departures,  every 30 minutes to an hour depending on the season.

Where do you buy Alcatraz tickets?

There are three ways to get Alcatraz tickets:

  1. Buy online. Visit the Alcatraz Cruises web site at www.alcatrazcruises.com.
  2. Line Up. Future and same-day tickets are available at Alcatraz Cruises kiosk at Pier 33.
  3. Book a tour package. Many tour operators offer tickets as part of a package bundled with another attractions.

What do you do if Alcatraz is sold out?

There are cruises that go around the island but don't visit Alcatraz itself. A favorite is the Escape from the Rock Cruise by Blue and Gold fleet. The 90-minute bay cruise tells the stories of the most dramatic escape attempts While you enjoy San Francisco Bay. Learn more here.

Has anyone ever escaped from Alcatraz?

There have been 14 attempts to escape Alcatraz. All but one ended with the escapees being recaptured or killed. In 1962, Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin used homemade tools to break out of their cells and leave the island in makeshift rafts. Their bodies were never found and the official record is that they drowned.

What is the weather like on Alcatraz?

The weather on Alcatraz tends to be very unpredictable. It can be warm, windy and wet, sometimes all on the same day. It is risky to assume mild conditions in the summer. San Francisco has famously foggy and cold conditions in July and August.

Where is Alcatraz located?

Alcatraz is located in the middle of San Francisco Bay, approximately 1.25 miles (2.01 KM) from the northern shore of San Francisco and the northern tower of the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County. H

How do you get to the Alcatraz Island Ferry?

The following SF Municipal Railway (MUNI) bus lines stop within three blocks of THE Hornblower Alcatraz Landing at Pier 33:

  • #8X Third Street bus
  • #82X Presidio & Wharves Express bus
  • F Line streetcar. The most direct route. Use the Bay Street stop
  • #10 Townsend bus (Weekdays only, ending at 7 p.m.)

For additional information, routes and schedules, check the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency website.

Is there parking at Pier 33 Alcatraz Landing?

There is no parking at Pier 33. Street parking won't generally work as you will be at Alcatraz longer than the maximum stay for most of the nearby street parking locations. The Pier 39 garage usually has room. Check out more parking options on the map below.

What to know before going to Alcatraz?

It is a steep hill to reach the cellhouse. The distance from the dock to the cellhouse is approximately 1/4 mile and equivalent to a 13-story climb. Visitors unable to make this climb may take advantage of an hourly electric shuttle.

On a regular day, the last boat leaves Alcatraz at 5:50 pm in summer and 4:25 pm in winter. You can take any boat back, but plan to spend at least a few hours to see everything without feeling rushed.

What does Alcatraz mean?

Alcatraz Island received its name from the Spanish explorer, Juan Manuel de Ayala, as he traveled through and charted the San Francisco Bay in 1775. Upon noticing the countless birds that claimed the island, he labeled the plot of land La Isla de los Alcatraces, or Island of the Pelicans.

Why is Alcatraz famous?

Alcatraz was a U.S.  maximum-security prison in the middle of frigid San Francisco between 1934 and 1963. Sometimes known as “The Rock,” it had a reputation for housing the most notorious criminals  including Al Capone, Whitey Bulger, and George “Machine Gun” Kelly.

How long is the Alcatraz tour?

The tour is self-paced, and you can take any return Alcatraz ferry you like. Allow at least 3 hours for the whole trip; although many visitors spend more time exploring the prison, guard houses,  gardens and other island features.

When did Alcatraz close?

Due to the high cost of operating the prison and damage to the buildings from the salty conditions, the facility was closed in 1963. In 1972 it was designated as part of the newly created Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

What should you wear on your Alcatraz tour?

Weather on Alcatraz is always windy and unpredictable. Be sure to dress in layers and long pants. Don’t forget a jacket even if the day starts off sunny. You will be doing a bit of walking and climbing around the island, so firm walking shoes with a good tread are recommended.

Is Alcatraz haunted?

There are many unsubstantiated ghost stories surrounding the dreary Alcatraz Island prison. The most widely repeated haunt is that you can still hear the twang of Al Capone's banjo, which the notorious mobster often played during his sentence there.

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