Alcatraz Island

Located tantalizingly close to San Francisco, Alcatraz Island has intrigued Bay Area residents and visitors for decades. Known not-so-affectionately as The Rock to the murderers, thieves, embezzlers and other ne’er-do-wells who were incarcerated there, Alcatraz was an especially effective penal institution for holding the “worst of the worst,” as escape was nearly impossible. The cold water and perilous currents of San Francisco Bay and the perceived threat of great white sharks made swimming the 1.5-mile distance to the city a powerful but futile daydream for famous incorrigibles such as Al Capone, Alvin Karpis, Mickey Cohen and many others. In its 29 years of operation as a penitentiary, 36 prisoners made a total of 14 attempts to escape The Rock. In all, 23 escapees were apprehended, six were shot and killed, two drowned and five were officially listed as “missing and presumed drowned.” Three of those presumed drowned were Frank Morris, John Anglin and Clarence Anglin, the trio made famous in a film starring Clint Eastwood.

These days, Alcatraz has a very different look and feel than it did when the penitentiary closed in 1963. It is a very popular tourist destination reachable only by ferry, and it is also a thriving plant and wildlife sanctuary, home to many rare plants and animals. The cliffs along the western side of the island provide nesting sites for many different kinds of seabirds, there are interesting tide pools around the perimeter and a trip to the island affords one of the very best views of San Francisco.

The National Park Service operates Alcatraz Island, and visitors often learn that the island has been many different things since it began as a military reservation in 1850. Troops were stationed on the island to protect San Francisco Bay, and the first lighthouse on the west coast was built here in 1854. The officers in charge of the facility built some prison cells on the island to hold marauding pirates and prisoners of war, which provided a running start to the transition to federal penitentiary in 1933.

If you’re planning a visit to the Bay Area or are expecting visitors from out of town, a trip out to The Rock isn’t mandatory, but it is highly recommended. A company called Alcatraz Cruises operates the only official ferries out to the island, and transportation can be combined with several different tours, depending on what interests you. These tours range from 2.5 to 5 hours, and ticket prices begin at $30 a person. Visitors are advised to be wary of anyone approaching them with less expensive Alcatraz Island tickets, as these are almost certainly fake tickets that will not be honored at the ticket gate. It’s touristy, often crowded and more than a bit kitschy in spots, but once you get past the gauntlet of cheesy t-shirt and postcard shops, there are a lot more interesting things to see and learn about on Alcatraz Island than you’d think. The breathtaking view of the city and the Bay from this notorious island are probably worth the price of admission. Make sure to dress in layers, or your trip to The Rock will be brief and uncomfortable!