My first real day in California, I went to Alcatraz.

It was really quite a great experience.  I wasn’t sure what to expect. I typically enjoy parks for natural beauty and find that sometimes the history behind things to be tedious.  THe entire set up of Alcatraz was perfect for me.

I most definitely did not visit the island during my childhood trip to San Francisco.  I was there in the late 1970’s and while it was designated as Federal Lands, it was not exactly the tourist location it is now.

Originally, Alcatraz was used by military forces as a defense point.  One can see the remains of some of the large cannons and such as you stroll about the steep sides of the Island.

At some point this was no longer seen as a high priority and…

In 1909 the U.S. Army began construction on the largest reinforced concrete structure in the world – a new military prison necessary because of a large influx of U.S. soldiers convicted of crimes in the Philippines. This building would become the famous U.S. Penitentiary Alcatraz in 1934.  Taken straight from the US Park Service Website, HERE.

The Park is accessible by ferry only, so we took the ferry across the bay.


It was a gorgeous day in San Francisco, and I really enjoyed being out on the ferry in sun shine.

Once we arrived at the park, we were huddled up around a Ranger who did some fast Alcatraz Trivia.  This is the sort of thing I don’t much go for, but I listened and looked around and waited for everyone to be “turned loose”  It turns out this “trivia”  is to allow everyone to get off the boat!


First thing I really saw as I got situated was the guard tower above everything else.

Then of course:


If you, like me, are not really up on Alcatraz history, the “Indians Welcome”  – painted behind the penitentiary sign may seem strange.  I myself wondered.  My friend explained that at one point after Alcatraz closed…the island was taken over by Native Americans.  Actually, In 1964, and again in 1969 American Indians – laid claim to Alcatraz Island. Their 18 month occupation would cause a great change in federal policy towards American Indians that would save the tribes. For more on this click here.  I rather liked how all the history of Alcatraz was represented, rather than just the focus on the famous prison. 

We were issued a free audio tour and listening set.  Usually I do not do the audio tours, since they can be BO-RING.  My friend though told me he felt this one was very good.  So, I started it.  The audio tour was fantastic.  Narrators of the tour included former inmates, and guards, so there was a very real and genuine tone about the recording.  In addition the producers used very appropriate sound effects to really bring things to life.  Without it, I think I would actually have enjoyed the entire experience quite a bit less.


It was fascinating to hear actual inmates discuss life on “the rock”  rather than listening to a prim and proper “neutral” voice.  The emotion in the voices really made the place come alive.  Without it, I fear that Alcatraz may have become a photo op for getting my picture taken “behind bars”  which is what a great deal of the tourists did.  I for whatever reason, wasn’t in the mood to vamp behind the bars.

The most interesting fact I learned was that guards actually resided with their families on the island.  Given that the ferry ride is at most 25 minutes.  I was very surprised.  In our current political climate, it would be seen as very unsavory to raise a family on a small island where some of the worst criminal offenders were residing.  Apparently back in the 1930’s it was not seen that way.  There was a playground for the children as well as (obviously) housing on site.  That childhood must have been quite the experience for those kids!


Alcatraz is also home to many many birds.  For a Brid nerd like myself, this was really the best part of the story!


For most people it kind of seemed like “The Birdman of Alcatraz- Robert Stroud” makes sense because of all the bird life on “the Rock”  (Actually, Robert Stroud never kept birds on Alcatraz.)  For me, it was a little unexpected piece of happiness.  I saw Cormorants, the gulls, and some herons up close and personal.  For more information on the birds of Alcatraz…click here.

The area is loosely maintained with some gardens and such that support this incredible bird life.  A walk outside of the prison halls really brought so much enjoyment!

All in all we spent 2-4 hours on the island.  I really really enjoyed this visit and would do it again in a heartbeat.  I rather wish I had read the NPS website ahead of time, but…reading it afterwards has certainly added to my understanding!  If you are in San Francisco, this is most definitely worth and afternoon, or if you are lucky, an evening!


7 thoughts on “Alcatraz

  1. I never knew it was a military prison, I thought it was just a prison for really ‘bad’ people. I’d like to visit one day, I guess its eerie in there though!

  2. I love, love, LOVE Alcatraz! We went to SF in May and that was one of the places I wanted to go. We did the night tour and it was amazing! I loved hearing the slamming of the doors at the end of the night. The audio tour was fantastic. I was able to be completely immersed in the story with the narration and the sound effects. When I stepped into solitary, I was absolutely giddy! “I am standing in Alcatraz in solitary!” Even my 4 year old loved it (although he didn’t grasp the history aspect).

  3. I went out to Alcatraz when I first visited America – 1999 – and was fascinated by the history. Then around 2004 I took one of my sons on a visit – he was 17 at the time so he was one of those people wanting a photo of themselves in a cell 🙂 I’d love to do one of the night tours next visit. Your photos are great.

    • I was surprised I didn’t want the photo in the cell, for whatever reason at the moment, it did not appeal to me. Not that overall the idea isn’t kind of appealing!

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