Alcatraz Island: An Inescapable Experience

Full disclosure. I stole that headline from the Alcatraz Cruises, LLC. I figured if I was writing about a former maximum-security prison, a little larceny was fair game!

O'Neal Alcatraz Island 5-15
Alcatraz Island: “The Rock.”

A Bit of History
The name “Alcatraz” is a corruption of “La Isla de Los Alcatraces,” or “island of the sea birds,” given to an island in the San Francisco Bay by the Spaniard Juan Manuel de Ayala when he charted the area in 1775. The first permanent structures known to have been built on the island were completed in the 1850s. The first lighthouse on the West Coast of the United States was built here in 1854, and the U.S. Army built a defensive fort here in 1859—the largest west of the Mississippi during the Civil War Era.

The use of Alcatraz as a prison began with the military as well, with the first prisoners arriving in 1860. Over the next 70 years, soldiers needing disciplinary action were housed there. These prisoners built most of the structures you see on the island today. But the Alcatraz most of us know came after its incarnation as a military prison, when it became America’s first maximum-security federal penitentiary in 1934. The mystique of its highly visible yet isolated-by-water location, coupled with the notoriety of some of the prisoners housed there, including Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly, secured Alcatraz Island’s place in history.

Touring Alcatraz Today
Today, Alcatraz Island is part of the National Park Service. Your tour begins on the nation’s first hybrid ferry, a vessel “powered largely by solar panels, wind turbines, and grid electricity.” Alcatraz Cruises is authorized by the National Park Service to serve as the transportation concessionaire for the island. Once you arrive at the island, you are free to roam the open areas at your own pace. Park Rangers are on hand to answer questions and provide guidance, including a short orientation presentation as each ferry arrives at the island and presentations within the cellblock.

O'Neal Alcatraz Island 4 5-15
Cell 140, from which a notorious escape was attempted.

From the ferry landing, head uphill to the cellblock. It’s a bit of a climb—about ¼-mile and some 130 feet in elevation gain. For this short walk and some of the other steep and sometimes uneven surfaces on the island, comfortable walking shoes are a must. A shuttle is available for those individuals who cannot walk to the cellblock. As Alcatraz Island is also home to certain rare plants and animals, and due to safety concerns for visitors, some areas of the island are not accessible to visitors.

A Cellhouse Audio Tour is available in many languages for all visitors to Alcatraz Island. Voices of actual correctional officers and inmates narrate the experiences and history that occurred in the various rooms of the cellblock. The cost of the optional, self-paced audio tour is included in your ticket to the island.

Touring in and around the cellblock, you will have the opportunity to see various cells (including those from which escapes were attempted) and other rooms and facilities that were part of the prison complex. Not all parts of the former penitentiary are open all of the time, but areas you can see (and, in some cases, enter) might include the mess hall, the morgue, the hospital, and the exercise yard. While state-of-the-art at the time, the decades have taken their toll, and the facilities at Alcatraz are gritty and thoroughly aged, providing an appropriately grim experience.

A cell in the main cellblock.
A cell in the main cellblock.

Prices And Logistics
Tickets for sailing to and touring Alcatraz can be purchased at The cost is $30 per person (at least in 2015), with discounts for children 5- to 11 years of age ($18.25), and Seniors 62 and over ($28.25); children up to the age of 4 are free. A night tour is also available; tickets are slightly higher.

The boat sails about a dozen times a day from Pier 33 on San Francisco’s Embarcadaro. Bring a photo ID. The tickets are for a specific sailing and are non-transferable and non-refundable. The time on your ticket is the SAILING time, and they mean it. Boarding begins 30 minutes in advance of that time, and gates close 5 minutes prior to departure, so don’t be late.

Parking is a more than a little difficult, so get there plenty early. You are free to take any of the return sailings when you are ready to leave the island.

For more information on parking, weather, logistics, and special exhibits on the island, see the Alcatraz Island portion of the National Park Service website at


Top Photo: Author Sally O’Neal and husband Mike Coleman.


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