Alcatraz Island – San Francisco Bay, California

Jocelyn Murray January 14, 2012 2 Comments

Alcatraz Island

View of Alcatraz Island

From a distance, Alcatraz Island appears like an idyllic outcrop rising from a tranquil San Francisco Bay in Northern California. It looks lush with its green vegetation, flowers, and variety of bird species that find refuge on this remote landmass. Even the twinkling lights that illuminate it at night seem to beckon with romance. Who would have ever thought that this little island was used as an army fortress, military prison, and a maximum-security federal penitentiary. For in contrast to its idyllic appearance, it was a place of infamy, hardship and Hollywood myth. A place that housed the most hardened of criminals – those transferred from other prisons who broke the prison rules – to serve out jail sentences on this isolated rock. A desolate and craggy boulder buffeted by cold winds and treacherous currents in a lonely bay.


Alcatraz Guard Tower

Alcatraz Guard Tower

Alcatraz Island is a National Historic Landmark and was used to house Civil War prisoners as early as 1861, so one can see that its historical use as a penal colony goes way back. It is also home to the United States west coast’s oldest operating lighthouse, and has been featured in many television shows, Hollywood films, books, games, and other media.


Alcatraz Cruises


Alcatraz Cruises

Alcatraz Cruises offer short and comfortable ferry rides to the island

I had the opportunity to visit and tour Alcatraz Island recently with my family in December 2011. We went with Alcatraz Cruises who is the official authorized concessioner for tickets to Alcatraz Island.  Being one who has a very low threshold for motion sickness, I was a bit apprehensive before boarding the ferry at Pier 33 near Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, California. However, this large ferry was roomy and very comfortable, taking us to the island in just a short 12 minute comfortable ride without any sea sickness problems or queasiness whatsoever. Alcatraz Cruises conveniently provide transportation to the island at about 30 to 40-minute intervals.


Golden Gate Bridge

The panoramic views from the ferry - like the Golden Gate Bridge - are beautiful

Alcatraz Cruises operates a well-organized schedule of getting visitors to and from Alcatraz Island in a smooth and efficient manner. The ferry also had a concession stand for coffee, beverages and snacks, as well as clean restrooms. There are plenty of comfortable seating areas inside the ferry, although passengers are free to wander outside on the decks by the railing to enjoy the panoramic bay views. A professional photographer takes passenger photos before they board so that they can have the option to purchase the photos upon their return back to the pier after visiting the island.



Alcatraz Cruises ferry vistas

San Francisco rising in silhouette above the shimmering bay as seen from the ferry

Because the tickets sell out several days to a few weeks in advance – especially during peak holiday seasons – it is best to book early to guarantee spots on the ferry. For tickets to Alcatraz visit the official Alcatraz Cruises website at where you will find plenty of information on tours, the history of Alcatraz, the fauna and flora of the island, live streaming web cams, video clips, slide shows, and much more.


Touring the Rock


Alcatraz cell house - exterior

Exterior view of the cell house - note the moisture-damaged corrosion in the concrete

Once we disembarked on Alcatraz, we listened to a short informative chat about the island. We then stopped at the clean restrooms by the dock and continued on with our sightseeing. There are complementary interpretive walks offered by park rangers and volunteers, self-guided tours, many exhibits with memorabilia and information about the history of Alcatraz, free audio tours, and bookstores selling a variety of postcards, books, videos, apparel and Alcatraz-themed souvenirs. Visitors can also watch a 17-minute orientation video in the theater by the cell house which introduces guests to Alcatraz. Because the island is full of steep hills, it’s best to wear comfortable walking shoes. Visitors can also take the electric shuttle that runs twice hourly from the dock to the cell house building.


Alcatraz Cell House

Interior view of the cell house

Being with my two children – ages 7 and 9 – I choose the self-guided tour and audio tour so we could see the island at our own pace. It was fascinating. The audio tour is available in several languages and free of charge. This award-winning 45-minute recorded tour is a captivating account of life on Alcatraz given by former inmates, correctional officers and residents. This audio tour really brought the history of Alcatraz alive in an extraordinary way. It was informative, exciting, and suspenseful, especially given that it was told by the actual people who experienced it – the prisoners and the guards themselves. What a fascinating account of a much dramatized subject! Visitors even learn about life on the island from the resident guards’ families and what it was like to live there even for the children who caught the ferry to go to school in San Francisco then return back to the island in the afternoons.



Alcatraz prison cell

Alcatraz prison cell - note the chiseled air vent below the sink

The cell house itself was the most interesting part of the tour for us.  My children stared in awe through the metal bars at the dreary little cells that housed the inmates. It was a cold dismal place reserved for those incorrigible prisoners that included the notorious Al “Scarface” Capone, Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, “Doc” Barker, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Robert Stroud – the “Birdman of Alcatraz” among others. We learned about the attempted escapes, the notable inmates, and general prison life. One of the prominent rules was “You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter, and medical attention. Anything else you get is a privilege.” (Number 5, Alcatraz Prison Rules and Regulations, 1934)


Alcatraz recreation yard

Time in the recreation yard was an earned privilege

We spent less than two hours discovering the island, listening to the audio tour, exploring the areas of the cell house – including the prison library, kitchen and showers – the recreation yard, and perusing the gift shops before heading back to the dock where we once again boarded the Alcatraz Cruises ferry that comfortably returned us to Pier 33 in San Francisco.


Though the story of Alcatraz Island is rather bleak and disturbing, it is a notable part of history, and one worth learning firsthand by visiting with Alcatraz Cruises. I would highly recommend this to anyone interested in its history, as well to those seeking to dispel the many myths surrounding this lonely outcrop in the San Francisco Bay.

avatarAbout the Author:

Jocelyn Murray is a travel writer and historical fiction novelist. She holds two university master's degrees in both English and Education, along with a bachelor's degree in Economics and European Studies. She also has a teaching credential and taught at the elementary school level.

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2 Comments to “Alcatraz Island – San Francisco Bay, California”
  1. avatar Noeleen Elvin says:

    I went on the official Alcatraz cruise to the island. I went with a cynical mind, having only seen movies etc about it.

    I was surprised and moved at how hauntingly sad the trip was and the self guided walk was excellent and I would recommend this trip to any visitor to SF

    • avatar Jocelyn Murray says:

      It is hauntingly sad, especially being that it is isolated in that cold bay which is often shrouded in mists. But so fascinating nevertheless.

      And although the prisoners were as hardened as they come, and their sentences were deserved, one cannot help feeling sad for the barren surroundings on this desolate rock. It is deeply moving.

      Thank you for your insightful comment Noeleen :)