Alcatraz Island Unlocked: A Deep Dive into the History and Lore of The Rock

A military prison shrouded in mystery and home to hundreds of blood-thirsty criminals. The allure of Alcatraz Island is undeniable.

What was once one of the United State’s most feared military operations has endured multiple iterations as a Civil War fortress, bird sanctuary, and lighthouse. Follow along to learn everything you need to know about the things to do on Alcatraz Island today.

Housed by the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and run by the National Park Service. This former federal prison has a storied legacy. From woeful tales of Robert Stroud, the Birdman of Alcatraz to attempts to escape the frigid waters of San Francisco Bay, every inch of this indomitable fortress is worth exploring.

Don’t let fog, wind, or confusion deter you from traversing this haunted locale. From the ferry rides to the native american occupation to where to catch the ferry, our go-to guide will do a deep dive into all things Alcatraz.

Ready to visit the Rock? Read on!

Alcatraz Island Tours

Want to really paint the Golden Gate City red? If you have more time to spare in this city of sourdough and suspension bridges. Combine your escape with all the things to do in San Francisco Alcatraz:

  • Escape from the Rock Cruise – Swap out landlubbing for a high-seas adventure when you spend 90 minutes cruising around this high-security prison and directly underneath the Golden Gate Bridge. Listen up as you are regaled with thrilling stories of Billy Cook the Killer, Clyde Johnson, and more.
  • Alcatraz Plus 2-Day Hop-On Hop-Off City Tour – Sea Lions, Golden Gate Park, and Haight Ashbury oh my! Stick some flowers in your hair, because you’re about to receive two full days of VIP-worthy sightseeing. Spend time by Union Square and snap a photo in front of Chinatown’s Dragon Gates, all before touring the world’s most infamous prison.
  • San Francisco City Tour with Alcatraz – This seven-hour urban adventure is jam-packed with Frisco attractions and gorgeous scenery. Savor professionally guided narration and a hotel pickup as you make your way through landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge, Twin Peaks, Pacific Heights, and Alcatraz.
ferry docking area for the entrance and exit to Alcatraz Island on a sunny day in San Francisco, California, USA
photo credit: Burnette Burnette via Facebook

Where is Alcatraz Located

Ever wondered where is Alcatraz? This rocky island of criminals and strange birds can be found 1.23 miles (2.01 km) off the northern shore of San Francisco.

Back in 1775, during its first round of exploration, this rugged habitat was home to little more than some hardy vegetation and seabirds.

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First called Alcatraces or ‘Isle of the Pelicans’ by Juan Manuel de Ayala. It would eventually be sold to the government. Due to its Bay location, Alcatraz must be visited by ferry.

About Alcatraz Prison

Much more than larger-than-life stories about Al Capone and George Machine Gun Kelly, this mound of terror has seen Indians of all tribes and battles over armed convicts.

Before the penal system took hold and prison buildings were constructed, Alcatraz was the site of the first lighthouse on the coast of California.

Eventually, it would become a designated residence for both military offenders and a group of Native Americans called the Hopi. Officially, by 1907, the island was deemed part of the Pacific Branch of the United States Military Prison.

After being used as a dumping ground for government disruptors, the island was transferred to the U.S. Department of Justice for use by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

For almost three decades, until the prison closed in 1963 Alcatraz was an impenetrable fortress containing the likes of Robert Stroud and Al Capone. Suffocating cell block spaces measured out at 10 by 4.5 feet, and escape attempts were rare. The few that dared often were assumed to have drowned in the Bay’s rough currents.

One of the most iconic attempts was mounted in 1946 and was later nicknamed the Battle of Alcatraz. This violent escape led to the death of two Federal Bureau of Prisons officers and three of the perpetrators.

Since 1972 Alcatraz has been considered part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and enjoyed yet another reincarnation as a popular San Francisco tourist destination.

Ground view of ruins of the old Warden House with green shrubs and people walking in front of it on a sunny day on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco, California, USA
photo credit: Wayne Chapman via Facebook

What Can You Do at Alcatraz Island

All set to do some time? Once you arrive on this fearsome rock pile, you’ll be met with a 13-story climb. We recommend wearing comfortable walking shoes and clothing as you will be getting in those steps!

Upon your visit to Alcatraz, you will receive a listening device that will guide you through the unbelievable facts, stories, and history of Alcatraz’s prison guards and inmates.

This award-winning audio tour is available in multiple languages. It also features the voices of real inmates and workers. For a more in-depth dive into cell life, other guided programs are available.

Those left with larger questions about the justice of the American penal system will be fascinated by the new exhibit, The Big Lockup: Mass Incarceration in the United States.

This display takes a hard look at the significance of Alcatraz as seen through the larger lens of slavery and incarceration, perfect for visitors still wondering what to do at Alcatraz Island.

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The audio tour, visitors can take their time soaking in Alcatraz as a tourist attraction and make their way through such highlights as:

  • Gardens of Alcatraz
  • Recreation Yard
  • Rock pools and seabird colonies
  • Ruins of the Warden’s House and Officers’ Club
  • The oldest operating lighthouse on the West Coast

Among the best Alcatraz activities is the on-site theater, where you can watch a short film on the prison’s history. And multiple gift shops where you can pick up the perfect Fog City souvenir.

Psst..curious about where to find the Alcatraz East Crime Museum? This privately owned crime museum can be found in Pigeon Forge and makes for a great Tennessee detour for the penal-obsessed.

view of doors and cells during a self-guided audio tour through Alcatraz Island in San Francisco, California, USA

Alcatraz Island Ferry

On the hunt for more things to do near Alcatraz? To see everything from the Gardens of Alcatraz to the Golden Gate Bridge, you’ll need to purchase your ferry tickets. Alcatraz tickets include your ferry ride and allow you to enjoy all of the things to do in Alcatraz at your own pace.

Ferry tickets can be purchased online through Alcatraz City Cruises! You can contact us via phone at 1-415-981-ROCK or in person at the ferry departure point at Pier 33. Please note that the National Park Service strongly suggests making advanced ticket reservations.

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Tickets are available for purchase approximately 90 days in advance. Buying your tickets ahead of time online secures your visit and eliminates the need to wait in line to purchase tickets.

All Alcatraz tickets are all-inclusive and include the ferry transportation service and the cellhouse audio tour. Pack that windbreaker and enjoy the sights! The ferry ride will take approximately 20 minutes and feature jaw-dropping San Francisco city skyline views.

Visitors can choose to arrive at Pier 33 via public transit or car. For more information on various parking options click here.

Soaring gulls and the sound of crashing waves provide an almost dulcet soundtrack to what was once referred to as a ‘living nightmare.’

A place of history, heritage, and hardship, some still say they can hear the ghostly cries of former inmates. Or see the shadowy outlines of passed-on guards.

The best Alcatraz tours offer up more than haunting tales of solitary confinement and thwarted escape attempts. Visiting Alcatraz gives us a peek into another time, place, and perspective.

Locals and visitors alike may gain a new perspective on the Golden Gate City and the U.S. prison system as they experience what life was like on the Rock.

view of alcatraz island during daytime in San Francisco, California, USA

Alcatraz FAQs

Described as a must-see for any San Francisco visitor, Alcatraz is absolutely worth seeing - once. The island's rich history, filled with tales of infamous criminals and daring escapes, is enough to stimulate the curiosity of any adventurer.

Coupled with the iconic view of the city's skyline from Alcatraz night tour, the experience is certainly worth the trip, effectively rounding up the things to do at Alcatraz.

Historically, Alcatraz, the seemingly impenetrable fortress, only reported one successful escape attempt. The famous trio that pulled off this daring breakout included John Anglin, Clarence Anglin, and Frank Morris.

These infamous prisoners successfully managed to elude the formidable Alcatraz security, leaving behind a mystery that continues to intrigue historians and enthusiasts to this day.

Tell us, Will You Dare to Visit Alcatraz?

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Written by Isis Maya Nissman

A New York native, Isis-Maya spent most of her professional life working in TV production until a vacation whisked her away to Central...

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