Exploring Alcatraz Island
Visiting Alcatraz Island is maybe my most favorite thing to do in San Francisco. To me – a true crime lover, a National Park nerd and a history buff – the place is fascinating. I love the access visitors get to the notorious former prison, the views of San Francisco from the island, the self-guided audio tour and the intensely spooky vibe of the place.
Alcatraz Island is just one piece of Golden Gate National Recreational Area. In total, the GGNRA includes around 25 National Park Service-administered sites spread across San Francisco and Marin and San Mateo Counties.
To get to Alcatraz Island, you have to take a ferry. It’s a short ride, with indoor and outdoor seating. It offers incredible views of both Alcatraz Island and the San Francisco skyline and occasionally, on clear days, the Golden Gate Bridge. The ferry has snacks, including wine, beer and soft pretzels, but anything you purchase, other than water, must be consumed on board the boat as no food or drink is allowed on the island.
Once you get to Alcatraz Island, a park ranger gives a brief rundown of the rules, mostly that no food is allowed, not to wander off the marked paths and when the last boat of the day leaves, along with an overview of what there is to see and do on the island, where the bathrooms are and where to get water. After that, they send you off on your adventure, to wander the prison island known as “The Rock.”
Once you make your way up the hill, past the old officer’s quarters and gun positions, you’ll come to the prison. There, staff will ask your language and hand you an audio device with headphones and then you’re free to tour the prison at your own pace.
The tour is narrated by former prisoners and guards. They recount what it was like to live and work there, what some of the more infamous inmates, like Al Capone, were like, what solitary confinement was like and how lonely it was on New Year’s Eve, when prisoners could hear the sounds of revelers welcoming in the new year on boats outside their island prison. As the story is told, the narrator directs you through different parts of the prison, down different prison blocks, through the mess hall, into the offices where prison staff worked.
You get a lot of stories on the tour, a lot of details about significant events at the prison, but my favorite is the 1962 escape attempt.
Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary was designed to house the worst of the worst, the prisoners with no hope for rehabilitation and who had caused problems or trouble at other prisons. It was notoriously rough and, allegedly, impossible to escape from, mostly because it’s a rocky island in the middle of the San Francisco Bay.
Still, 14 escape attempts were staged by 36 inmates during the 29 years Alcatraz served as a federal prison. Most were recaptured and six were shot and killed. Two drowned and a few others were never found, but were listed as missing and presumed to have drowned.
In June of 1962, three men – Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin staged an incredible escape. They’d been digging for six months, slowly widening the ventilation duct in their cells with tools that included spoons they’d stolen from the dining facility. They concealed the holes with well-painted cardboard and shook the excess dirt from their pant cuffs during their time outside.
When the time came to escape, each inmate put a papier-mâché-type head on his pillow, well-painted and complete with full heads of hair and eyebrows, made from hair clippings they’d stolen from the floors of the barber shop. They piled towels and clothing on their beds to mimic the shapes of their bodies, snuck out of their self-dug tunnels into a forgotten corridor they’d used as a workshop and gathered their supplies. They’d managed to accumulate around 50 raincoats, which they’d sewn together to make rafts.
From there, the men climbed the ventilation shaft to the roof, slid 50 feet down a kitchen vent, climbed two 12-foot perimeter fences and inflated their rafts when they reached the water. According to tests conducted later, the rafts were so well-made that they would float indefinitely.
Allegedly, the three were heading for Angel Island, some two miles away.
Their escape wasn’t detected until the morning, when a 10-day search was launched. Authorities found a paddle, a wallet that belonged to the Anglin brothers and some shreds of a raincoat, presumably the remnants of a raft. But that’s it. No human remains were ever found and after a 17-year investigation, the FBI closed their case, ruling that the prisoners probably drowned in the cold waters of the San Francisco Bay. The U.S. Marshals didn’t give up so easily, and their case is still open and will remain so until the men are either found or until their 99th birthdays.
Chances are they drowned, but maybe they didn’t. The Anglin brothers were excellent swimmers. In their teens, they spent summers in Michigan, picking cherries with their family and swimming in the lake while ice still floated on the surface.
Over the years there’s been speculation on whether or not the men could have survived, with shows like MythBusters testing the feasibility of their escape.
A few months ago I listened to an episode of the podcast Criminal that talked about the Anglin brothers and their sister, now 82-years-old. She and the rest of the family still believe the brothers are alive, that they survived the escape and made it to Brazil.
Personally, I’m a sucker for a good mystery. There’s a certain amount of magic in the idea that these men escaped the most fearsome prison in America, made their ways to some far away land and are living out their old age in a tropical paradise somewhere.
Outside the prison there’s more to explore. There’s a whole garden club that keeps the vegetation looking lovely and the island is a happy home for a variety of bird friends. There’s a gift shop, too, and a video that goes into the full history of Alcatraz, beyond its use as a federal prison.
Once you’re done exploring, you’re free to leave on any available ferry. Even though the ride is short, I’ve made it a tradition to get a wine on the ride back, to quickly sip as I ponder the possibility of prison escapes.
Alcatraz Island is accessible by commercial ferry at Pier 33 on San Francisco’s Embarcadero. Tickets go on sale 90 days in advance and have been known to sell out, especially in the summer and during holiday weekends. Tickets range from $37.25 for a day tour to $44.25 for an evening tour, with other tour options and programs available seasonally. Alcatraz is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years Day.