A visit to San Fran wouldn’t be complete without a day trip out to this little former prison island in the middle of the Bay.

It’s a fascinating place. Inside the prison quarters are dark and cramped. Outside the natural beauty is stunning.

It’s home to some truly great stories, including the famous escape from Alcatraz tale

It’s also a place where a lot of beauty can be found.

Let’s take a look around.


Here’s the view as you approach the island. The prison block is on top of the hill.

Of course, before you embark on your Alcatraz adventure, you’ve got to mark the occasion with a touristy snap!


Miss A and I ready to go

The American Indian occupation of Alcatraz

One of the first things you’ll see as you head up to the main prison building, is this graffiti-laden water tower.


After the prison shut down in the 60s, Alcatraz became unused federal property.

For almost 2 years from 1969, it was occupied by Native Americans who sought to reclaim the land.

Many signs of the occupation, like the graffiti on the tower, are still visible today.

The last protesters were removed in 1971, however the occupation sparked American Indian activism across the country and is even credited with impacting government policy. You can read more about it here.

The Prison

Once you reach the main prison building, you’ll have the option to grab a free audio guide.

It’s well worth doing as it guides you on a walk throughout the jail building.

Let’s meet some of the notorious inmates.


‘Creepy Karpis’ on the far right was a depression-era gangsta and, accordingly to our good friends at Wikipedia, was one of only 4 people to ever receive the title of public enemy #1 by the FBI.

During his days of crime he apparently had his fingerprints surgically removed, which I think we can agree is equal parts disturbing & committed.

He did the longest time of any person in Alcatraz, a total of 26 years.

There’s Al Capone, the famous crime boss on the far left. Of all his crimes, he eventually got done for tax evasion.

There was a big controversy over whether his pre-trial negotiations on paying back-taxes should have been admissible in his trial. He appealed his conviction, but failed. After 8 years of incarceration, he was released and he later died aged 48.

The tour takes you through the main cell building and you’ll see the recreation yard and the mess hall.

Escape from Alcatraz

If you get your timing right, after you finish your audio tour in the mess hall area,  you can listen to a talk about the famous prison escape of 1692.

This story is phenomenal.

No one was supposed to escape The Rock. But all the stars aligned for escapees Clarence Anglin, John Anglin and Frank Morris.

Over a period of about a year, they chipped away at ventilation shafts in their cells to gain access to an unused service corridor.

They created a raft out of stitched together raincoats, an idea believed to have been sparked by an article in a motoring magazine in the prison library.

They fashioned paper mache type dummy heads from soap, toilet paper and other bits and pieces and even added human hair saved from the prison barber shop.

This fooled the guards into thinking they were in their beds as they escaped through a loosened ventilation shaft onto the roof, in the dead of the night.

No bodies were ever found. Many people believe the Anglin brothers survived the escape and are still alive, living in South America.


There are some really beautiful features to be found in the old buildings.

This is one of the outer buildings, which is currently housing an exhibition on incarceration in the US. It has impressive industrial grid style windows, framing its outlook to the bay.


Loved this old sign

This striking spiral staircase links the upper and lower cell areas in the main building.


If you visit in the afternoon, you’ll see the afternoon light warm up the aged pale pink and green cell doors.

That pale pink is not too dissimilar from pantone’s rose quartz colour of the year, am I right?


But regardless of favourable paint conditions, life in Alcatraz would have been pretty horrible.

Just look at these tiny cells.


Not exactly open-plan

It would have been even worse to be stuck in one of the interior facing cells.

If I got thrown into Alcatraz and had to suffer the fate of receiving an inward cell while others were living it up in bay-facing cells, I seriously think that would have been it for me.

Day after day lying there, thinking about the other inmates basking in their pleasant afternoon light would just have been too much injustice to handle. 

And that would have been further compounded by the disastrous shower situation.


Privacy is clearly not a priority here.

Gardens of Alcatraz 

The gardens of The Rock were well maintained during the prison years, but then sadly abandoned with the prison closure.

Some plants managed to thrive despite the neglect. As Jeff Goldblum says in what is one of his finest cinematic moments, life… finds a way. 

In 2003 a program to fully restore the gardens began. Today volunteers maintain a combination of historically important plants and new species suited to the Bay environment. You can read about the delightful project here.


Around the island, nature is slowly reclaiming the crumbling buildings.




Here’s the stunning view looking back towards the city.


And here is the view looking out towards the Golden Gate Bridge.


And one final picture, just because it features a particularly pretty sailboat.


Trip Notes:

Getting to Alcatraz by ferry is much easier than you might think. Ferries depart from Pier 33. It’s well organised and not overly crowded. No jamming people in or jostling for positions like you sometimes experience on a Sydney ferry.

It’s about a 15 minute picturesque trip across the bay and you’re at Alcatraz before you know it.

Tickets for the ferry include your admission and are US$33.00 for an adult and US$20.50 for a child (under 4s free).

You can book online through Alcatraz Cruises, where you select your departure time.

Once there you are free to jump on any returning ferry.

Some people go for the night-time tour, which would be much scarier. Personally, I loved the nature side of the island and the Bay and I think it would be harder to appreciate this at night.


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