Visit Alcatraz Island

Acatraz Island Tour and Tickets

Alcatraz: for over 150 years, the name has given the innocent chills and the guilty cold sweats. Over the decades, it’s been a military prison, a forbidding maximum-security penitentiary and disputed territory between Native American activists and the FBI. No wonder that first step you take onto ‘the Rock’ seems to cue ominous music: dunh-dunh-dunnnnh!

It’s also no wonder that Alcatraz garners 1.4 million visitors each year. With easy access from a major city, a thrilling and unexpected history, and stunning views of the San Francisco skyline, The Rock remains one of the most visited national parks in the US system. But for much of Alcatraz’s history, this was a place people worked very hard to escape – not spend a pleasant afternoon with their families. 

Alcatraz Island tickets San Francisco Tour

In 1972, the National Park Service purchased Alcatraz along with Fort Mason from the U.S. Army to establish the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Under “An Act to Establish the Golden Gate National Recreation Area” President Richard Nixon allocated $120 million for land acquisition and development of the area. It has since been under the direction of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and now operates as a tourist site and museum dedicated to its time as a federal penitentiary. Operating costs still remain one of its biggest challenges today. 

The history of Alcatraz

It all started innocently enough back in 1775, when Spanish lieutenant Juan Manuel de Ayala sailed the San Carlos past the 22-acre island he called Isla de Alcatraces (Isle of the Pelicans). In 1859 a new post on Alcatraz became the first US West Coast fort, and soon proved handy as a holding pen for Civil War deserters, insubordinates and those who had been court-martialed.

Among the prisoners were Native American scouts and ‘unfriendlies,’ including 19 Hopis who refused to send their children to government boarding schools, where speaking Hopi and practicing their religion were punishable by beatings. By 1902 the four cell blocks of wooden cages were rotting, unsanitary and otherwise ill-equipped for the influx of US soldiers convicted of war crimes in the Philippines. The army began building a new concrete military prison in 1909, but upkeep was expensive and the US soon had other things to worry about: WWI, financial ruin and flappers.

When the 18th Amendment to the Constitution declared selling liquor a crime in 1922, rebellious Jazz Agers weren’t prepared to give up their tipple – and gangsters kept the booze coming. Authorities were determined to make a public example of criminal ringleaders, and in 1934 the Federal Bureau of Prisons took over Alcatraz as a prominent showcase for its crime-fighting efforts.

‘The Rock’ averaged only 264 inmates, but its roster read like an America’s Most Wanted list. A-list criminals doing time on Alcatraz included Chicago crime boss Al ‘Scarface’ Capone, dapper kidnapper George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly, hot-headed Harlem mafioso and sometime poet ‘Bumpy’ Johnson, and Morton Sobell, the military contractor found guilty of Soviet espionage along with Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

One of the prison’s most famous residents was Robert Franklin Stroud, also known as the Birdman for his hobby of studying and caring for birds while in solitary confinement at Leavenworth before being transferred to The Rock. He became famous as portrayed by Burt Lancaster in 1962 film The Birdman of Alcatraz, a fictionalization of the so-called Battle of Alcatraz, a failed 1946 escape plot by convict Bernard Coy and other inmates that turned into a deadly standoff.

Today, first-person accounts of daily life in the Alcatraz lockup are included on the award-winning audio tour provided by Alcatraz Cruises. But take your headphones off for just a moment and notice the sound of carefree city life traveling across the water: this is the torment that made perilous escapes into riptides worth the risk. Though Alcatraz was considered escape-proof, in 1962 the Anglin brothers and Frank Morris floated away on a makeshift raft and were never seen again. Security and upkeep proved prohibitively expensive, and finally the island prison was abandoned to the birds in 1963.

Alcatraz Island, byname The Rock, rocky island in San Francisco Bay, California, U.S. The island occupies an area of 22 acres (9 hectares) and is located 1.5 miles (2 km) offshore.

The island had little vegetation and was a seabird habitat when it was explored in 1775 by Lieutenant Juan Manuel de Ayala, who named it Isla de los Alcatraces (“Isle of the Pelicans”). Sold in 1849 to the U.S. government, Alcatraz was the site of the first lighthouse (1854) on the coast of California. Thereafter other buildings were erected on the island, and the first permanent army detachment was garrisoned there in 1859. In 1861 the island was designated a residence for military offenders. Later prisoners included some 19 Hopi Indians from the Arizona Territory who passively resisted government attempts to assimilate them and American soldiers fighting in the Philippines who had joined the Filipino cause in 1900. In 1907 the island was designated the Pacific Branch of the United States Military Prison.

Visiting Alcatraz - Tours and Tickets

Alcatraz is open every day except Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Year’s day. Advance tickets are recommended as it’s such a popular attraction, particularly during peak season. A ferry cruise is required to reach Alcatraz from Piers 31-33 in downtown San Francisco, and the fee includes both transportation and entry.

The hours of operation vary with the season. Departures are available about every half hour throughout the day beginning at 8:45am. Evening tours, Behind the Scenes Tours, and combined Angel Island-Alcatraz Island tours are also available on a set schedule. Alcatraz frequently sells out in advance, as much as a month or more in summer and near holidays. 

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