Touring the Alcatraz Island; “The Rock”

Nestled 1.25 miles offshore from San Francisco, California, United States, is the small stretch of island, called Alcatraz, which was once home to a now abandoned prison. Ranked as a top landmark in the U.S. in 2018 by TripAdvisor reviews, Alcatraz Island for nearly three decades harboured the most ancient operating lighthouse on US West Coast, featuring early military fortifications and federal prison. It's called The Rock calibrated to the island’s location in the midst of the San Francisco Bay.

The island is anchored by a host of natural features including rugged, rock pools and a seabird colony with flocks of seagulls, cormorants and egrets. Alcatraz Island measures 1,675 by 590 feet and at its highest point during a tide being measured a 135 astounding feet.

At present, the island’s facilities are manned by the National Park Service as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The landmark hosts many tourists every year from across the world.

Amongst its many landmarks are the Main Cellhouse, Dining Hall, Library and the Lighthouse. The ancient remains of the Warden's House and Officers' Club, Parade Grounds, Building 64, Water Tower, New Industries Building, Model Industries Building, and the Recreation Yard are also popular tourist haunts.

Dark historical importance

In period 1934-1963, Alcatraz Island was home to America’s most elusively notorious criminal minds. The federal prison which imprisoned them ushered a dank mystique to The Rock. The prison housed infamous high-security criminals like Al Scarface Capone and the Birdman Robert Stroud, rendering the island its dangerous reputation. Numerous escape attempts were made by the prison inmates of which many were successful. In totality, over 36 prisoners made a total of 14 escape attempts throughout Alcatraz's dark history. Of these, 23 were caught, six were shot and killed during their escape and two drowned. The remaining five, including Morris and the Anglins, went missing and were presumed drowned.

On March 21, 1963, after 29 years of operation, the prison was shut down because of high operational costs involved. The following two years, the island was occupied by Native-American activists. Today Alcatraz Island, while harbouring dark, criminal history, is also a popular tourist destination. In 1972, Alcatraz became part of a national recreation area and received designation as a National Historic Landmark in 1986.

How to get there

Tourists take a 15-minute ferry ride from Pier 33, stationed in the midst of the San Francisco Ferry Building and Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco to reach the Alcatraz Island. Alcatraz Cruises are the official ferry providers to the tourists, travelling to and from the historic island.



The darkest area of the prison, often referred by the prisoners as The Hole was the D-Block. It imprisoned the most high-security, dangerous criminals of the time, which was heavily guarded. The prisoners were controlled and monitored all day and night long. D-Block was usually used to punish prisoners who were not being disciplined, refuse to obey officers or behaved inappropriately. Such inmates were sent to the D-Block for a few days, but never more than 19. But these few days were hellacious for those who were submitted there. The cells in the D-Block were tiny, cave-like and cold. The prisoners were to sleep on cold, concrete floors and were to go without food for three days. Even the most dangerous of the criminals who had committed horrendous crimes, feared the D-Block.

Vegetable Gardens

After the prison closed down, the island was dwelled in by the Indians who maintained a self-sufficient life there by growing vegetables. This led to the growth and cultivation of many beautiful vegetable gardens around the island. Some of the gardens were cultivated for decorative purposes. Even after 20 years of the departure of Indians from the island, the gardens continue to thrive, adding a flair of beauty to a landmark with such dark history.

Refugee cells

The many escapees from Alcatraz Island hold a legendary status. Over three prisoners escaped through dug outs and were never seen again. There are goose-bump raising stories of prisoners who literally dug their way out of the prison using spoons. To fetch some more time before the authorities went looking for them again, the prisoners carved replicas of their heads from soap and hair to confound the officers into thinking they are still in their cells. The furnished cells still have the gaping holes through which the prisoners escaped, with the soap head models still lying in their beds. Very little is known about the escaped prisoners, they may have survived and lived many years in hiding or drowned in the cruel wrath of the sea.

San Francisco Skyline

The Alcatraz Island has the most bewitching San Francisco skyline. While we imagine the prisoners grew mad and tortured by the same view each day during their captivity, tourists can still enjoy the beautiful skyline. It is advised to plan the trip to Alcatraz more around noon, not in the morning, so the morning fog can be evaded. If you’re lucky, the sun will shine and you can enjoy the views of San Francisco, but don’t forget to bring a warm jacket, the winds can get chilly. It’s easy to spot Golden Gate Bridge or famous Transamerica Tower right from the island, and wonders, how hilly and compact San Francisco really is.

Evening tours

Evening tours differ quite a bit from the daytime tours. The ferry ride to island circles around the Alcatraz, narrating live history of the landmark. On the arrival at the dock, tourists are taken on a guided tour to the cell houses and get to participate in activities and view cell door demonstrations. A few areas of the island are strictly open to public viewing only in the daytime subject to safety concerns.

If you plan on touring the Alcatraz Island on your own, you may prefer the daytime visit. If you want an extensively guided tour, evenings slots are ideal.


The dark, horrifying mystique of Alcatraz Island and the federal prison it houses, has inspired many Hollywood narratives. Many films have told real crippling stories of the notorious island, while some have fictionalised the account. Here are the top two films, the island’s blood-curdling history has inspired.

Escape from Alcatraz (1979)

The thriller drama film revolves around the “only possible” escape from the island, directed by Don Siegel with Clint Eastwood essaying the role of the criminal Frank Morris who with three of his other prison inmates, hatches an escape plan. The prisoners leave dummies in their beds and dig their way out through the walls of their cells with spoons. Apart from just one fictional escapee, this tense, fascinating film otherwise keeps close to the facts and features a mesmerising performance from Eastwood.

The Rock (1996)

Anything Quentin Tarantino touches, becomes gold and it was rumoured that the director worked on the script of The Rock. The story begins when a former marine Ed Harris takes tourists hostage and threatens to fire chemical weapons at San Francisco. Nicolas Cage (Stanley Goodspeed) is the reluctant scientist hired to stop him and Sean Connery is the only inmate to have ever escaped who gets coerced into taking a team to rescue Alcatraz and save the day.