The Rock – Alcatraz

Alcatraz as seen from ferry.

The day was clear and slightly breezy, which is rare in San Francisco. The day before, we played “What is the Weather Now?” when it went from sunny, to foggy, to rainy and back to sunny in the space of 10 minutes. But this day, it was clear and the bay wasn’t too wavy. We were finally going to get to go to Alcatraz.

Twice, several years before this trip, my husband and I wanted to visit “The Rock.” We heard it was a great trip. Not long after we were married, we went to go get tickets and found out it was closed for three weeks. They were filming “The Rock” on Alcatraz. Great movie and I love Sean Connery, but I was disappointed. The next trip, about a decade later, the weather was not cooperating and the water in the bay was too rough. Strike two for Alcatraz. This time, and two children later, it was actually happening!

Get your tickets early, like weeks early (you can order them up to 90 days before your visit), because they sell out fast, especially in high tourist times. Then find Alcatraz Cruises on Pier 33 on the waterfront. It’s not too far from Fisherman’s Wharf. This is the only way to get to The Rock. The National Park Service website (www.nps.gov/alca/planyourvisit/directions.htm) warns that parking is very limited, so public transportation is best.

There are day and night excursions. We took the day one this trip, but I would love to go back and take the night tour. They are very different and you can check out the details on the above website. Don’t forget to smile as you board the ferry. They take your picture as you get on so you have a lovely souvenir to purchase when you get back. The ferry cruise to the island was nice as they gave a brief history of the island as you go. Once you dock on the island, you have a steep uphill climb to get to where the tour begins. Some of the buildings are open and you can read various plaques of information. Most of these buildings are from the time before the prison. If you can’t make the walk, the park service does provide transportation to the entrance.

Once you are on the island, vantage points offer beautiful, if hazy views of San Francisco, Sausalito, the Bay Bridge and, of course, the Golden Gate. If the day is clear enough, you may be able to see the Coit Tower. This is just the land view. On the water, you may be able to see sailboats of all sizes and colors enjoying the day. If you are really lucky, you may go to Alcatraz when there is a sailboat race going on. The regatta is magnificent!

Most people don’t know, until they tour the island that Alcatraz was first a military fort, established in 1850, shortly after gold was discovered in California and the year California became a state. According to the National Parks website, it was part of the “Triangle of Defense” to protect the San Francisco Bay. It was even the site of a short-lived plot to blockade the bay during the Civil War. The Union troops stationed at Alcatraz defeated the Confederate plot without a shot fired.

Alcatraz remained a military fort until 1934, when it became of federal prison with an infamous guest list. This is what most of the tourist come to learn about. You can tour Alcatraz on your own, but I recommend spending the extra money on the audio tour. The narrator spins an excellent tale and there are first hand accounts by some of the later prisoners incarcerated there. Most of the prisoners were not well known, but Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly and the Birdman of Alcatraz (Robert Stroud) stand out. My oldest son was 10 when we went, and he was fascinated. The audio tour is great for the entire family, no matter the age.

During the audio tour, you will learn that while they are not exactly sure which cell belonged to Al Capone, you will see the cell from the famous escape in 1962. You can see the head models that John and Clarence Anglin and Frank Morris made to fool the guards at bed check. Chris, my oldest, was especially interested in this tale. In fact, he was so interested that I almost could keep up with him! He was literally running from one audio station to the next!

The escapees were never heard from again, sparking much speculation about whether or not they made it to safety. The FBI officially closed the case in 1979, but there is no statute of limitations on escape from a federal prison. Some speculate that they survived and are living in Brazil. Hmmm… I wonder.

The prison closed in 1963 and in 1969 was occupied by Native American activists until 1971. In 1986, Alcatraz became a National Historic Landmark under the management of the National Park Service. There are many areas of the island that are still open to explore and you have until the last ferry to do so. However, if you don’t make it to that last one, you just may have the experience of being incarcerated on “The Rock,” at least for a little while.

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