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A Day on Alcatraz Island

A Day on Alcatraz Island

From Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, you can take the ferry across the beautiful San Francisco bay about a mile-and-a half to Alcatraz Island, one of the most interesting places to visit in the United States. (Be sure and get your ticket in advance on the Internet at your hotel, because if you don’t you’ll probably have a long line to stand in to buy it at the pier, or you might even be turned away if they’re sold out.) The tour is so popular that you’ll probably be elbow-to-elbow with other people on the ferry, but, thankfully, it’s a short trip that takes only a few minutes and, once you’re on the island you won’t be jostled or jammed or crowded. That’s because you’ll be given an audio device to listen to the guided tour at your own pace. You can start it whenever you’re ready and stop it as often as you want.   

After your ferry has landed and you’re actually on Alcatraz Island, you’re given a little talking-to by a park ranger about the dos and don’ts of Alcatraz etiquette (mostly about not stealing and not damaging anything), but once that’s out of the way you’re free to walk around the island on your own and stay all day if you want to. That’s why the price of the ticket is such a value—for one price you can stay all day or go back across the bay to Fisherman’s Wharf when the next ferry leaves.

When you’re ready to go inside to tour the prison, that’s when you’re given the audio device to listen to the easy-to-follow narration at your own pace. The inside of the prison is dark and depressing (it’s a prison, after all). Everything looks creepy and old and outdated, as if you’ve stepped back in time. Being there for a few minutes makes you glad you can leave whenever you want to.  Imagine being locked up in a dark eight-by-eight cell with poor ventilation and no comforts for years and years, or for your entire life without any hope of ever getting out! The cells are in tiers and the cells on the upper tiers are no more inviting than the lower-tier cells. It looks exactly the way you’ve seen it in movies.  

Alcatraz was for the most hardened criminals and was considered all but escape-proof. Most of the inmates had been in other federal prisons before they ended up on “The Rock.” You wouldn’t have wanted to spend any up-close time with any of those people. They were considered the worst of the worst. The guards and other employees of the prison lived in barracks-like apartments on the island with their families. Their children took the ferry across the bay every day to go to school in San Francisco.

Alcatraz has not housed prisoners since the early 1960s. The federal government considered it too expensive to run and shut it down, transferring all the prisoners to other prisons.  In 1972, it became a national recreation area and a historic site operated by the National Park Service.

Once you’ve finished your tour and you exit the prison, you’re on the highest point on the island with a spectacular view of the San Francisco skyline. Hang on to your hats because if you don’t the wind will take them from you. The day I visited the island, it rained as I was leaving, which somehow seemed appropriate to the place. Whenever you’re ready to leave the island to go back to the mainland, you go down to the dock and wait for the next ferry. The ferries run about every half-hour or so, so you won’t have long to wait. If you have a few minutes to wait, you can go inside the souvenir shop. I’ve always been a sucker for souvenirs. What can be better than making your friends back home jealous that you were there and they weren’t?

Copyright © 2011 by Allen Kopp

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