Alcatraz Island, sometimes called “The Rock,” is surrounded by frigid, shark-infested waters, so visitors can only reach what is one of the world’s most infamous prisons only by way of an Alcatraz ferry tour. The island is now administered by the National Park Service (NPS), and according to the NPS, Alcatraz Cruises LLC is the only contracted vendor permitted to run ferry tours to the island. Ferry tours operated by any other vendor either merry cruise past Alcatraz on their way to other destinations, such the Blue and Gold Fleet’s run to Angel Island, or tack an Alcatraz Cruise ferry ticket onto a larger tour package.
Alcatraz Cruises’s normal ferry tour runs every day, and includes the ferry ride out to the island and the Alcatraz Cellhouse Audio Tour. Thursday through Mondays, the company also runs a night tour of Alcatraz Island, which takes in a sunset view of the Golden Gate Bridge, and includes both on-board narration during the trip to the island and a guided tour of the prison. Both the day and night tours typically last for 2 1/2 hours. Sometimes the company also offers 5 1/2-hour joint tours of both Alcatraz and Angel Islands.
The US Army opened the first prison on Alcatraz Island during the Civil War, taking advantage of the island’s isolated location amid the icy waters and strong currents of San Francisco Bay. Alcatraz became a federal prison in the early 1930s, and many of America’s most infamous gangsters were sent to Alcatraz to their time, such as Al Capone, “Machine Gun” Kelly, Alvin Karpis, Mickey Cohen and “Bumpy” Johnson. Officially, no one ever escaped from Alcatraz. The official verdict on the Frank Morris escape dramatized in the Clint Eastwood movie “Escape from Alcatraz” is that the inmates all drowned, although a later episode of the Discovery Channel program “Mythbusters” labeled the escape attempt “plausible.”
In addition to the audio tour, ferry tour patrons at Alcatraz can also learn about the prison conditions, famous inmates, various failed escape attempts and the late 1960s occupation of the island by protesting American Indians through the island’s museum collection. Included in the museum collection are objects made by inmates, photographs and artwork, and the tools and weapons actually used during Alcatraz’s century-long tenure as a prison.
San Francisco has a reputation for unpredictable weather, which is supposed to have led Mark Twain to quip “the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” Alcatraz Island is, if anything, even more unpredictable. Prepare for either warm and sunny or cold and foggy conditions by dressed in layers.