Alcatraz—the very name conjures dark images of impregnable prisons, infamous criminals, and daring escape attempts, but the island is not all murder and mayhem. “The Rock,” set a few kilometers offshore in the San Francisco Bay, is designated a National Historic Landmark and managed by the National Park Service; it’s an important area for nesting seabirds, the site of the West Coast’s first lighthouse, and has hosted a military garrison and been occupied by American Indian activists.
The main draw for visitors, of course, is the abandoned maximum-security state penitentiary. Between 1934 and 1963 this almost-mythical prison housed some of the country’s most dangerous and troublesome criminals, including Al Capone. The audio tour is fascinating. Narrated by former inmates and guards, the tour ushers you down dank corridors, into cramped cells, and through common areas and staff quarters. You hear stories about the prisoners’ daily routines, escape attempts, and riots, all set to an atmospheric prison life soundtrack of echoing footfalls, clanging doors, and jangling keys.
The only way to reach the island is via an Alcatraz Cruises ferry from Pier 33. Advance booking is recommended; during peak times tickets can sell out weeks in advance. By day you can explore the island, or combine it with a trip to Angel Island; by night you get more broody views of the Rock.
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the prisoners' soft side
Alcatraz was another place the kids wanted to see, while my anticipation was more of a “not so much.” Touring an old prison with a guide cracking gangster jokes. Please, I'm from Chicago. Like I don't hear enough of those. But heeding advice, I located the door to the prison yard, where the wind nearly toppled me from the giant concrete steps leading into it. Slipping out a side door, I discovered the reaches of the island no one else had found, and I conducted my own private tour of the gusty side populated only by birds and flowers.
Here is where the prisoners' soft side emerges. Glorious gardens tumble down the rocky edges of this prison island, tended, once upon a time, by the prisoner themselves. Their care lives on in the display--forming a waterfall of color to the walkway. Across from the gardens, I spy a pair of egrets in the bushes, fluffing their wings before taking to the sky. Prison behind me and guardhouse ruins across the island, I see here only what both prisoners and guards were able to create from their bleak surroundings. It's a landscape of hope.