Since its opening in 1934, United States Penitentiary Alcatraz Island has captivated the minds of society. Perched on a rocky outcrop in the San Francisco Bay only one and a half miles from the city's bustling Fisherman's Wharf, the maximum high-security federal prison was a distinctly visible yet far-flung world. Completely off limits to the general public, Alcatraz was a ripe subject for the inception of mystery and myth.
Real-life circumstances only fanned the flames. Infamous inmates included mobsters like Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Mickey Cohen and James “Whitey” Bulger, while Robert Stroud, better known as the "Birdman of Alcatraz," was featured in newspapers and magazines of the day and later the subject of a 1962 film. Lasting memories were left by the highly publicized Battle of Alcatraz (an escape attempt that left five dead) in 1946, and the only "successful" escape in June 1962, less than a year before the prison would ultimately close in 1963.
All of this was sensationalized by the media, and after its closure, movies and TV shows continued to bolster the lore, especially when Hollywood legends like Clint Eastwood (Escape from Alcatraz, which is based on the summer '62 dummy head escape, a case that is still unsolved to this day) and Sir Sean Connery (The Rock) use actual events or just the island itself as their backdrop.
Today, The Rock is part of the Golden Gate National Park system and one of the nation's most popular national parks, annually enticing more than 1.3 million visitors with its history and mystery.
First opened to the public in October 1973, tours are accompanied by a 45-minute cellhouse audio program that is narrated by actual Alcatraz correctional officers and inmates. It is an honest recounting of life on The Rock complete with gravelly voices, the sounds of cell bars clanking shut, riotous shouts, and genuine vernacular (like "libarry").
While the story of the criminals is the main draw, a tour of Alcatraz also includes insight into its pre-penitentiary history as a historic military fortress strategically positioned to protect the San Francisco Bay, the peaceful life of the officers and families that lived there during its operation, and the post-penal period of occupation by American Indians from 1969–71.
The only way to visit the island is via Alcatraz Cruises, and although there are more than 10 daily tours, Alcatraz tickets frequently sell out weeks in advance, so be sure to plan ahead.
Standard tours cost $30 and are fairly self-guided, allowing you to move at your own pace. This means you'll have the opportunity to freely explore the island for as long as you'd like, including the gardens of Alcatraz. Each tour includes the cellhouse audio tour, but the night tour ($37) also includes a live tour guide on the boat and island (except for the cellhouse) and an opportunity to attend special presentations.
All boats leave from San Francisco's Pier 33, and the National Park Service recommends you allow yourself at least two and a half hours to sail to the island (approximately 10-15 minutes each way) and tour the cellhouse and other exhibits before returning.
Although a tour of Alcatraz may dispel some myths, it will also ignite others that you never even knew existed.