Even if you’ve never seen Alcatraz Island National Historic Landmark, it’s a pretty good bet you know the name. Its history as a prison extends from 1859 through 1963 – first as a military prison, then as a maximum-security federal prison. Fortunately, it’s much easier these days to get on – and off – the island to see it in person and to learn about its interesting history.

A Brief History of Alcatraz Island National Historic Landmark

Alcatraz Island as a US Military Installation

In 1847 the United States defeated Mexico in the Mexican-American War. As part of the terms of peace after the war, Mexico ceded part or all of 9 territories, including California.

In 1850 President Millard Fillmore recognized the strategic importance of a military installation to defend and protect the newly-incorporated city of San Francisco. The island was claimed by the government to create a defensive site that would protect San Francisco and the Bay Area. Coastal batteries of cannons were created on the island, and a garrison of approximately 200 soldiers were placed on the island in the late 1850s.

The cannons on the island were never fired in defense. However, the island was a strategic spot for the Union army and government during the US Civil War. It was used to store munitions to keep them from falling into the hands of the Confederate army. Starting in 1861 it was used to detain Confederate prisoners of war, as well as civilians who were accused or convicted of treason.

In addition to serving as a defensive position and military prison during the Civil War, Alcatraz Island was also a site for a lighthouse. This lighthouse whe first one built on the West Coast of the United States.

Its use as a military prison continued on after the end of the Civil War. During the Spanish-American War the prison’s population grew to approximately 450 detainees.

During World War I the prison held convicted members of the US military as well as civilian conscientious objectors.

Alcatraz Island as a US Federal Penitentiary

In 1933, what was then known as the US Disciplinary Barracks on Alcatraz was acquired by the US Department of Justice for use as a federal prison. It officially became a federal prison in 1934. Its primary use was to house criminals from other US federal penitentiaries who were deemed too disruptive or dangerous, or those who had escaped from federal prisons before. Alcatraz was widely seen as an inescapable island, owing to its geography and to the strong and dangerous currents in the San Francisco Bay.

Alcatraz remained a federal penitentiary until 1963, when it was decommissioned. There were three major reasons that led to its closure:

  • The cost of housing prisoners at Alcatraz was over three times more than the cost at other federal penitentiaries.
  • Salt water from the Bay – in the form of rain and mist – corroded most of the metal structures on the island in a relatively short period of time, and led to decay in some concrete structures as well.
  • Despite the view that the prison was inescapable, three prisoners escaped the island in 1962.

Main Cell Block, looking up, Alcatraz Island

Main Cell Block, long view, Alcatraz Island

Typical prison cell, Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Island as a National Park

In 1973 the National Parks Service established an area called the Golden Gate National Recreational Area (GGNRA). As the name implies, GGNRA includes many sites located near the Golden Gate Bridge. In addition to Alcatraz, GGNRA includes the Presidio, San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, Muir Woods National Monument, and other sites.

Alcatraz was designated as a National Park at the time the GGNRA was established, and has remained a National Park since 1973.

Visiting Alcatraz Island National Historic Landmark Today

Getting to Alcatraz Island National Historical Landmark

Although Alcatraz Island National Historic Landmark is located only 1.4 miles away from the nearest shoreline of the San Francisco Bay, it is definitely not a trip you want to try and make on your own. The waters of the Bay are extremely treacherous, and many people have drowned both trying to escape the prison as well as trying to get out to the prison from San Francisco. It’s much easier to take a ferry and to travel in comfort and style.

Approaching Alcatraz Island National Historic Landmark via ferry

Alcatraz Tours is the exclusive and official provider for tickets to visit Alcatraz Island National Historical Landmark. Their Day Tour option is the most popular package, This option includes a 15-minute ferry ride to and from the Island, as well as a self-guided audio tour to provide historical background and interesting insights into the Island and its history. The cost of the ticket is inclusive of all National Parks entry fees – so you pay one price to get everything. Audio tours are available in a variety of languages including English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Dutch, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Mandarin and English Braille.

Tickets are made available approximately 90 days before a set of given departure dates. The tours tend to fill up quickly, and capacity is currently reduced because of COVID-19 restrictions. Therefore, it’s always best to reserve your tickets ahead of time to ensure you’ll be able to visit.

If you are a holder of the America the Beautiful National Parks pass, be aware that it does not apply to the cost of your ticket to access Alcatraz Island. According the the National Park Service website on Alcatraz Island: “Please note that as there is no federal entrance fee to visit Alcatraz therefore the America the Beautiful passes and the Golden Eagle/Access/Age passes do not apply to the price of a ferry ticket for Alcatraz (which includes the cell house audio tour).”

Tours leave from San Francisco’s Pier 33, located just off the Embarcadero and close to the Fisherman’s Wharf area. Pier 33 is fully handicapped accessible and ADA compliant.

What to See at Alcatraz Island National Historical Landmark

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) – one of the many flowers growing wild on Alcatraz Island

As you first enter the island, make sure to pick up a self-guided tour map. This map not only gives you the location of all the spots for the audio tour, but it also gives you some areas to visit after the audio tour completes.

The self-guided tour – included as part of your overall trip fee – is not to be missed. The tour covers the history of, and controversies around, Alcatraz Island in its many different forms over the year. The tour also includes an extensive overview of the interior sections of the former prison, including information on the cells in which famous criminals like Al Capone were housed.

One your audio tour ends, tour the rest of the grounds and see the other historical and natural sites. You can check out the natural beauty of the Gardens of Alcatraz, visit the Recreation Area and imagine inmates getting their daily exercise period, and check out the ruins of the Warden’s House.

Additionally, parts of the island afford you stunning views of the city as well as the Golden Gate Bridge. Make sure you take those views in, too!

Final Thoughts on Alcatraz Island National Historical Landmark

Alcatraz has consistently rated in the top 10 of all US National Park sites, and is the most popular tourist destination in San Francisco. Tickets tend to go fast, to make sure to get yours early. A 2-3 hour tour of Alcatraz Island should be sufficient to see everything on the island, and still leave you time to tour other parts of San Francisco during your time there.

I have really enjoyed visiting this place that’s been so important to the history of California and to the US justice system, and plan to go back there as soon as I’m able.