Alcatraz Island: Doing Time at The Rock
Traditionally, I haven’t been the most mainstream traveler. I hang back from the crowds, hunt out hole-in-the-wall diversions, and generally do what I can to skip the tourist hot-spots. Which means that after three years of living in San Francisco, the closest I’ve gotten to a tour group is shouldering through one on my way to work. So I’ve come up with a new travel mission: to tour San Francisco so thoroughly that I can point to Coit Tower in my sleep. And the natural starting point of such an expedition is Alcatraz Island, America’s sixth most popular tourist attraction.
Plenty of people ask, “Why Alcatraz”? Why would you want to visit a prison, when you could be frolicking through Golden Gate Park or eating oysters on the pier? But when you see it looming through the rough Bay surf—this tangle of fractured towers and wind-warped trees—you know you’re approaching something straight out of American myth. It’s the shadow in a hundred detective pulp magazines.
It’s… The Rock.
All drama aside, Alcatraz actually offers up a very engaging tour (and a ton of gorgeous views).
Once you’ve climbed up the scenic switchback, you can pick up a free audio guide and headphone set in the shower area.
The prison itself is small, but iconic. The cells are equipped with tiny toilets and cots, and tin cups are placed like movie props on the fixed prison shelves. While Alcatraz’s savage weather has stripped away much of the original paint and plaster, you have the narrations of actual guards and prisoners on the audio tour to fill in the blanks.
The stories of bold escapes and violent riots are like something straight out of a Hollywood movie.
Not that most escapees got very far.
But the strangest part of all of this is seeing how close the prison is to the city itself. San Francisco was at one time a mere 20-minute ferry ride away from some of the most infamous felons in American history—from “Big Al” Capone to George “Machine Gun” Kelly. But with the water being so cold and the tides being so strong, escape was virtually impossible
The few that did escape were presumed drowned, or the victims of sharks.
So, is Alcatraz worth seeing? Definitely! But be sure to book in advance. While you can sometimes get a day tour ticket on short notice, the more popular night tours can sell out weeks ahead of time. Even better, bundle an Alcatraz and double-decker tour together for some extra savings.
Photos (top to bottom): “Leaving Alcatraz Island” by eszsara; all other photos by Kate Beall.
My name: Kate Beall
How I earn my keep: Writing for Travelocity.
Best meal I've ever had: There are three: the mofongo at Jimmy'z Kitchen in South Beach, the lomito completo at Fuente Alemana in Santiago, and (for the sheer novelty factor) the cuy chactado in Arequipa, Peru.
First thing I do in a new place: Hit the shower. Anything more than an hour in transit gets me fantasizing about soap.
View that took my breath away: Seeing the endless stretch of the Sierras as I flew in to Reno/Tahoe for the first time. In the winter, it's an aching field of white all the way to the horizon, like a world wiped clean. Looking out at it gives you this unmatched feeling of eternity.
Most challenging travel moment: Sharing a pull-out couch in a cramped New York apartment. The heat wave of 2010 was in full, humid swing and the air conditioning was D.O.A. There was nothing to do but soak your clothes in the sink and hope to pass out before they dried. ...then wake up in an hour and do it all again.
Favorite way to get around: On foot. I'm still working on the motorcycle license.