Daycation to “The Rock”

SAN FRANCISCO – If I told you the site of the first lighthouse on the West Coast was once a fortress, would you know what famous California landmark to which I was referring? What if I included a few more details? It has been the subject of numerous books, movies and much speculation. Al Capone was one of its first “guests.” Burt Lancaster starred in a movie that was partially set there.

Naturally, I’m talking about Alcatraz Island, or The Rock as it’s also known. Over a million visitors travel to Alcatraz annually, but few arrive knowing the island’s complete history. I was one of the people surprised to learn that Alcatraz was more than a former federal penitentiary.

Alcatraz was initially a military prison. During the Civil War, Confederate sympathizers and persons accused of treason were held here. In the late 1890s, nineteen Hopi men were incarcerated for resisting laws intended to wipe out their culture.

In 1933, the Army turned control of Alcatraz over to the Justice Department. Alcatraz was considered the “prison system’s prison,” a secure facility where dangerous felons could be housed. The Rock’s notorious prisoners included Al Capone and Robert Stroud (whom Burt Lancaster played in the Birdman of Alcatraz).

The Rock has the distinction, albeit contested, of being the only prison that no one has ever successfully escaped. In 1963, three inmates escaped from Alcatraz. The men were never seen again and prison officials claimed that the men died in the cold waters of the San Francisco Bay. The families of the prisoners, however, claimed that they survived.

A visit to Alcatraz will demonstrate the difficulty of escape and the complexities of the plot to do so. You’ll be able to view the paper mache heads, constructed from toilet paper and cement mix, the escapees put in their beds to fool the guards into believing that they were in their cells.

The prison, which began operating in 1934, closed in 1963, but Alcatraz is still occupied – by birds. Today the island is a sanctuary for a variety of species, including cormorants, pigeon guillemots, snowy egrets and black-crowned night herons. Prime viewing season includes early summer, so there’s no better time than now to plan a trip.

People who have already visited Alcatraz may enjoy the Behind the Scenes tour, which lasts 4-5 hours. This tour will take you through areas not generally open to the public and involves strenuous stair climbing. Children under 12 are not allowed.

If you go: The only way to visit Alcatraz is by ferry. Plan ahead, as tickets can sell out weeks in advance. Ticket cost includes the ferry ride and a cell house audio tour available in several languages. The ferry trip can get downright blustery, so come prepared. You’ll be departing from Piers 31-33 in San Francisco and parking in this area can be costly. There is limited metered street parking. Food service in not available on the island. Closed toe, comfortable walking shoes are highly recommended. Hours of operation vary by season. Tickets are $23-$89. Purchase tickets online at or by calling 1-415-981-ROCK. To learn more about Alcatraz, visit

Your Town Daycations is a series featured in the print edition of Your Town Monthly. This article was originally published in the June 2017 issues.