Frank Morris, Clarence Anglin and John Anglin — assuming they are still alive — would no doubt be amazed about the never ending throngs of people who plunk down money so they can get to Alcatraz.
The trio is part of the historic lure of “The Rock” — the 957,988 square foot island in the middle of San Francisco Bay that’s smaller than an Amazon fulfillment center. They are the only three to ever stage a successful escape from the former federal prison although it never has been determined whether they ever survived the frigid bay waters to make it ashore to enjoy their freedom.
Alcatraz is arguably one of the world’s most famous islands. Originally a lighthouse, then a military fortification before becoming a military prison, its transformation into a federal prison from 1934 to 1963 established its global reputation as a foreboding place just 1.25 miles offshore from one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities.
Hollywood helped fuel Alcatraz’s lure with a slew of movies such as “The Birdman of Alcatraz”, “Escape from Alcatraz” and “The Rock”. It also helped that some of the most notorious federal convicts of all time — Al Capone, “Whitey” Bulgar and “Machine Gun” Kelly among others — were housed at Alcatraz.
It helps explain why the hardest ticket at times to get in San Francisco is a boat ride and tour of Alcatraz that is under the wings of the United States Park Service.
Typically from mid-March to late October if you don’t buy a ticket online and reserve it weeks or even months in advance your chances of taking a trip to The Rock are about as likely as getting to the Bay Bridge toll plaza from Manteca on a weekday morning after sunrise in 60 minutes. It can happen but it is rare.
The pandemic has dried up San Francisco tourism. Given it will be slow to return once the coronavirus restrictions are lifted it will be a great time for Northern Californians to take in tourist sites typically overrun by people visiting from out of state and overseas.
That means booking tickets for a tour through the heavy tourist season won’t be as difficult. You can even try showing up at the sales office just west of Pier 39 to buy tickets for a tour that day but I wouldn’t recommend it. The best way by far to assure you will get a spot is to go online at alcatrazcruises.com.
There are 14 trips daily through Dec. 31 that they are now booking to resume after May 4. The day tours take 2.5 hours and cost $47.90 for adults 18 and over, $32.45 for children, and $45.65 for seniors 62 and older, and free for toddlers. The night tour is slightly more with all tickets jumping between $3 and $12 depending upon the age. The behind the scenes tour that takes 4.5 hours is for those 12 and older only and costs significantly more. Adults 18 and older are $100.30, ages 12 to 17 are $96.35, and seniors 62 and older are $94.
To be honest, my favorite part of the trip is being on the water as well as seeing The City looking across an expanse of 1.25 miles of water. If the experience of being on San Francisco Bay as well as being able to walk around an island with impressive views is what appeals to you the most, chuck the traffic, the parking challenge and tickets for a family of four that will set you back at least $150 if you opt for the special package of two adults and two children for the Alcatraz tour and head to Tiburon for the ferry service to Angel Island. Tickets a year ago were $15 for those older than 13, $14 for seniors 65 and older, and $5 for children age 3 to 5. The fee includes state park admission. You can even take a bicycle for an extra $1 to explore the Ellis Island of the West. The ride across water is fun, the views impressive and there’s plenty of hiking minus the massive crowd.
But if Alcatraz’s lure is too much and you have to soak in a view of the San Francisco skyline fairly close up to make your trip to The City satisfying, then do so. You can combine the trip with lunch or dinner at Pier 39 or Fisherman’s Wharf while taking in the ships, street artists, and other attractions such as the Bay Aquarium or the sea lions bathing by Pier 39.
The tours are interesting from a historic perspective as well as to give you an idea of what a prison is like. Rest assured, however, the Supreme Court would likely order Alcatraz shut down today if it were still in operation.
The National Park Services does its usual solid job of telling the story and keeping things in order making it as realistic as possible. They do a solid job of telling the story of why Native Americans occupied the abandoned prison from 1969 to 1971 prior to it becoming part of the National Park Service’s Golden Gate Recreation Area in 1972.
There is a feeling that is hard to explain that you get imagining what the cell blocks must have been like with a prisoner in each cell.
The biggest surprise might just be the gardens. They were created after the military imported soil from the Presidio and Angel Island in 1865 with the first endeavor being a Victorian garden near Alcatraz’s summit. Military prisoners and then federal prisoners tended to the gardens. They were abandoned when the federal prison closed. They have since been rehabilitated and provide a surprising touch to a tour of Alcatraz.
There is also an abundance of birds on the island.
Tourists from all over the world have a tour of Alcatraz on their must do lists when visiting San Francisco. Living in the 209 you can visit The Rock after taking a 90-minute or so drive and do so whenever you can book a tour online.