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Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Island, known as “The Rock,” is famed as the prison where criminals Al Capone, “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Robert Stroud, the “Bird Man of Alcatraz,” were confined. Far less well known is the fact that the island was the site of the first U.S. fort on the West Coast, and that from 1969 to 1971 it was...
Alcatraz Island, known as “The Rock,” is famed as the prison where criminals Al Capone, “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Robert Stroud, the “Bird Man of Alcatraz,” were confined. Far less well known is the fact that the island was the site of the first U.S. fort on the West Coast, and that from 1969 to 1971 it was occupied by Native Americans under the name of Indians of All Tribes. Today Alcatraz is a national park and popular tourist attraction, and is also home to one of California’s largest breeding colonies of western gulls. On a clear day, views of San Francisco are breathtaking. All ferryboats are accessible, but be aware that the gradient of the gangway ramps can vary depending on the tide. The ferry crew will provide assistance and let you embark and disembark first.

When you arrive on the island, a docent explains certain rules; then you are free to explore on your own. For a historical overview, you might start by watching the film at the visitor center, then viewing some of the exhibits about the Indian occupation and life on the island. Because of its steep terrain, much of the island is accessible only to birds and wildlife.

For most visitors, the cellhouse is the main attraction. The climb up to it is extremely steep, but those who physically can’t make the trek can take a free electric tram, SEAT (sustainable easy-access transport), which can hold two people in wheelchairs or one scooter at a time, as well as numerous seated passengers. Look for a small sign directly across from the dock that lists the schedule. The tram is first-come, first-served.

The cellhouse is accessible except for the recreation yard. An audio tour narrated by former guards and inmates is included in the price of the ticket. Their chilling accounts of life on the island enhances the experience. A variety of docent-led tours are offered throughout the day and are posted on the dock and in the cellhouse. Large-print and Braille transcriptions of the cellhouse audio tour and other interpretive materials are available upon request.

Trail/Pathway Details

East Road: Route from the ferry landing to the cellhouse

Trailhead: Ferry landing

Length: Less than .5 mile

Typical Width: 4 ft. & above

Typical Grade: Very Steep

To make this climb in a manual wheelchair will require much
upper body strength and/or assistance.

Terrain: Hard

Description

The switchback road leading to the cellhouse from the dock is .25 miles and has a 130-foot elevation change—equivalent to climbing a 13-story building—so it is very steep, and also bumpy. I have climbed it in a motorized chair. Before the first switchback, follow the signs to the New Industries Building. Prisoners could work here for money by doing laundry and making gloves, furniture mats, and army uniforms.

Back on the road, a side trail at the second switchback leads to the parade grounds. It is worth a look because you get a good view of the Warden’s House (ruins), a Mission Revival building perched high on a hill. The parade grounds are open from September through February only, to protect the western gulls and black-crowned night herons that nest here during their breeding seasons.

Continue the climb to the cellhouse, where you can stop to take the cellhouse tour or continue on to West Road. Here you will be facing the Golden Gate Bridge and its westerly winds; this side of the island can be quite windy and cold. You’ll travel downhill past gardens that the Garden Conservancy has been working to restore, in partnership with the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy and the National Park Service. The route is very steep in places, and you’ll have to turn back where it dead-ends and retrace your steps steeply back uphill.

Even though I have visited the island numerous times, I seem to discover something new each time—and the night tour offers a very different experience from a daytime visit.

Accessibility Details

The facilities listed below meet all of our access criteria unless otherwise noted.

There is limited accessible parking at Pier 33––individuals must show their disabled placard at the pier entrance to use them. One accessible space is on the street at the pier. Numerous commercial lots are nearby.

Accessible Restroom: Yes

At Pier 33; on the island, at the dock and by the cellhouse near the upper and lower entrances.
At Pier 33. On the island, food and drinks are allowed only on the dock.

Reviewed by Bonnie Lewkowicz, October 29, 2014

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View from West Rd.
View from West Rd. (Bonnie Lewkowicz)

Features icon key

  • hiking
  • particularly good for families

Additional Information

Website: www.nps.gov/alca/index.htm
Managing Agency: National Park Service
Address: Pier 33 on the Embarcadero
Nearest City: San Francisco
Phone: (415) 561-4900
Hours: Tours depart daily, 8:45 am-3:50 pm, except for Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, and New Year's Day.
Fees: Ferry
Dogs: Not allowed
Public Transportation: MUNI
Useful Links: Alcatraz Cruises accessibility information, Alcatraz Gardens,

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