- Particularly good for families
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.
Trails and Pathways
- East Road: Route to the cellhouse
- Trailhead Location:
- Ferry landing
- Trail Length:
- Less than .5 mile
- Typical Width:
- 4 ft. & above
- Typical Grade:
- Very Steep
- Typical Terrain:
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. To make this climb in a manual wheelchair will require extremely good upper body strength and/or assistance. 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; the night tour offers a very different experience from a daytime visit.
- Accessible Parking:
- Yes – designated accessible parking, van accessible, firm;
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.
- Accessible Picnic Table:
- Yes – firm & stable path to tables, firm & stable surface, 27" or greater knee clearance
- Accessible Visitor Center:
- Additional Information:
Tours are popular and sell out quickly so book your tickets well in advance. To avoid ticket scams purchase your tickets through the park's official vendor, Alcatraz Cruises. There's no food service on the island but there is a small cafe at the San Francisco side ferry terminal.