Visiting Alcatraz

Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Island is the most visited attraction in San Francisco, entertaining over 1.3 million visitors every year. The Los Angeles Times declared it the seventh most popular landmark in the world (06.16.15).


Every day one boat after another leaves Pier 33 loaded with Alcatraz-bound tourists who are curious to visit the famous prison, learn the notorious history. As a San Francisco resident I had already visited here, then returned one day in 2014 to study the setting for a scene in my novel.


How Alcatraz began. After gold was discovered in California in 1848, prospectors, businessmen, and families arrived here in droves. It was determined then that the increased value–millions of dollars worth of mined gold–created a need for defense and protection.

Alcatraz dock

Alcatraz dock

Thereafter it became a:

  1. Fortress and military installation (1853-1933) ;
  2. Federal Penitentiary (1933-1963)
  3. Native American protest occupation (1964, 1969-1971)
  4. U.S. National Park (1972-present)
Alcatraz cell block

Alcatraz cell block

Read more history, overview here.


Touring “The Rock” requires  reservations and involves a fun ten-minute boat ride on the San Francisco Bay.


More about touring here.



Visitors take a self-guided tour with audio tapes narrated by prison guards. You can stay at the island all day until the last boat departure, but most people stay a few hours.


Alcatraz cell

Alcatraz cell

In addition to being a tourist prison island, Alcatraz (the Spanish word for “pelican”) is also a prominent site for nesting birds; and has tide pools, sea mammals and other wildlife, even glowing millipedes.


The day we were there we saw Anna’s hummingbirds, a variety of sparrows, plenty of gulls and cormorants.


National Park Service nature info here.

Glowing millipedes on Alcatraz here.


The boat drops you off at the dock, a ranger gives you an overview of the facility and the rules. There’s a steep walk up to the prison, passing by old military gunnery, the water tower and guard towers, other old buildings, and gardens.


Alcatraz scaled model at Pier 33, Jet (in pink)scoping it out

Alcatraz scaled model at Pier 33. Jet (in sunglasses) scoping it out.

All the photos here are from that October day when I went to observe and take notes. Golden Gate Graveyard readers will recognize some of these sights from the Alcatraz scene.


Once you get up to the cell blocks, you can walk around inside the prison, see where prisoners showered, slept, and ate. Outside you view the warden’s half-burned house, the lighthouse, beautiful views of San Francisco and other sites.


Angel Island from Alcatraz

Angel Island from Alcatraz

Having written and researched a lot of history about San Francisco for this novel, I find two things especially fascinating:  over the years once-serious facilities, like Alcatraz, have turned into frolicking tourist attractions. And how curious it is to witness visitors’ intrigue and animation at this decrepit and defunct old prison.


The prison has been extensively featured in books (ahem), films, video games, TV series, and more. A popular new Alcatraz-related attraction is the Escape Alcatraz Drop Ride at the San Francisco Dungeon. It is a stomach-dropping ride simulating an attempted escape.


Alcatraz Control Room

Alcatraz Control Room

All modern-day Alcatraz folklore stems from the inescapability of this maximum security prison. It was long touted as the place from which no man ever left alive.


But is that true? Over 50 years after three prisoners escaped and their bodies were never found, there is still speculation and “Search for the Truth” documentaries. I recently watched a 1979 film starring Clint Eastwood called “Escape from Alcatraz.” It’s pretty good, shows life on The Rock and is based on the actual escape.


For an old prison that hasn’t seen a prisoner in over half a century, Alcatraz sure is a lively place. I’m happy it makes for good fiction.


Alcatraz view of San Francisco

Alcatraz view of San Francisco



Photo credit: Athena Alexander


Golden Gate GraveyardIf you haven’t bought Golden Gate Graveyard yet, it is available in paperback ($20) or digital format ($6.99). Buy a copy for yourself or a friend…but whatever you do:  stay legal.

Purchase from publisher

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49 thoughts on “Visiting Alcatraz

    • Isn’t that a great view? I like that view too, Jan. I don’t think there’s anywhere more suitable in SF for a mystery setting than Alcatraz–I am glad you agree. Thanks so much.

  1. I’ve ALWAYS wanted to do this! My husband was going to do it when he was in San Francisco on business, but he and the other guy missed the last boat. I’m glad he missed out–now he has a reason to go back to San Francisco…with me this time!

    • It’s a pretty big deal because of the popularity, so make your reservations in advance, and then enjoy. Good thing your husband missed it, now you have the perfect reason to go! Thank you for your visit, Stephanie.

  2. Visiting SF in ’72 I wanted to take the tour, my dad told me to save my money, whilst if I didn’t change my ways I would see someplace like it soon enough. I developed into a good man & still have not taken a ‘tour’ !!! 😉

  3. There were many memorable scenes in GGG, and the Alcatraz one was a particular standout. As I read, I was enjoying thinking “ooh, we’ve been there!” as the novel unfolded – but we haven’t visited Alcatraz, so couldn’t say it about the prison. I’m not sure I’d like to visit, due to slight claustrophobia (and past misdemeanours catching up with me?!) I liked that your take on Alcatraz was refreshingly different to other books and movies – both in the later scene and the memories one character shared (won’t write any more about that as prospective readers might see this!)
    Funny to think of you casing the joint, and a prison instead of a bank…

    • I spent hours casing the joint, and jotted down notes that day and for days afterward. haha. Liked your terms of “casing the joint” pc. Athena took lots of photos for me of locks, cells, corridors, everything. I also love hearing your feedback on your reading of GGG. My thanks for your visits and comments, as always, my friend. I hope your week ahead goes wonderfully.

  4. Not so long ago I saw the movie “Escape from Alcatraz” (MGM TV) Now your post makes me feel liket I was in that joint doing time ‘you know? That’s swell.
    I think I’d like to visit that island and walk around and let imagination work! Thanks my friend, you made my day. 🙂

  5. We visited Alcatraz about 15 years ago. I thought it might be tacky but we found it fascinating. Wonderful to visit with you again Jet. As to could the escapees survive well that is a fabulous mystery.

    • Yes, it is fascinating to visit Alcatraz; I’m glad you and Dave have visited. At the moment they are doing some renovations there, so much of it is covered in white protective paper. I think those three clever men did escape, but they were the only ones. Life is full of mystery, that’s another one. Always a true pleasure, Sue~~

  6. It’s good to see those images after reading your excellent book Jet. I think if I had been “resident” there I would have put my pillow and head at the opposite end of the bed to that shown in the picture of the cell!
    I am currently reading and enjoying your first book “Wicked Walkabout” and discovering more about a part of Australia where friends emigrated to many years ago.

    • Such a delight to hear you’re reading WW, too, Alastair. I’m glad the Alcatraz post matched up with your reading of GGG. That picture of the cell was bigger on the post originally, but I found it so creepy I had to make it smaller. lol. Thanks so much for your kind words and support, much appreciated. And g’day!

  7. I loved how you incorporated Alcatraz into Golden Gate Graveyard and it’s fascinating to see and read more about the island. I cannot say enough how much I enjoy the research posts you share about your mysteries and allowing the reader to view through the photos and words how the scenery and history was originally viewed and then reading your mystery and experiencing the scenes and history through your great characters. Wonderful post and photos!

    • Your support and interest have been an utter delight, ACI. Tomorrow I will be posting a new page on my blog site addressing questions, like the ones you asked, about my mystery novel writing process. Go to the “Writing Novels” tab. And thanks again for your support, encouragement, and kind words of interest. I’ll keep posting occasional posts about SF relating to Golden Gate Graveyard, too.

  8. Wow! Amazing post.
    It makes your book sound more intriguing than ever!
    It’s at the top of my list for things I get to buy for me, when I get my next job.
    I have bought many books, and slowly, I’m reading my way though.
    The only thing I seem to be slower at than reading, is doing my taxes! LOL!

    • I’m really glad you enjoyed the Alcatraz post, Resa, and I’m glad you’re intrigued by Golden Gate Graveyard. I’m glad it rates higher than doing taxes. lol. Your comment made me laugh. You’re fun, thanks for stopping by and for your continued interest and support.

  9. A great and informative post, Jet! I liked the film and we made a point to visit Alcatraz on our first visit to California in 1988 – quite unforgettable!

  10. Very interesting history on the Rock, Jet. We watched our DVD of Escape from Alcatraz not too long ago when we lost our satellite during a storm. Cool you can hang out all day long, but I’d want to be on the next to last boat leaving for sure, just in case something happens and I’d have to spend the night there…… 😲 lol

  11. Seems that Alcatraz was in its Native American protest occupation phase during much of the time I lived in the City. Never have gone back to check it out. Talk of the crowds tends to put me off somewhat and my trips to any larger cities are more to be endured than enjoyed these days. Must be getting a bit stodgy in my old age… 😉
    But I DID enjoy the post!

    • Sometimes a post is all we need to visit the place — descriptions, links, photos. I think touring from your device is probably going to be your favorite way in this case, Gunta. I’m happy to bring Alcatraz to you!

    • My complete pleasure, Inese. I’m happy you read Golden Gate Graveyard, and glad I could give you a vision of Alcatraz. I hope you enjoyed your visit to San Francisco through the blog and the book. Many, many thanks.

  12. I loved reading the way you wove the history of Alcatraz into the plot of the novel Jet, so it was good to here read more of what it’s like to really visit. I’m a Clint Eastwood fan so I’ve seen Escape from Alcatraz lots of times.

    • It’s a tricky thing to weave history into a fictional novel, because you don’t want to distract the reader or subtract from the momentum or the plot; and yet you want to give a description that embraces all the senses. I’m delighted that you enjoyed the post and the book, Andrea, and I really appreciate the time you took to write those wonderful reviews. With much thanks, Jet.

    • I noticed you visited my posts on Alcatraz Island and Hawaii’s Big Island on the same day…two very different islands, eh? Many thanks for your visits and comments, Joel.

      • You’re welcome Jet, i have fond memories of visiting Hawaii and San Francisco. Thanks for sharing your experience too. Have a lovely weekend.

  13. Interesting post — and what beautiful photos you chose to include. Loved how its history was included in GGG. You made the entire city come alive!

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