Story by Kendall French-Kazen
Photo by Scott Mullen
San Francisco is home to one of the United States’ most tantalizing destinations for history buffs, thrill seekers and nature enthusiasts alike: Alcatraz Island. Located 1.5 miles offshore in the San Francisco Bay, this speck of land has served as a fortress, a Native American protest site, a national park, and of course, a prison. Before visiting, all my knowledge of Alcatraz came from Hollywood movies. I knew that Clint Eastwood managed an outlandish escape from the prison by digging tunnels using only spoons, and that Burt Lancaster developed an acute bird fetish while in solitary confinement there. Yet beyond the TV screen, this mystical landmark on the bay remained a mystery to me until a summer family vacation had me step onto its legendary shores.
To get to the island, nicknamed “The Rock,” you must board a scenic but chilly ferry that offers excellent views of the surrounding bay – as long as you can see past the fog. Once the boat docks, tourists are directed off the pier and urged to look for signs of the 1969 Native American occupation protesting government regulations on the appropriation of their land.
Some of the most intriguing sites on the island are where the inmates were housed. The central walkway of prison cells is called Broadway, and its neighbors are cheekily nicknamed Park Avenue and Michigan Avenue. The gaggles of mingling tourists juxtapose with the cold, wrought iron bars of hundreds of cells, making for an interestingly eerie environment. The solitary confinement cells give visitors the opportunity to experience what it was like as an inmate with little to no contact with other people. I recommend stepping into one of the cells and closing the door in order to feel, at least for a moment, a semblance of what the cell’s previous tenants endured on a day-to-day basis.
As you meander along to the west side of the island, you’re offered a stunning view of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. The outside world is so tantalizingly close to the island that it’s easy to forget the tragic past of the men (no women were allowed) forced to spend their lives there. The stark beauty of the skyline is amplified by the animals and nature that call the island home. Surprisingly, the island itself is run by the National Parks Service, because of its historical significance and its broad range of flora and fauna. The cliff tops and basins of the island provide excellent nesting grounds for salamanders, western gulls, and deer mice. Gardens that were originally taken care of by the families of the guards living on the island are being restored and can be seen on a more scenic path around the island.
Although a former prison may not seem like an ideal summer vacation spot, visiting Alcatraz gave me a chance to explore a facet of the United States’ history that has been glamorized by Hollywood and shrouded in mystery. Visiting the actual sites where convicts ate, slept, exercised, and lived adds a sense of reality and clarity to the foggy folklore surrounding Alcatraz.
This story appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of Baedeker.