Everyone who has ever visited San Francisco knows about Alcatraz Island, but few people know about the island’s Agave Trail. Agave plants—sharp, spiky succulents that can be made into a sugar substitute and tequila—were planted on Alcatraz by prison guards and their families in the 1930s and 1940s. Their sharp, pointed leaves added beauty to this forlorn place and also created a horticultural fence that deterred would-be escape accomplices from landing boats on the island. This 0.7-mile Agave Trail leads along the base of a steep hillside dotted with four different agave species—some with flower spikes that rise 40 feet skyward.
Although you can visit Alcatraz and its famous prison almost any day of the year, walking the island’s Agave Trail is possible only between late September and February 1—which happens to coincide with San Francisco’s clearest, most fog-free weather. The rest of the year, the trail is closed to protect nesting birds.
The Agave Trail begins just south of the ferry dock. The stone-lined path meanders through a eucalyptus grove, then descends to within a few feet of the water’s edge, giving you a front-row view of boats sailing past and seagulls flying overhead. Lapping waves spill onto the walkway, and unforgettable views of downtown San Francisco and the Bay Bridge unfold. As the trail curves around the island’s south side, you’ll pass the large sign you probably glimpsed on your ferry ride, warning that “persons procuring or concealing escape of prisoners are subject to prosecution and imprisonment.”
During low tides, Alcatraz’s rocky tide pools are exposed along the bay’s edge. A rare occurrence in San Francisco Bay, these tide pools were formed from artificial rubble created by years of blasting and building on the island. Sea anemones sway back and forth in the current.
The trail heads uphill on flagstone steps to the island’s parade grounds, built out of solid rock by military prisoners in the 1870s. The grounds were once ringed by the houses of guards and their families, but the homes were demolished in 1971 and their remains scattered across the concrete yard. These large rubble piles are now homes for burrowing owls, night herons, Western gulls, salamanders, and deer mice (the only mammals living on the island). From the parade grounds, your view expands to take in dramatic views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Treasure Island, the Bay Bridge, and parts of the Marin Headlands. San Francisco shimmers to the south.
In 1854, the West Coast’s first lighthouse was built on San Francisco Bay’s Alcatraz Island to guide the ships coming and going through the Golden Gate. Government officials quickly decided that the tiny, 22-acre island aptly nicknamed “The Rock” was also an ideal location for a federal penitentiary—so close and yet so far from bustling San Francisco. The island’s sheer cliffs were surrounded by perilous currents, extreme tides, and hypothermic water temperatures, so escape from this prison seemed impossible.
Alcatraz served as a military prison from the time of the Civil War until 1934, when it was converted to a civilian penitentiary. Although it operated for only three decades, The Rock remains fixed in the American psyche as the ultimate penal colony—thanks in part to Hollywood films such as the Clint Eastwood classic Escape from Alcatraz. The prison housed some of the country’s most notorious bad guys: Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and “Bird Man” Robert Stroud, a murderer who became an expert in ornithological diseases.
Take a ferry to the island and explore the abandoned prison by day or by night. The 20-minute boat ride is reward enough with its invigorating salt spray and expansive bay views, but your ferry ticket also covers admission to the island, an optional ranger-led tour, and a 40-minute self-guided tour of the cell house with an audio headset. The narrated program, “Doing Time,” weaves together voices of actual inmates and prison guards with actors’ reenactments, making the prison’s empty walls come to life with tales of food riots, solitary confinement, and escape attempts. A total of 23 prisoners tried to break out of Alcatraz, but all were killed or recaptured except for three men who escaped in 1962. Their whereabouts are still unknown.
As you tour, step inside the open cells and imagine the tedium and loneliness. Walk around the guardhouse, exercise yard, and the surprisingly lush gardens that surround the buildings. Alcatraz may seem sinister from the inside, but outside you’ll find dazzling views of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, lush Marin County to the north, and nearby Angel Island, a California state park.
Insider tips: Get to The Rock via the Alcatraz Cruises ferry from Pier 33 on San Francisco’s Embarcadero near Bay Street. Ferries usually fill up on weekends and holidays, so book your tickets at least three weeks in advance. Plan on two or three hours for the entire trip. Wear comfortable shoes for the steep walk from the dock to the prison, and bring a jacket or windbreaker for San Francisco’s famously cool weather.
—Ann Marie Brown