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.