Nel 1854 fu costruito il primo faro della West Coast sull’isola di Alcatraz, sulla Baia di San Francisco, per guidare le navi in partenza e in arrivo attraverso il Golden Gate. Gli ufficiali governativi decisero subito che la minuscola isola di 22 acri, soprannominata giustamente “The Rock”, fosse anche la posizione ideale per un penitenziario federale, così vicino e allo stesso tempo così lontano dalla trafficata San Francisco. Le ripide scogliere dell’isola erano circondate da pericolose e violente correnti e temperature dell’acqua bassissime, quindi la fuga da questa prigione sembrava impossibile.
Alcatraz è stata una prigione militare dai tempi della Guerra Civile al 1934, quando fu convertita a penitenziario civile. Anche se è stata aperta per soli tre decenni, The Rock resta fissata nell’immaginario americano come la colonia penale per antonomasia, grazie in parte a film di Hollywood come il classico di Clint Eastwood Fuga da Alcatraz. La prigione ha ospitato alcuni dei criminali più famosi del Paese: Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly e “Bird Man” Robert Stroud, un omicida che diventò esperto in malattie ornitologiche.
Prendi un traghetto per l’isola ed esplora la prigione abbandonata di giorno o di sera. Il viaggio in barca di 20 minuti è già piacevole con gli spruzzi di acqua salata rinvigorenti e le ampie viste sulla baia, ma il biglietto del traghetto include anche l’ingresso all’isola, un tour facoltativo guidato da un ranger e un tour auto-guidato di 40 minuti della prigione con una cuffia. Il programma narrato, “Doing time”, intreccia le voci di veri prigionieri e guardie dell prigione con rievocazioni di attori, e fa animare le vuoti parete della prigione con racconti di ribellioni per il cibo, isolamento e tentativi di fuga. In totale, 23 prigionieri cercarono di evadere da Alcatraz, ma furono tutti uccisi o catturati, a eccezione di tre uomini che fuggirono nel 1962. La loro posizione è ancora sconosciuta.
Mentre giri, entra nelle celle aperte e immagina la noia e la solitudine. Fai un giro nel corpo di guardia, nel cortile per gli esercizi e nei giardini sorprendentemente rigogliosi che circondano gli edifici. Alcatraz può sembrare tetra all’interno, ma da fuori vedrai viste sorprendenti di San Francisco, il Golden Gate Bridge, la verde Contea di Marin a nord e Angel Island, un parco statale della California.
Suggerimenti degli esperti: Arriva a The Rock con il traghetto di Alcatraz Cruises dal molo 33 dell’embarcadero di San Francisco , vicino a Bay Street. I traghetti sono spesso pieni nel fine settimana e nei giorni festivi, quindi prenota il biglietto almeno tre mesi prima. Considera due o tre ore per l’intero viaggio. Indossa scarpe comode per la ripida camminata dal porto alla prigione e porta una giacca a vento per proteggerti dal famoso clima freddo della città.
—Ann Marie Brown
Regularly scheduled day tours to Alcatraz are a great way to tour the grand but spooky prison perched on an island in San Francisco Bay, but for a different look at “The Rock,” try one of these tours.
Night tour (ticket info): Eerily beautiful Alcatraz looks even more intriguing on guided night tours. This is when the island is most photogenic—you can get amazing sunset shots of the Golden Gate Bridge and the city skyline lighting up as the sun goes down. Alcatraz Cruises’ Night Tour includes a narrated ferry ride around the island, a ranger-guided walk up the hill from the ferry dock to the prison, and the same self-guided audio tour that is available on day tours. Night tours leave San Francisco around 6 p.m. and last about 2.5 hours. Bundle up before you go—the island can be bitterly cold after sundown, especially when fog rolls in.
Behind-the-scenes tour (ticket info): If you think you've “been there, done that” at Alcatraz, sign up for the 4.5-hour behind-the-scenes tour, offered in the evenings. You’ll walk with a small group on a two-hour ushered tour of the island, gaining access to places not seen on regular tours—the prison industries building, the Officers’ Row gardens, the upper levels of D Block, and the hospital, citadel, chapel, or theater. (Visitor sites change regularly and are not guaranteed.) Afterward, your guide hands you a headset and you can take a self-guided audio tour of the cell block. The behind-the-scenes tour leaves San Francisco around 4 p.m.; you won’t be back until 9 or 9:30. No food is available on the island, so bring snacks and water.
Garden tour (tours are free): While Alcatraz prisoners paced in their jail cells, the prison guards and their families formed a gardening association, imported topsoil from nearby Angel Island and exotic plants from around the world, and set out to make the island grow. Their work paid off: Tall, stately agaves, roses, fig trees, agapanthus, pelargonium, succulents, and other ornamental flora flourished, and today they brighten the island’s incomparable views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate. More than 230 species of introduced plants grow in seven major garden sites on Alcatraz. The nonprofit Garden Conservancy, in partnership with Golden Gate National Park and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, leads guided garden tours on Alcatraz—including flower-filled spots that are usually closed to most visitors, such as the Rose Terrace and Officers’ Row—on Friday and Sunday mornings at 9:45 a.m. Tours are free and start from the ferry dock.
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.
The human history of Alcatraz captures the imagination, but its natural history is just as fascinating. Long before people set foot on The Rock, it was home to thousands of nesting birds. In the 1770s, Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala named either this island or neighboring Angel Island—no one is sure—Isla de los Alcatraces, or “island of the pelicans,” due to its abundance of seabirds. Human activities from 1850 onward drove out the birds, but soon after Alcatraz Prison closed in 1963, the avian residents returned. Today, more than 5,000 nesting birds call Alcatraz Island home.
What birds you will see depends on the month of the year and what parts of the island are open to visitors. Seabird nesting season begins around February 1 and continues until August, although the greatest activity occurs between April and June. Depending on your timing, you might see courtship rituals, nest building, and/or parents rearing their young.
In February, Western gulls return each year to claim their territory and raise their young on the island’s historic parade grounds below the Alcatraz lighthouse. Gulls build more than 500 nests on Alcatraz each year, making this one of the largest nesting sites for Western gulls on the West Coast. By June, the crumbling concrete is covered with chicks.
In April and May, black-crowned night herons and snowy egrets build their nests in shrubs, trees, and bushes around the island. You can often see them near the parade grounds or along the island’s West Road.
For most birders, the coveted prize is a sighting of Brandt’s cormorant, a West Coast seabird that spends most of its life far out to sea, diving into the ocean for food. The male’s breeding plumage includes a gorgeous blue throat patch, which he shows off by pointing his beak up toward the sky. As many as 2,000 pairs nest on Alcatraz’s rocky outcrops every spring.
Want more? Walk anywhere on the island and you might get a front-row-center view of pelagic cormorants, Canada geese, and mallards. Pigeon guillemots are easily seen near the island’s dock; they nest in broken piles of concrete and masonry. You can spot plenty of songbirds, too: White-crowned sparrows, golden-crowned sparrows, and song sparrows make their homes in shrubbery and decaying concrete. Yellow-rumped warblers and Townsend’s warblers are also common island visitors.