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Spotlight: 알카트라즈

1854년, 금문 해협(Golden Gate)을 통과하는 배들을 안내하기 위해 샌프란시스코 베이의 알카트라즈 섬에 서부 해안 최초의 등대가 건설되었습니다. 정부 당국은 곧 "더 록(The Rock)" 이라는 별명을 가진 면적 22에이커의 이 작은 섬이 북적이는 샌프란시스코에서 가까우면서도 아주 멀지는 않아 연방 교정 시설을 만들기에 꼭 맞는 장소라고 판단했습니다. 이 섬의 깎은 듯한 절벽은 거센 해류로 둘러싸여 있을 뿐 아니라 높은 파도와 낮은 해수 온도 때문에 감옥을 탈출하는 것이 거의 불가능했습니다.   

알카트라즈는 남북전쟁 당시부터 1934년까지 군 포로 수용소로 사용되다가 이후 민간 교정 시설로 전환되었습니다. 감옥으로 사용된 것은 30년에 불과하지만, 더 록은 클린트 이스트우드(Clint Eastwood) 주연의 명작 알카트라즈 탈출(Escape from Alcatraz) 같은 할리우드 영화들 덕분에 미국 국민들의 머릿속에 영원한 죄수 유형지로 각인되어 있습니다. 이 감옥에는 미국에서 가장 악명 높은 범죄자들, 알 카포네(Al Capone), 조지 "머신 건" 켈리(George "Machine Gun" Kelly), 그리고 조류 질병의 전문가가 된 살인자 "버드 맨" 로버트 스트라우드("Bird Man" Robert Stroud) 같은 사람들이 수감되어 있었습니다.  

페리를 타고 섬으로 건너가 낮 또는 밤 시간에 버려진 감옥을 둘러보세요. 상쾌한 바닷물 스프레이와 넓게 펼쳐지는 베이의 전망만으로 20분간의 페리 여행은 충분하기도 하지만, 페리 티켓에는 섬 출입, 옵셔널 레인저 가이드 투어, 그리고 오디오 헤드셋을 이용한 40분간의 감옥 셀프 가이드 투어도 포함되어 있습니다. "수감 생활(Doing Time)"이라는 해설 프로그램에는 배우들이 재연한 죄수들과 간수들의 목소리가 어우러져 음식 폭동, 독방 수감, 탈옥 시도 같은 이야기들이 텅 빈 감옥이 실제처럼 느껴집니다. 알카트라즈 탈출 시도를 한 죄수는 총 23명으로, 1962년 탈출에 성공한 3명을 제외하고 모두 사살 당하거나 다시 잡혔습니다. 탈출한 3명의 행방은 아직도 알려진 바가 없습니다.

투어 중에 문이 열린 감방에 들어가 그 당시 지루함과 외로움을 상상해 보세요. 가드하우스, 운동장, 그리고 건물 주변의 놀랍도록 무성한 정원을 둘러 보세요. 알카트라즈가 안에서 볼 때는 어둠으로 가득한 듯 보이지만, 밖으로 나오면 샌프란시스코, 금문교, 북쪽으로는 무성하게 우거진 머린 카운티(Marin County), 그리고 가까이는 캘리포니아 주립 공원  앤젤 아일랜드(Angel Island)의 모습이 어우러져 눈부신 전망을 선사합니다.

인사이더 팁: 베이 스트리트(Bay Street) 근처, 샌프란시스코의  엠바카데로(Embarcadero)의 33번 부두에서 출발하는 알카트라즈 크루즈(Alcatraz Cruises) 페리를 타면 더 록(The Rock)으로 갈 수 있습니다. 주말이나 연휴에는 주로 페리가 만선이기 때문에 최소 3주 전에 탑승권을 예약하는 것을 권장합니다. 전체 트립은 2-3시간 정도 소요됩니다. 부두에서 감옥까지 가파른 계단을 올라가야 하니 편안한 신발을 착용하고, 샌프란시스코의 차가운 날씨를 감안해 꼭 재킷이나 바람막이 점퍼를 챙겨오세요.  

—앤 마리 브라운(Ann Marie Brown)

Alcactraz at night
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Alcatraz Specialty Tours

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Alcatraz Specialty Tours
See San Francisco’s infamous island from a new perspective on one of these three behind-the-scenes tours

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 CruisesNight 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. 

 

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Hike Alcatraz’s Agave Trail

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Hike Alcatraz’s Agave Trail
Visit infamous Alcatraz Prison, then take a walk on the island’s wild, scenic side

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. 

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Birding on Alcatraz

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Birding on Alcatraz
San Francisco’s Alcatraz Island offers history, scenery, and a top-notch birding destination

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.