With COVID precautions, The Rock is open again. And though you’ll go for the prison tour, you’ll stay to wander through a unique natural environment found no place else in the Bay Area.
By Alex Lash / Photos by Lila Lash – The Frisc
Once upon a time, to visit Alcatraz you had to squeeze onto a ferry boat with people from all corners of the country and the globe. Perhaps you went when your parents or cousins or friends were visiting from out of town. Perhaps you’ve never been.
Those days are gone for now. The COVID pandemic shut down the ferry service for months, but just this week, it has restarted — with limited service and room on the boat for social distancing.
In normal times, the audio-guided tour, roughly 45 minutes long, is itself worth the trip and the expense. For now, however, the famous jailhouse and other interior spaces are closed. Even more disappointing, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Native American occupation of the island, a 19-month event crucial to Native rights, and special exhibit spaces aren’t accessible. However, pandemic-era visitors will still see signs of the occupation.
But a trip to Alcatraz is still worth the effort, because The Rock holds a local secret: It well could be San Francisco’s most spectacular outdoor adventure, an improbable mash-up that combines enduring nature and drastic intervention.
Sure, it’s federal land and not technically part of San Francisco, but by dint of logistics, history, and the public imagination, Alcatraz is for all purposes an extension of the city. Imagine how the inmates felt on New Year’s Eve and other celebratory nights when the voices and laughter of party goers drifted over the water and into their cells.
Get on the boat
The fun starts on the short ferry ride from Pier 33. Suddenly you realize the Bay is a really big body of water, a sort of inland sea, in a way that you can’t entirely process when you’re on shore or driving over a bridge.
Wear a mask, of course, and bring binoculars. You might see harbor porpoises or bottlenose dolphins. Both are gray. Dolphins are lighter, longer, and sleeker and feature an elongated dorsal fin; porpoises are stouter and shaded toward black, with a smaller triangular dorsal. With luck, you might even see humpback whales, which in recent years have begun to venture under the Golden Gate Bridge and into the Bay.
You could see sea lions and, skimming the surface, cormorants, pelicans, and other birds. You’re extremely unlikely to see a great white shark eating a sea lion — but one lucky day a few years ago, dozens of people did.
Once you make land, count yourself herpetologically blessed if you spot a California slender salamander, the only amphibian on the island. (The only mammals are deer mice.)
You will certainly see and hear more birds, as Alcatraz has recovered its status as an important rookery. (The legendary “Birdman of Alcatraz,” Robert Stroud, a brilliant and manipulative psychopath whose fame was cemented by a popular Hollywood movie, would have been in seventh heaven. Or hell.)
Alcatraz is an archaic Spanish word for pelican. But pelicans aren’t nesting on the island these days. There are gulls, however. Lots and lots of gulls. Not so exciting — until you see one actively building a nest.
But it’s the concentration of egrets, night herons, three types of cormorants, and pigeon guillemots all in one place that sets Alcatraz apart. To protect them, some pathways are off limits during nesting season and boat traffic is restricted nearby.
Now that the prison buildings are closed, you’ll have more time to find them. The black-feathered, red-footed, and red-mouthed guillemots are often seen near “Barker Beach,” an inlet on the western side named after a notorious inmate who was shot in the head trying to escape; and near the ruins of the Officers Club on the eastern side, one of the first landmarks you pass after you disembark.
The western flank of the island, facing the Golden Gate Bridge, has an abundance of rocky cliffs that provide nesting nooks. The night herons gather in the agave plants around the island’s southern tip. The egrets gather in bushes on the western flank of the island, where the most improbable feature on an island of improbables awaits you.
Barren, windswept, freshwater-less Alcatraz has gardens. Lush, vivid, bee-kissed gardens.
The Rock’s gardens
According to the National Park Service, Native people likely didn’t live on Alcatraz but visited to fish and gather eggs. The Spanish put up a few small buildings in the late 18th century; the island became a full-blown fortress during the U.S. Civil War. The military transferred it to the Bureau of Prisons in the 1930s, where it became the Alcatraz known popularly today.
The prison shuttered for good in 1963. All that time, in more than a century’s existence as a place of punishment, Alcatraz’s residents and inmates were also gardeners. The military imported soil in the mid-1800s and employed prisoners in an island-wide beautification project in the 1920s. Most plants were ornamental, save for a few fruit and nut trees and artichokes.
‘I just haven’t the stomach for eight more years of the close confinement here. At Alcatraz, I could at least grow Bell roses and delphiniums seven days a week and enjoy considerable freedom and trust.’ — Inmate Elliott Michener, writing to the Alcatraz warden after a transfer to Leavenworth Prison
Officers and their families tended gardens and built greenhouses on the island’s eastern flanks. All fresh water had to be brought from the mainland, although prisoners’ bath water was recycled for lawns and shrubs — sustainable well before the term was coined.
In the 1930s, the warden’s secretary asked the California Horticultural Society and others for seedlings that would survive in the harsh conditions. (Dozens of the species have survived, even though the gardens went untended for several decades after the prison closed.)
The same warden’s secretary, Fred Reichel, convinced his boss to give some inmates the privilege of working outside the prison walls. Under Reichel, the western side of the island was terraced and cultivated by inmates; a short path takes you through the “prisoner gardens.” Start from the terrace on the south side of the cell house and prison offices, curl to the right and follow the path north before looping back up to the prison’s recreation yard.
[Note: The Park Service says outdoor spaces will be open but some routes might be altered.]
Nesting birds take cover in the bushes to the left. The looming prison wall and a grass lawn are to the right. Depending on the time of year, a palette of colors waves in all directions.
Lovingly restored and tended by volunteers, the gardens are an homage of sorts to prisoners like Elliott Michener. After a transfer to Leavenworth Prison in Kansas, he wrote the Alcatraz warden, asking to return: “I believe that my best and only practical course is to get back to Alcatraz. You will understand, I think, that after sixteen years in prison I just haven’t the stomach for eight more years of the discipline and close confinement that are standard here. At Alcatraz, I could at least grow Bell roses and delphiniums seven days a week and enjoy considerable freedom and trust, and in general make the best of things.”
Michener finished his time in 1952 and worked on a farm in Wisconsin. (Here’s an interview with him during an Alcatraz visit decades later.)
After you hear the cellblock stories of inmates who escaped the island but couldn’t manage the water, or whose bodies were never found, look again at the Bay around you.
If your timing is right, you’ll see currents ripping past Alcatraz’s shores, fluid dynamics so raw and distinct that you can imagine the islandas a giant rock in the middle of a sinewy river, splitting its braid in two. You’ll see drift lines and choppy water, and even when there is no wind, the surface evidence of clashing currents.
The conventional wisdom is that Alcatraz was a grim, cruel, barren place to live. But substitute the shrieks of gulls or the wash of waves on tidal pools for the clang of iron cell doors, and a visitor with her eyes and ears open might step off the ferry back in San Francisco with a very different idea of the Rock. Even without access to the interior, the island’s dramatic history, recovering nature, and incomparable views qualify it for a special trip, with or without your cousins from Cincinnati.
And if the gift shop is open, go ahead, buy yourself a T shirt. We won’t tell.
How to get there
Unless you really love to swim, the only way to reach Alcatraz is the government sanctioned ferry company Alcatraz Cruises, which departs from Pier 33.
Alex Lash – November 2020
Alex Lash is the editor in chief of The Frisc, covering in-depth news and analysis on San Francisco. This article originally appeared in The Frisc’s Get Out Now! column, featuring unique outdoor expeditions near the city written by locals. Click here to subscribe.
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