Alcatraz Island – What You Need To Know BEFORE You Visit

(Last Updated On: May 10, 2023)

Alcatraz Island, located just 1.25 miles off the coast of San Francisco, California, is a small island with lots to see and do. Developed in the mid-19th century, the island originally served as a site for a lighthouse, military fortification, and military prison. However, in 1934, the island was converted into a federal prison, known as Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary.

This prison was known for its high security and inescapable location, thanks to the strong currents and cold water temperatures surrounding the island. As a result, Alcatraz became one of the most notorious prisons in American history, housing some of the country’s most dangerous criminals. The prison remained in operation until 1963, when it was closed due to high operating costs.

Today, Alcatraz Island is a major tourist attraction, drawing visitors from all over the world to explore its rich history and unique natural features. The island is now managed by the National Park Service as part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and visitors can take a ferry ride to the island from Pier 33, San Francisco.

One of the main draws of Alcatraz Island is the abandoned federal prison, which offers visitors a glimpse into the harsh conditions of life behind bars. The island also features an operating lighthouse, which is the oldest operating lighthouse on the West Coast of the United States. Additionally, the island has early military fortifications and natural features such as rock pools and a seabird colony, which is primarily composed of western gulls, cormorants, and egrets.

Other landmarks on the island include the Main Cellhouse, Dining Hall, Lighthouse, the ruins of the Warden’s House and Social Hall, Parade Grounds, Building 64, Water Tower, New Industries Building, Model Industries Building, and the Recreation Yard.

History of Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Island has a rich and storied history dating back to the 18th century. The first European to document the islands of San Francisco Bay was Spanish naval officer and explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala, who charted the area during Spanish rule of California in 1775.

During his expedition, Ayala named Yerba Buena Island as “La Isla de los Alcatraces”, which translates as “The Island of the Gannets” or “The Island of the Pelicans”. The name Alcatraz was later applied to the rock now known as Alcatraz Island by Captain Frederick W. Beechey, an English naval officer and explorer.

The Spanish built several small buildings on the island and other minor structures, and the earliest recorded private owner of the island was Julian Workman, who was given the island by Mexican governor Pio Pico in June 1846. The understanding was that Workman would build a lighthouse on the island.

In 1850, President Millard Fillmore ordered that Alcatraz Island be set aside specifically as a United States military reservation for military purposes based upon the U.S. acquisition of California from Mexico following the Mexican–American War. The U.S. Army began fortifying the island in 1853, and in 1858, the initial version of Fort Alcatraz was complete.

During the American Civil War, the island mounted 85 cannons in casemates around its perimeter, and served as the San Francisco Arsenal for storage of firearms to prevent them falling into the hands of Confederate sympathizers. The first operational lighthouse on the West Coast of the United States was also built on Alcatraz, and the island was used to imprison Confederate sympathizers and prisoners of war.

Fort Alcatraz played a crucial role in the history of the West Coast during the 19th century, serving as a military fortification, a prison, and a lighthouse. Today, it serves as a major tourist attraction, drawing visitors from all over the world to explore its rich history and unique natural features. It’s a reminder of the past and the impact of the military in the region.


  • Tamara M

    Hey there! My name is Tamara, welcome to my little world! I’m a 20-something-year-old from Toronto, Canada (though I’m rarely there) and I’m super passionate about exploring the world, photography, and cooking delicious plant-based recipes. I created this blog to share my favorite places, adventures, restaurants, accommodations, and travel tips with all of you and keep a bit of a travel diary for myself.

Leave a Comment