The Two Sides of Alcatraz

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When I visited the former-island-prison of Alcatraz in San Francisco for the first time back in May, I was struck immediately by its dual personalities.

On the one hand, Alcatraz is a former prison that once housed some of the country's most hardened criminals. But on the other hand, it's actually a fairly attractive place with an interesting history.

Alcatraz, San Francisco

So, today, I'm going to share with you the TWO sides of Alcatraz, in photos.

Alcatraz the Prison

Alcatraz's most well-known personality is that of a prison. But “The Rock” has actually been home to everything from a military fortification to a military prison to the federal prison it is most known for. That federal prison operated on the small island from 1933-1963, when it was home to some of America's most notorious and hardened criminals.

Alcatraz, San Francisco

Inside Alcatraz, San Francisco

Today, Alcatraz is run and maintained by the U.S. National Park Service (it's part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area), and multiple daily tours from San Francisco take curious tourists 1.5 miles out into San Francisco Bay for a visit.

Alcatraz, San Francisco

Alcatraz, San Francisco

The NPS offers a fantastic guided audio tour of the island and the former prison, where you can learn about everything from who Alcatraz's most famous prisoners were (Al Capone, anyone?) to just why The Rock was so difficult to escape from (hint: it has everything to do with strong currents…).

Alcatraz, San Francisco

The inside portion of the tour takes you through rows and rows of cells, into the dining hall, and goes into detail about some of the most famous escape attempts made. The most violent attempt took place over 2 days in May 1946, and is often known as “the Battle of Alcatraz” — 3 inmates and 2 guards lost their lives, and another dozen were injured.

Another famous attempt was made by 3 prisoners in June of 1962, in which the inmates burrowed out of their cells (a la “The Shawshank Redemption”), climbed through the prison's ventilation shafts, and left the island on a makeshift raft. They were never heard from again, and Alcatraz always maintained that none of the 36 prisoners who tried to escape were ever successful.

Alcatraz, San Francisco

Alcatraz jail cell, San Francisco

Alcatraz, San Francisco

Alcatraz the Home

The prison story is the one you are probably familiar with. But, as I said before, there's another side to Alcatraz, too.

View from Alcatraz, San Francisco

When most people think of The Rock, they think of the prisoners and the tough reputation the place acquired over the years.

But Alcatraz was not just a federal prison. It was also a home to families; it was a place where Christmas was celebrated; it was a place where children grew up.

Alcatraz, San Francisco

Yes, kids lived on Alcatraz, too — but not as prisoners. The wardens and prison guards lived on Alcatraz, along with their families. The kids took a ferry to school in San Francisco each day, played outside the barbed wire fences of the prison, and, yes, even welcomed Santa Claus each year.

This is a side of Alcatraz I had known nothing about before my visit there.

Alcatraz, San Francisco

I also hadn't known about the island's phenomenal views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge.

View from Alcatraz, San Francisco

View from Alcatraz, San Francisco

Or about its beautiful gardens.

Alcatraz gardens, San Francisco


Alcatraz, San Francisco

Alcatraz gardens, San Francisco

Alcatraz gardens, San Francisco

Walking through this part of the island, I felt a world away from Alcatraz the Prison. This part of The Rock was beautiful and peaceful.

Alcatraz, San Francisco

Just proof that even the most notoriously tough places can have a softer side.

Which side of Alcatraz would YOU be most interested in seeing?


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Taking a tour to Alcatraz in San Francisco


"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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21 Comments on “The Two Sides of Alcatraz

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  1. I’ve been on the Alcatraz night tour- but we weren’t able to see the beautiful gardens or learn about the children who grew up here. Maybe I’ll just have to take the tour next time I’m out there!

      I highly, highly recommend the audio tour next time!

    I had no idea that families lived on the island as well, what a crazy childhood!

      It certainly would have been! I was really amazed to learn about that side of Alcatraz – it’s certainly not what you expect!

    I visited Alcatraz last may as well, and was struck by how very beautiful it was. Your photos are fantastic–they really capture that beauty. Love this post!

      Thanks, Tracy! Glad to hear you were able to appreciate how pretty Alcatraz was, too!

    So interesting! Never heard about the other side until now.

      I feel like most people don’t know much about Alcatraz’s “other” side. But that’s what I love about blogging – I get to share all these fun facts I learn with others!

    I visited this place many years ago and was surprised to learn that families used to live ON THE ISLAND! I spent most of my time exploring the interior, but your shots of the gardens do look beautiful. 😉

      Yes, it was crazy to me to think of kids growing up on Alcatraz! But I think learning about that part of the island’s history was fascinating!!

    I want to see the prison. I was in San Francisco aged 11 and I have no idea why my family decided not to visit. The Rock is one of my favourite movies (sad I know!), so that’s another reason to go!

      Yeah, sounds like you may need a return trip to SF sometime!! Especially if The Rock is your favorite movie!

    I have a fascination with the place after watching Escape from Alcatraz with dad when I was little and can’t wait to one day visit – hopefully that’s on the cards for sometime in the next couple of years. Great photos as usual.

      I hope you make it there, Hayley! Definitely a cool place to have on your list.

    Chalk and Cheese! You have presented both the facets so very well, the second set of captures shows how beautiful the place is.

      I was pleasantly surprised to see how pretty parts of the island were, despite it’s slightly darker past.

    I hav only been to Alcatraz once, on a school field trip as a kid. And I think they just brought us to scare us into not ever getting into trouble. It worked!

      Hahaha, I suppose that could be a good tactic to use on kids!

    I’d want to see both sides yet even living nearby for a year never made it to the Rock. Great story.

      A lot of people who live in/near San Francisco have told me they’ve never been. I’d definitely recommend it! It’s very interesting.

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