What do you call a map guide to Alcatraz?
A con-tour map!
Cheesy, I know, but it brings us right to the meat of this post. Alcatraz is arguably one of the most notorious prisons in the US. It sits on a tiny, rocky island in the middle of a freezing cold San Francisco Bay. It was pointedly designed so that people were literally trapped there. You would not think it would be a pleasant experience for anyone with accessibility concerns. In fact, it was designed specifically so that mobility was purposefully inhibited! Can’t have any escapees!
Well, I can tell you I was pleasantly surprised!
Alcatraz is most known as being a former federal prison that housed some of society’s biggest offenders, like mob boss Al Capone and “Machine Gun” Kelly. Before that, it was a military prison that became home to prisoners from the Civil War and the Spanish-American war. After some controversy the prison shut down in 1972 and now over 1 million tourists per year visit this notorious piece of American history.
In my honest opinion, this is truly a can’t-miss attraction.
The exciting news is that it is totally free to tour the island. The not so exciting news is that to get to the island you will have to purchase a ferry ticket which are on the pricey side. Worth noting at this point is purchasing your tickets online early. They sell out super fast, you can go online and get your tickets up to 90 days in advance. I tried to get my tickets about six weeks in advance and they were all sold out. Just by luck I happened to check the website again a week or two before I visited and they had a few openings. This is definitely the most important step in putting this excursion together.
At the Alcatraz landing boarding area on Pier 33 you will find a restaurant, a café, and the boarding areas – all of which are accessible. Boarding the boat is easy with ramps, and lots of space to sit and watch the view towards the rock on the 15 minute ride.
Now when you get there, there will not be any wheelchairs for rent, but you will find S.E.A.T. (Sustainable Easy Access Transport) Tram. This is excellent news because this little dollop on the San Francisco Bay is steep! The distance from the dock to the beginning of the tour at the Cellhouse is approximately 1/4 mile and the elevation change is 130 feet. It’s basically the equivalent of walking up a 13 story building! The tram has a posted schedule and you can likely catch one running every half an hour. The extra nice thing about this tram is that it’s specifically designed for lower mobility users. Children and strollers do not get to hitch a ride on this magical beast. They will have to walk uphill, both ways, in the snow, just like my grandpa did.
Now don’t get overly excited, but once you get up to the top by the Cell Block you’ll manage to find accessible restrooms. When you’re ready to start the tour you’re provided with an award winning self-guided audio tour offered in a variety of languages, including sign language. There is a fully accessible elevator inside the cell house that allows you to complete the tour just like everyone else.
Now the idea of a self-guided audio tour might sound about as exciting as watching a bad documentary titled “Behind the scenes: a Snail life”, but this tour was incredibly rich, and had lots of visual and audio references. It far exceeded my expectations. The narrator guides you around parts of the prison while telling stories and goes to great lengths to bring you back to the actual scenes. The audio includes voices of the prisoners telling you what they saw, definitely sent chills up my spine. As I rolled near the cells for solitary confinement one prisoner shared a story about how he used to pass the time when in isolation: he would tear a button off of his clothes, throw it in the air, and then search for it in the dark. Once he found it, he would do it again, and again, and again. Solitary confinement prisoners were punished by being forced to stay in pitch black rooms, and only saw the light of day for exercise and a shower once a week.
While there were a lot of other things to do on Alcatraz Island, I spent most of my time in the cellblock. In addition to the audio tour, there are a number of exhibits and cells that have been staged by the National Park Service. I can only recall one area that was inaccessible for me and that was the “yard“ of the prison. Just a few too many stairs for me to manage, but virtually the rest of the island was mine to play with. I mean, take note that this whole island is virtually a large pimple on the San Francisco Bay, so not only is it hilly, but some of the sidewalks aren’t exactly in pristine use for someone on wheels. However, this is not anything exceptional or worrisome, especially for those of us who have navigated much more treacherous terrain. Just make sure that if you have someone giving you a push up the hill, that you have not ticked them off in the last 24 hours or you could go for a sweet little ride all the way back to the ferry.
I’m not sure it’s one specific thing that makes Alcatraz such an exciting place to visit. It’s probably what makes up most valued and treasured travel experiences, a bunch a little things that add up to make for one great experience. For me, the ease of accessibility is always something that I will value. But I also value the erie stories, the stunning and panoramic views, the amount of information available, and just the mere excitement of visiting a world renowned prison.
Wheels or walking Alcatraz gets two thumbs up from me.