Alcatraz Island National Historic Landmark

Even if you’ve never seen Alcatraz Island National Historic Landmark, it’s a pretty good bet you know the name. Its history as a prison extends from 1859 through 1963 – first as a military prison, then as a maximum-security federal prison. Fortunately, it’s much easier these days to get on – and off – the island to see it in person and to learn about its interesting history.

A Brief History of Alcatraz Island National Historic Landmark

Alcatraz Island as a US Military Installation

In 1847 the United States defeated Mexico in the Mexican-American War. As part of the terms of peace after the war, Mexico ceded part or all of 9 territories, including California.

In 1850 President Millard Fillmore recognized the strategic importance of a military installation to defend and protect the newly-incorporated city of San Francisco. The island was claimed by the government to create a defensive site that would protect San Francisco and the Bay Area. Coastal batteries of cannons were created on the island, and a garrison of approximately 200 soldiers were placed on the island in the late 1850s.

The cannons on the island were never fired in defense. However, the island was a strategic spot for the Union army and government during the US Civil War. It was used to store munitions to keep them from falling into the hands of the Confederate army. Starting in 1861 it was used to detain Confederate prisoners of war, as well as civilians who were accused or convicted of treason.

In addition to serving as a defensive position and military prison during the Civil War, Alcatraz Island was also a site for a lighthouse. This lighthouse whe first one built on the West Coast of the United States.

Its use as a military prison continued on after the end of the Civil War. During the Spanish-American War the prison’s population grew to approximately 450 detainees.

During World War I the prison held convicted members of the US military as well as civilian conscientious objectors.

Alcatraz Island as a US Federal Penitentiary

In 1933, what was then known as the US Disciplinary Barracks on Alcatraz was acquired by the US Department of Justice for use as a federal prison. It officially became a federal prison in 1934. Its primary use was to house criminals from other US federal penitentiaries who were deemed too disruptive or dangerous, or those who had escaped from federal prisons before. Alcatraz was widely seen as an inescapable island, owing to its geography and to the strong and dangerous currents in the San Francisco Bay.

Alcatraz remained a federal penitentiary until 1963, when it was decommissioned. There were three major reasons that led to its closure:

  • The cost of housing prisoners at Alcatraz was over three times more than the cost at other federal penitentiaries.
  • Salt water from the Bay – in the form of rain and mist – corroded most of the metal structures on the island in a relatively short period of time, and led to decay in some concrete structures as well.
  • Despite the view that the prison was inescapable, three prisoners escaped the island in 1962.
Main Cell Block, looking up, Alcatraz Island

Main Cell Block, long view, Alcatraz Island

Typical prison cell, Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Island as a National Park

In 1973 the National Parks Service established an area called the Golden Gate National Recreational Area (GGNRA). As the name implies, GGNRA includes many sites located near the Golden Gate Bridge. In addition to Alcatraz, GGNRA includes the Presidio, San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, Muir Woods National Monument, and other sites.

Alcatraz was designated as a National Park at the time the GGNRA was established, and has remained a National Park since 1973.

Visiting Alcatraz Island National Historic Landmark Today

Getting to Alcatraz Island National Historical Landmark

Although Alcatraz Island National Historic Landmark is located only 1.4 miles away from the nearest shoreline of the San Francisco Bay, it is definitely not a trip you want to try and make on your own. The waters of the Bay are extremely treacherous, and many people have drowned both trying to escape the prison as well as trying to get out to the prison from San Francisco. It’s much easier to take a ferry and to travel in comfort and style.

Approaching Alcatraz Island National Historic Landmark via ferry

Alcatraz Tours is the exclusive and official provider for tickets to visit Alcatraz Island National Historical Landmark. Their Day Tour option is the most popular package, This option includes a 15-minute ferry ride to and from the Island, as well as a self-guided audio tour to provide historical background and interesting insights into the Island and its history. The cost of the ticket is inclusive of all National Parks entry fees – so you pay one price to get everything. Audio tours are available in a variety of languages including English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Dutch, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Mandarin and English Braille.

Tickets are made available approximately 90 days before a set of given departure dates. The tours tend to fill up quickly, and capacity is currently reduced because of COVID-19 restrictions. Therefore, it’s always best to reserve your tickets ahead of time to ensure you’ll be able to visit.

If you are a holder of the America the Beautiful National Parks pass, be aware that it does not apply to the cost of your ticket to access Alcatraz Island. According the the National Park Service website on Alcatraz Island: “Please note that as there is no federal entrance fee to visit Alcatraz therefore the America the Beautiful passes and the Golden Eagle/Access/Age passes do not apply to the price of a ferry ticket for Alcatraz (which includes the cell house audio tour).”

Tours leave from San Francisco’s Pier 33, located just off the Embarcadero and close to the Fisherman’s Wharf area. Pier 33 is fully handicapped accessible and ADA compliant.

What to See at Alcatraz Island National Historical Landmark

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) – one of the many flowers growing wild on Alcatraz Island

As you first enter the island, make sure to pick up a self-guided tour map. This map not only gives you the location of all the spots for the audio tour, but it also gives you some areas to visit after the audio tour completes.

The self-guided tour – included as part of your overall trip fee – is not to be missed. The tour covers the history of, and controversies around, Alcatraz Island in its many different forms over the year. The tour also includes an extensive overview of the interior sections of the former prison, including information on the cells in which famous criminals like Al Capone were housed.

One your audio tour ends, tour the rest of the grounds and see the other historical and natural sites. You can check out the natural beauty of the Gardens of Alcatraz, visit the Recreation Area and imagine inmates getting their daily exercise period, and check out the ruins of the Warden’s House.

Additionally, parts of the island afford you stunning views of the city as well as the Golden Gate Bridge. Make sure you take those views in, too!

Final Thoughts on Alcatraz Island National Historical Landmark

Alcatraz has consistently rated in the top 10 of all US National Park sites, and is the most popular tourist destination in San Francisco. Tickets tend to go fast, to make sure to get yours early. A 2-3 hour tour of Alcatraz Island should be sufficient to see everything on the island, and still leave you time to tour other parts of San Francisco during your time there.

I have really enjoyed visiting this place that’s been so important to the history of California and to the US justice system, and plan to go back there as soon as I’m able.



Car Camping at Yellowstone National Park

I am typically someone who camps in the backcountry. I place everything that I need in my backpack and I head off to some remote wilderness destination. In the Summer of 2014, I tried something different. I decided to visit a few National Parks and National Monuments in the Western part of the country. Instead of strapping on my backpack and heading to the wilderness, I decided that I would stay in developed campgrounds which were accessible with my car. Car camping at Yellowstone National Park was a new experience for me.

Car Camping at Yellowstone National Park – The Story Begins

This story begins with my nephew and his girlfriend.

My nephew and his girlfriend had spent their early courtship years working for two seasons as park rangers at North Cascades National Park (which is located in the State of Washington). When they chose to become married, only one location on the planet seemed appropriate for their wedding —North Cascades National Park. The couple asked me to officiate at their wedding ceremony. I said “Yes”.

North Cascades National Park
North Cascades National Park

North Cascades National Park is located 2,100 miles away from my home. After weighing all of the possible travel options, I decided to spend two weeks driving to North Cascades and back. I planned to stay at some hotels along the way. However, I also planned to stay overnight at some established campgrounds located in National Parks. I had never done that before.

My first destination was Yellowstone National Park. My plan was to spend part of two days doing a quick exploration of Yellowstone and the adjacent Grand Teton National Park. I also decided I would try my hand at car camping at Yellowstone National Park.

I had never visited Grand Teton or Yellowstone National Parks. Both parks were on my “bucket list”. Thus, I was thrilled to finally see these two destinations.

Arrival In Jackson Hole, Wyoming

After a few days of driving I arrived at the Jackson Hole and Greater Yellowstone Visitor Center. This is a wonderful place to stop for maps, information, and free public restrooms. The visitor center is located on the edge of the National Elk Refuge. I arrived at the visitor center at approximately noon. I picked up maps and literature. I familiarized myself with what the surrounding area had to offer. I then headed out of town on Highway 26 (which is also part of Highway 191 and Highway 89) and drove toward Grand Teton National Park.

Exploring Grand Teton National Park

Car Camping at Grand Teton National Park
Grand Teton National Park, South Entrance Sign

Along the way, I saw a large wooden sign that said, “Grand Teton National Park”. The sign, and the surrounding territory, captured my attention. So, I decided to stop and take some photos. I was not alone. Approximately twenty other people had a similar idea at the same time. Apparently, many people are attracted to this sign. How many signs have their own parking area and are noted as a point of interest on Google Maps?

After taking photos of the sign, I spent a wonderful afternoon driving around on the roads of Grand Teton National Park. Almost everywhere that I looked, there was another tremendous sight to see. I frequently found myself pulling over along a roadside (or pulling into a small parking area) in order to enjoy the view and take photos. I was having great time.

I need to reiterate, exploring nature and a National Park from the inside of a motor vehicle was not something that I was accustomed to doing. I am a backpacker. I go into wilderness areas and explore places on foot. Exploring a National Park in a car was a new experience for me. I didn’t think that I would like it—but I did.

Grand Teton National Park is gorgeous—even from the inside of a car. Jagged, snow-covered, mountain peaks tower above the surrounding countryside. Clear mountain lakes and steams add to the overall beauty. It was a thrill to see the mountains and sky reflected in the lakes.

The constant presence of such grandeur can cause a visitor to sometimes overlook the smaller (and somewhat less majestic) aspects of the park. There are countless fields and meadows filled with grasses, plants, and flowers. Birds and butterflies flit about from place-to-place. Elk and bison graze in the fields and slowly make their way through the park. If you are lucky, you might see a pronghorn, mule deer, moose, or a marmot. Don’t let the huge mountains and sparkling lakes distract you from seeing these smaller —but equally impressive—wonders that Grand Teton National Park has to offer.

One of my biggest regrets, from this this entire trip, is that I did not spend more time at Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. This is especially true for Grand Teton. One brief afternoon is simply not enough time to fully explore Grand Teton National Park.

Exploring Yellowstone National Park – Day 1

Late in the afternoon, my car transported me along Highway 89 from Grand Teton National Park into the adjacent Yellowstone National Park. I entered Yellowstone via the park’s South Entrance.

Yellowstone has twelve campgrounds. Five of them require advance registrations. The other seven are first come, first served.

I made my way to the Lewis Lake Campground in Yellowstone National Park. Lewis Lake Campground is one of the seven campgrounds at Yellowstone which does not accept advance reservations. I went to Section C of the campground and drove my vehicle right up to an empty campsite.

I then walked over to the self-check in area. I registered myself as being in campsite C-28. I filled out the registration slip. I placed my $10 nightly fee (and the registration slip) into the envelope which was provided. I dropped the envelope into the “fee vault”. I then returned to my campsite and clipped my copy of the registration slip to the post at my campsite. Registration was really that simple. (Note: The campsite fee at Lewis Lake Campground in 2020 is $15 per night).

Car Camping at Yellowstone National Park
Lewis Lake Campground, Yellowstone National Park

I found it interesting that there was still snow on the ground at some of the campsites — even though it was late June. I had been fortunate enough to secure a campsite that was snow-free. I quickly set up my camping hammock in the campsite. (The hammock has a tarp and bug netting). I then got back into my car to explore Yellowstone for the rest of the evening.

I saw quite a few elk. They were grazing in fields and meadows. I went to Kepler Cascades and enjoyed the scenic overlook and the 150 foot waterfall. I spent considerable time visiting the area around the famous geyser, Old Faithful. I saw Old Faithful erupt twice that night. Late in the evening, I slowly made my way back to the Lewis Lake Campground. I stopped for a while and admired Lewis Lake.

I returned to my campsite at approximately 9:00 p.m. I quietly cooked a late dinner. I properly cleaned up my area (in order to discourage bears and other animals). I was in my hammock before 10:00 p.m.

Camping at Lewis Lake Campground

Car campers at Lewis Lake Campground

Camping at Lewis Lake Campground was very different than most of my previous camping experiences. I wasn’t backpacking and camping in some remote wilderness area. My car was located approximately 50 feet away from my hammock. Thus, I kept most of my gear, food, and supplies locked safely in my car while I slept. The only things not in my car that night were my hammock, sleeping pad, down quilt, flashlight, car keys —and me.

The temperature that night got down to 33 degrees (according to the National Weather Service). That is one degree warmer than the temperature at which water freezes. It was a chilly night. However, I slept soundly. My hammock “cocoon” was safe and warm. My top quilt was rated for approximately 15 degrees. I had ample insulation beneath me via a thick and reflective sleeping pad. I was wearing merino wool thermal clothing, down booties, and a wool cap. I was very comfortable.

All was well, until the moment that my bladder and body felt the call of nature at approximately 5:30 a.m. That unfortunate development meant that I had to leave my warm cocoon and venture out into the freezing Yellowstone temperatures for a walk to the privy.

I don’t care who you are. If you take a short walk in freezing temperatures, and then sit on the cold seat in a National Park outhouse, the experience is going to wake you up. There would be no more sleeping for me on that morning. I tried to go back to bed for another hour or so. However, sleep would not come. By 6:30 a.m., I knew it was time to get rolling.

I soon learned some additional benefits of camping near one’s car. I was able to break camp fairly quickly and quietly. I only partially deflated my sleeping pad and placed it in the backseat of my car. I likewise placed my sleeping quilt and hammock in the backseat without fully packing them. I did not have to spend time struggling to squeeze them into tiny stuff sacks in order that they would fit into a backpack. It was not very long before I was on the road at Yellowstone. The car’s heater was soon churning out some much appreciated heat on that chilly morning. You can’t have those types of benefits when you are backpacking deep in the wilderness.

Exploring Yellowstone National Park – Day 2

I spent the morning exploring more of Yellowstone. My first two stops were the Black Sand Basin and the Midway Geyser Basin. Both areas have boardwalk trails through large fields filled with hot springs and geysers.

I had previously disliked the early morning cold temperatures. Now, the cold air was a wonderful bonus. The hot pools and geyers released steam and fog into the cool morning air. At times, it seemed as if people on the boardwalks were walking among the clouds. It gave a very surreal feeling to the whole early morning experience at Yellowstone. Very small crowds were another added benefit of being there relatively early on a cool morning.

Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park

After visiting the basins and geysers, I continued to drive around Yellowstone for the rest of the morning. I spent time looking at Yellowstone Lake. I drove through Canyon Village and the Mammoth Hot Springs areas.

I saw Old Faithful erupt once more. I spent time watching, and photographing, a herd of wild bison roaming freely throughout the park. I observed the Madison Canyon elk herd.

By early afternoon, my time at Grand Teton and Yellowstone had come to an end. I was back on the road and driving toward the State of Washington, North Cascades National Park, and my nephew’s wedding.

Final Reflections On Car Camping at Yellowstone National Park

If I were to change anything regarding this trip, I would have spent more time at Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone. I would have spent at least one full day at each of these two National Parks. I might have even wanted to spend two days at each.

On this trip, I did get out of my car and walk around a bit. I did some limited exploring by foot. However, if I were to do this trip again, I would spend even more time walking and hiking on some of the shorter trails. I would venture farther away from parking lots and roadways. This would permit me to explore more of the interesting nooks and crannies of these two beautiful national parks.

This was my first visit to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. It was also my first time “car camping” at a developed campground. Overall, I enjoyed the experience immensely. I was able to cover so much more territory with my vehicle than I would have been able to cover on foot as a backpacker. Setting up and taking down camp was extremely easy. I didn’t have to worry about the weight and bulk of my gear or how to safeguard my food from animals. Registering at the campground, and paying the campground fee, was easier than I had envisioned. I saw plenty of other people at the campground. Yet, it didn’t feel overcrowded, nor did it distract from the camping experience

I would certainly go car camping at Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks again.

Note: This was a guest post written by John Prain. Thanks to John for his contribution! If you’d like to read about my first camping experience, read my article entitled A First Time Camper In America’s National Parks.




Outdoor Activities Near Isle Royale National Park

Isle Royale National Park is located on group of islands in Lake Superior. It is the nation’s least visited national park. It is also the nation’s most re-visited national park. Many visitors make multiple return trips to Isle Royale. The only way to reach Isle Royale is by boat or seaplane. Commercial boat and seaplane passenger services operate out of the Minnesota North Shore and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. There’s a lot of natural beauty in the area around the park and there are plenty of outdoor activities near Isle Royale National Park itself.


17 Travel Bloggers Share Their Favorite US National Park Sites

If you were to ask 20 bloggers or travel experts the question “What’s your favorite US National Park?” I’m sure you’d get at least 30 answers, if not more. There are well over 400 sites that are part of the US National Park Service system, and it’s hard to pick just a single favorite. That said, I’ve asked some blogger friends of mine to share their thoughts (and their articles!) on their favorite US National Parks – their thoughts are below. Please enjoy, and leave me a note about your favorite park site in the comments below! (more…)

Our Take on America’s Best National Parks

Ask 100 people to name America’s best national parks, and you’ll probably get way more than 100 answers. There’s no definitive list of America’s best national parks (although many websites publish annual lists of their favorites!), since “best” is really a subjective term. But for those that enjoy the outdoors and experiencing flora and fauna in their natural settings, US National Parks are like cathedrals. I asked a few of my travel blogging friends to share their stories and photos from their favorite places. So, please enjoy this look at our favorite US National Parks!