Doing Time on Alcatraz

Once the island was populated with the likes of Al "Scarface" Capone, George "Machine Gun" Kelly and a couple of hundred more incorrigibles. Now its most distinguished residents are the black-crowned night heron, the double-crested cormorant and a couple of thousand western gulls.

The birds have taken over Alcatraz. Allowing them to recolonize "The Rock" is part of a National Park Service program to restore some semblance of the natural world on an island long synonymous with maximum security.

The so-called "Birdman of Alcatraz" (Robert Stroud) would certainly be delighted. (The 1962 movie was inaccurate: Stroud raised birds and wrote a book on bird diseases at Leavenworth Prison, but he was not allowed to keep birds during the 17 years he was incarcerated on Alcatraz.)

Not everyone is happy with the isle's change from crookery to rookery. The old prison is one of San Francisco's most popular tourist attractions, and many visitors (avid bird-watchers excepted) complain about the bird droppings and the onetime military parade ground littered with white and gray feathers. Park officials are faced with the nearly impossible task of managing "historical resources" (the prison), "natural resources" (the birds) and the thousands of tourists who flock to the Rock.

The Pacific Coast's first lighthouse was installed on the island in 1859. Alcatraz served as a military prison from the time of the Civil War until 1933, when it was converted to a civilian penitentiary. From 1934 to 1963 it imprisoned some of America's most wanted.

Native American activists took over the island in 1969, claiming sovereignty on the basis of an 1868 U.S. treaty with the Sioux nation. U.S. marshals evicted the group in 1971. Alcatraz became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and was opened to the public in 1973. It has been a popular attraction ever since.

Visitors can take a 35-minute audio tour of the prison and watch a short video. Ranger-led walks emphasize natural history, prison guard life and escape attempts.

Agave Trail offers a walk on the wild side of the island. It takes hikers near tide pools and a sea lion hangout and offers great views of flocks of seabirds. The trail takes its name from the dense local population of the spiny succulent. The agaves were strategically planted during the isle's prison era to discourage any would-be rescuers from coming ashore.

Autumn is the best time for a visit. Agave Trail is open only from mid-September through January. The trail is closed the rest of the year to protect birds' nesting sites. The fall typically offers the clearest bay views, as well as relief from the hordes of summer tourists.

Directions to trail head: Alcatraz Island is accessible by ferries operated by the Blue & Gold Fleet, which depart from Pier 41 at San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf. Reservations (at least a week ahead) are suggested for the summer tourist season or for weekend visits all year. Tickets are $11 for adults, $5.75 for children 5 to 11. If you don't want the prison audio tour, the cost per ticket is $7.75 for adults, $4.50 for children. Parking is expensive around Fisherman's Wharf, but a couple of lots offer all-day rates of only $5 if you leave your car by 9:30 a.m.

The hike: Signed Agave Trail begins just south of the ferry dock. The path meanders past eucalyptus (favored by nesting black-crowned night herons) and across a hillside spiked with agaves.

Movie fans might recognize locations from Clint Eastwood's "Escape From Alcatraz" and "The Rock," a 1996 action thriller starring Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage as unlikely heroes who attempt to thwart terrorists who've taken over Alcatraz and are threatening San Francisco with chemical weapons.

The trail descends toward the water and, at low tide, some intriguing tide pools, then ascends sandstone steps to serve up dramatic vistas of the bay, Bay Bridge, Treasure Island and metro San Francisco.

Back up top is a parade ground hewn out of solid rock by military prisoners of the 1870s. Agave Trail passes the ruins of a guardhouse and joins the main trail to the cellblock. Walkers can continue to the isle's old lighthouse.


Alcatraz Island Agave Trail

WHERE: Golden Gate National Recreation Area

DISTANCE: 1 mile round trip, including prison tour.

TERRAIN: "The Rock" in San Francisco Bay.

HIGHLIGHTS: Prison tour, bird-watching, San Francisco vistas.


PRECAUTIONS: Trail open only from mid-September to January.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Fort Mason, San Francisco, CA 94123; tel. (415) 556-4484. Ferry information for Blue & Gold Fleet; tel. (415) 773-1188, ticket purchase; tel. (415) 705-5555.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World