We spent three hours on Alcatraz and found it very interesting. Be sure to get the self-guided audio tour ($16), as this greatly enhances what you actually see. Our first stop was the video presentation and exhibits in the Civil War-era munitions building. The island was first used as a fortress and military prison. Then it's a hike up to the penitentiary to pick up your headphones and wander around the cellhouse. Don't miss Al Capone's cell, and the cutoff where potential escapees met their fate (bullet holes in the walls, grenade explosion marks on the concrete floors).

The tour doesn't have you stop in the recreation yard - you have to walk back after you've turned in your headset. So pause right after the dining hall part of the tour and step outside to avoid backtracking. There is a door from the recreation yard (why did they have a door? They weren't allowed out...I don't know) that leads out to the other side of the island for a view of the demolished guards' houses. You can also walk around to this part of the island if you turn right after exiting the tour.

After its use as a penitentiary, Alcatraz became surplus property and was seized by American Indians. They lived on the island for 19 months in the 1970s. As a National Park, the island is now home to hundreds of protected seagulls (bring a hat). One man standing in line with us thought that the Park Service was doing the island a disservice by not restoring it (which in fact they have plans to do). I believe it's fitting that the island is returning to a more natural state. The name "Alcatraz" was actually given to honor the island's first inhabitants - the birds.

VERY IMPORTANT: Buy your tickets at least two weeks in advance. We went to Alcatraz in July. Those unlucky tourists who weren't in the know came to buy tickets that day and found none were available until August! Apparently some tour groups have same-day tickets but best not to take chances.




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