When you arrive on the island, a docent explains certain rules; then you are free to explore on your own. For a historical overview, you might start by watching the film at the visitor center, then viewing some of the exhibits about the Indian occupation and life on the island. Because of its steep terrain, much of the island is accessible only to birds and wildlife.
For most visitors, the cellhouse is the main attraction. The climb up to it is extremely steep, but those who physically can’t make the trek can take a free electric tram, SEAT (sustainable easy-access transport), which can hold two people in wheelchairs or one scooter at a time, as well as numerous seated passengers. Look for a small sign directly across from the dock that lists the schedule. The tram is first-come, first-served.
The cellhouse is accessible except for the recreation yard. An audio tour narrated by former guards and inmates is included in the price of the ticket. Their chilling accounts of life on the island enhances the experience. A variety of docent-led tours are offered throughout the day and are posted on the dock and in the cellhouse. Large-print and Braille transcriptions of the cellhouse audio tour and other interpretive materials are available upon request.
East Road: Route from the ferry landing to the cellhouse
Trailhead: Ferry landing
Length: Less than .5 mile
Typical Width: 4 ft. & above
Typical Grade: Very SteepTo make this climb in a manual wheelchair will require much
upper body strength and/or assistance.
DescriptionThe switchback road leading to the cellhouse from the dock is .25 miles and has a 130-foot elevation change—equivalent to climbing a 13-story building—so it is very steep, and also bumpy. I have climbed it in a motorized chair. Before the first switchback, follow the signs to the New Industries Building. Prisoners could work here for money by doing laundry and making gloves, furniture mats, and army uniforms.
Back on the road, a side trail at the second switchback leads to the parade grounds. It is worth a look because you get a good view of the Warden’s House (ruins), a Mission Revival building perched high on a hill. The parade grounds are open from September through February only, to protect the western gulls and black-crowned night herons that nest here during their breeding seasons.
Continue the climb to the cellhouse, where you can stop to take the cellhouse tour or continue on to West Road. Here you will be facing the Golden Gate Bridge and its westerly winds; this side of the island can be quite windy and cold. You’ll travel downhill past gardens that the Garden Conservancy has been working to restore, in partnership with the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy and the National Park Service. The route is very steep in places, and you’ll have to turn back where it dead-ends and retrace your steps steeply back uphill.
Even though I have visited the island numerous times, I seem to discover something new each time—and the night tour offers a very different experience from a daytime visit.
The facilities listed below meet all of our access criteria unless otherwise noted.
Visitor Center: Accessible
Accessible Parking: YesThere is limited accessible parking at Pier 33––individuals must show their disabled placard at the pier entrance to use them. One accessible space is on the street at the pier. Numerous commercial lots are nearby.
Accessible Restroom: YesAt Pier 33; on the island, at the dock and by the cellhouse near the upper and lower entrances.
Features icon key
- particularly good for families
|Managing Agency:||National Park Service|
|Address:||Pier 33 on the Embarcadero|
|Hours:||Tours depart daily, 8:45 am-3:50 pm, except for Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, and New Year's Day.|
|Useful Links:||Alcatraz Cruises accessibility information, Alcatraz Gardens,|
Reviewed by Bonnie Lewkowicz, October 29, 2014
| This web guide is a project of Access Northern California.
Thanks to our partner the California Coastal Conservancy
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DISCLAIMER: Although the information contained in this web-guide was believed to be correct at the time of publication, neither Access Northern California nor California Coastal Conservancy shall be held responsible or liable for any inaccuracies, errors, or omissions, nor for information that changes or becomes outdated. Neither Access Northern California nor California Coastal Conservancy assume any liability for any injury or damage arising out of, or in connection with, any use of this guide or the sites described in it.
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