San Francisco has been a popular destination for me and my family.  While I was born and grew up in Southern California, both my parents are from the northern part of the state.  As a result, trips to the San Francisco area were frequent events in my childhood as well early in my marriage when our two oldest girls were young.

For this part of our road trip, we decided to do something that we had never done in San Francisco – visit Alcatraz – or more specifically, the gardens of Alcatraz.

Believe it or not, Alcatraz has gardens, many of which were created and tended by the inmates themselves.

The boat ride to the island of Alcatraz is very short as it is only 1-mile away.

However, as you leave the dock, the views of the city of San Francisco as spectacular.

Coit Tower, which was built in 1933, stands sentinel as boats come and go.

Off in the distance, the Golden Gate Bridge traverses the gap between the city of San Francisco to the south over to Marin County to the north.

As we neared the Alcatraz Island, you could see the much of the city.

As you approach the 22-acre island, you notice that part of the island is covered in greenery.

Century plant (Agave americana) grows wild along the hillside and many were flowering.

Getting ready to dock, you get a good glimpse of the structures on the island, which housed prisoners 1934 – 1963.  Before that, it was a U.S. military prison.

It was believed, and correctly so, that no inmate could successfully escape through the waters of the bay with its strong currents.

After you disembark from the boat, you are greeted by a park ranger who gives you guidelines for your visit.  Basically, you can’t take food anywhere on the island (other than the dock area) and you must not remove any plant material.

There are a large number of birds who call this island their home and this was nesting season, so some of the areas were off limits.

Now, it was time to climb up to the top where the prison building was located – the equivalent of 13 stories.  There was a tram for those who couldn’t make the walk to the top.

The walk to the top was a gradual slope with no stairs.  These stairs were roped off.

I was so proud when I reached the top and looked down to see how far I had come.

We entered the prison, which offers a great audio tour.  

The cells were still there and some were set up as they were when this prison still held inmates.

Details of escape attempts were shared during the tour.

Former inmates said the it was torture to be able to see the city just off in the distance while they were stuck in this horrible place that was cold and drafty.

The part of the tour that was really difficult was walking into a cell where prisoners were held in solitary confinement.  Once the doors closed, there was no light and total darkness.

While the prison tour was very interesting, I was much more interested in the gardens on this rocky island.

The gardens begin along the roadside the leads up toward the top of the island where the prison is located.  

It was almost surreal to be walking along, enjoying the beauty of colorful plants and mixtures of textures on the way to a stark prison where prisoners would be, for the most part, quite miserable.

One of the few bright spots for the inmates were the gardens that they tended.

One former inmate enjoyed gardening on the island so much that he went on to have a

 successful career as a landscaper once he was released.

As you might imagine, it was a privilege to work in the gardens and gave prisoners a brief respite from their incarceration.  Inmates were trained how to care for plants, many of which were donated.

While the garden plants on Alcatraz aren’t native, they do thrive in the harsh climate of the island.  This red valerian (Centranthus ruber) does so well on Alcatraz, that is growing out of a wall.

Canada geese with their goslings explore part of the garden.

A seagull sits on her nest amidst colorful ice plant.

Parts of the garden were roped off because feathered residents of the island were nesting and raising their young.

However, we were still able to see them from above.  This section of the garden was called the Officer’s Row Gardens.

The inmates and staff weren’t the only residents of the island.  The families of the staff also called Alcatraz home and assisted in the creation and care of the gardens. 

As there are no prison staff or inmates to take care of the gardens anymore, volunteers come to maintain the garden areas.

What a cool way to volunteer!

Built in 1929 the warden’s house was created after the popular Mission Revival style.  In 1970, a fire destroyed much of the house.  The skeleton still stands.

The Bay Bridge visible from an old window from the warden’s residence.

Our visit to Alcatraz lasted about 2 hours, which took us through the prison building and allowed plenty of time to explore the picturesque gardens.

It also serves as a good reminder that it pays to follow the law 🙂

If you would like to learn more about the gardens of Alcatraz, click here.

Noelle Johnson, aka, 'AZ Plant Lady' is a horticulturist, certified arborist, and landscape consultant who helps people learn how to create, grow, and maintain beautiful desert gardens that thrive in a hot, dry climate. She does this through her consulting services, her online class Desert Gardening 101, and her monthly membership club, Through the Garden Gate. As she likes to tell desert-dwellers, "Gardening in the desert isn't hard, but it is different."

2 replies
  1. Renee
    Renee says:

    We did a tiuyr of Alcatraz once, but didn't spend any time in the gardens. Your pictures remind me that it's time to go back! Thanks for sharing them…

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