Alcatraz Island’s Historic Gardens: Uncover the Real Flower Power of the Rock!

POSTED: October 2, 2010
Alcatraz Island with the fog rolling under the Golden Gate Bridge – Photo by C.G.

“You break the rules, you go to prison. You break the rules of the prison, you go to Alcatraz.” This anonymous quote welcome you in big block letters at the ferry landing on Alcatraz Island. The maximum security penitentiary added the loss of freedom to cruelly gorgeous views on the vibrant city of San Francisco where city streets were abuzz with life. Escaping the rock became on obsession for these men. That, and for a few others, hosing down daisies.


Alcatraz is not just a famous prison visit. If you want to see Alcatraz through a different lens, board the earliest ferry on a Friday or Sunday morning and visit the gardens of Alcatraz. They’ll tell you the story of 150 years of human occupation.

When we got to Pier 33 for the ferry, we really felt like tourists. Not just because we were going to Alcatraz - something most San Franciscans never do - but because of the lines. On that odd sunny and warm September day, hundreds were swarming around the pier, browsing brochures, reading guidebooks, and checking their watches.

Finally our ferry was announced and we walked along roped lines, smiled for the compulsory “I’ve been there” Alcatraz picture with a sunny backdrop, and hopped on board. Everybody rushed to the upper open  deck. We found a nice table downstairs with four chairs and enjoyed the ride. Fifteen minutes later, we disembarked. It felt good to escape the crowds.

Visiting the gardens of Alcatraz was part of the plan for my family hiking guidebook and a ranger had told me roughly where to find the group. We hurried along the ramps, got to the prisoners gardens too early, backtracked and found the docent leading 50 people and holding old photos of the gardens. I didn’t realize how popular this tour was!

At the sign for the Officers Row Gardens, the docent removed the chain and we walked down steep stairs to a lovely rose garden where Dame Constance and her niece Samantha awaited us, in Civil War-era costumes under lacy umbrellas.

What a great surprise to get my girls to listen to some garden history. Their presence really brought to life the gardens.

Dame Constance explained how the dirt to plant the gardens had been carried in buckets from Angel Island because Alcatraz was only a rock. Medicinal plants were planted here because in 1863 you had to make your own medication. When going to Chinatown to shop for supplies, Dame constance went escorted with soldiers. And when families lost half of their children in infancy, the little ones were burried in the Presidio where the US Army set aside a lot for them.

At the end of their presentation, my 6-year-old couldn’t resist asking “Do you still live on the island?” To which Dame Constance replied with a smile that “Why yes my dear, and I’m 181 years old.” My daughter turned to me, puzzled “Mom, do you think it’s true?” Ah, the age of innocence.

Moving to the next garden, we marveled at beds of flowers that are meticulously cared for by volunteer gardeners. When looking at the before and after photos, we were all impressed by the amazing work that had been done to restore the gardens. We moved out of the Officers’ Row gardens and made our way to the base of the lighthouse where the ramp goes down to the western side of the island.

While the eastern side was lush with blooming flowers and looked somewhat sheltered from the wind, the western side showed a different face of the island. Exposed to the strong winds coming from the Golden Gate, this side was made for succulents and other drought-tolerant plants. Of course, there were a few fruit trees too.

At the end of the ramp, past a heavy metal gate, we entered the realm of the prisoners gardens. The tool shed used by inmate Elliott Michener stands proud above the garden beds, probably still used for the same purpose. Below the rec yard of the penitentiary, a long staircase led to the gardens and the island’s “industries.” Prisoners on good behavior were allowed to go work the garden or at the laundry.

If your kids haven’t read “Al Capone Does my Shirts” by Gennifer Choldenko, it’s the story of a 12-year old boy named Moose whose dad works on the island as a guard. Moose goes to school in San Francisco and with a girl, they set up a small business where they take the kids’ shirts at school and return them laundered on Alcatraz, claiming Al Capone himself laundered them himself. Great read to prepare for this trip.

At the end of the garden tour, we still had an hour to kill before the ferry departed for Angel Island – our next stop. We toured the prison, took silly photos in the open cells, read the breakfast menu in the dining room, opened a book in the prisoners library (it’s empty now, but we had a book with us) and wondered which block was the most comfortable in terms of lodging. Not that inmates had a choice, but the penitentiary includes furnished cells with clothing and every day items that definitely give you a sense of what it’s like to live in a rat hole.

As we boarded the ferry for Angel Island, our stomach grumbled. There is no food or drink on Alcatraz Island – too bad really. That’s how we ended partaking in the lovely junk food offered by Alcatraz Cruises onboard. Just look at this picture. Honestly. Your yearly dose of sodium in 5 minutes flat. I guess that’s a small price to pay to escape from Alcatraz.

Practical details:

  • Tours of the Historic Gardens of Alcatraz are offered twice a week on Friday and Sunday mornings at 9:30am, starting at the Alcatraz dock.
  • To reach the island, you can swim there or take a ferry run by Alcatraz Cruises. The ferry saves time and effort.
  • To volunteer at the Alcatraz Gardens, check out the Volunteer page of the Alcatraz Gardens non-profit.

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4 Responses to “Alcatraz Island’s Historic Gardens: Uncover the Real Flower Power of the Rock!”

  1. October 03, 2010 at 1:01 am, RKB said:

    Great account. I’ve been to Alcatraz, but not the garden tour. Next time!

    - RKB

    Reply

  2. October 13, 2010 at 5:08 pm, Christine said:

    I wish I could have met that 181-year-old as well :)

    Just as I read your article, coincidentally, I received news that we did not win the annual lottery of the Parks Conservancy to participate in "Behind the Scenes" Alcatraz. As an alternative, they suggested other tours. I will add them here since they seem to go with your post:

    Hamlet on Alcatraz

    Theater company WE Players are currently performing Shakespeare’s Hamlet on Alcatraz. There is much more information about Hamlet here: http://hamletonalcatraz.eventbrite.com/. The performance moves around the island and also goes to some of the restricted portions of the island.

    Alcatraz Night Tour

    The night tours sell out well in advance, but there are lots of spots still left for the tours November. (The ferry leaves at 4:20pm, so it’s actually more like an afternoon/evening tour.) It’s $33 and you can buy tickets here: https://www.alcatrazcruises.com/website/buy-tickets.aspx.

    Reply

  3. October 14, 2010 at 2:47 pm, Alex Genadinik said:

    Hi Laure,

    I apologize for using this as a channel to contact you, but your email was not listed :(

    I run a new Bay Area hiking community site and I would like to, of course, invite you to our hikes :) and also if you are open to it, to exchange blogroll mentions.

    Again, sorry for using this as a way to contact you. My site is
    HikingSanFrancisco.com and my email is alex.genadinik@gmail.com

    Reply

  4. October 19, 2010 at 7:08 pm, Debi said:

    I would LOVE to take my kiddos to this when we eventually make it to Alcatraz. (BTW, found you through Trailmix.Net … I’m a like-minded blogging outdoorsy mama in Los Angeles. Nice to meet you!)

    Reply

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