The Gardens of Alcatraz

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The view of San Francisco from Alcatraz Island.

This post was contributed by Lisa Crovo Dion.

Of the 1.4 million visitors that arrive annually to the shores of Alcatraz, most are looking to peek into the stark interior of one of the world’s most legendary correctional facilities, and be regaled by tales of gangsters and prison breaks.

Colorful gardens line the Main Road up tot the Cellhouse on Alcatraz.
Colorful gardens line the Main Road up to the Cellhouse on Alcatraz.

But, there are some who are more interested in wandering among the island’s gardens full of hardy, gorgeous blooms and plants that are able to withstand the austere climate of the cold, windy “Rock.”

I found myself in the latter group on a picture-perfect morning last month, touring the island with a group of horticulture nerds, led by the Golden Gate Parks Conservancy.

The Gardens of Alcatraz have gone through several iterations since it was first designated an army fortress in the mid-1800s. After it became a military prison in 1861, efforts to make the barren island more lush and livable began by relocating soil from the Presidio and Angel Island to near the citadel on the summit of Alcatraz.

In the 1940s, “star” inmate/gardener Elliott Michener built a toolshed and greenhouse and was granted permission to order seeds and bulbs. During this period, the former Officers’ Row became the central garden on the east side. When the prison closed, the gardens became overgrown and structural elements like steps, retaining walls and railings deteriorated. The gardens were in ruins.

Fast-forward to 2003 when the effort to preserve the gardens that was spearheaded in the 1990s continued with a collaborative restoration.

Today, visitors can wander the Main Road Landscape, view the Rose Terrace, and check out Michener’s Officers’ Row. There is also the Warden’s House garden, the Cellhouse Slope, West Lawn Terraces and the Prisoner Garden.

Look for blooming succulents, aromatic roses, fig trees, bearded Iris, fuchsia, and Globe artichoke among many other plants and flowers that contribute to the colorful landscape, better known for legendary bad boys Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly.

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Looking down the Cellhouse Slope from below the Lighthouse on Alcatraz.
Looking down the Cellhouse Slope from below the Lighthouse on Alcatraz.

To visit the Gardens of Alcatraz:

Docent-led tours take place on Friday and Sunday mornings at 9:45am, starting at the Alcatraz dock at Pier 33. The tours include all the restored gardens, including those that are off limits to most visitors—Officers’ Row and the Rose Terrace. Visitors also have access to Officers’ Row every Wednesday 11am-2pm. For more information, email info@alcatrazgardens.org.