Gardens of Alcatraz – Update

– Posted in: Garden Photography, Garden Visits

Virginia Beach umbrella with chairs

No, this is not the view from Alcatraz, The Rock, the old prison in San Francisco Bay.  I am on vacation, relaxing on a family reunion at the beach..

So I have pulled a post from July 2009 with an update on the Gardens of Alcatraz.

The rock - Alcatraz island

I was recently invited by The Garden Conservancy to tour the Alcatraz garden project.  The Conservancy, in partnership with The Golden Gate National Park Conservancy, has spent the past 5 years restoring and replanting the barren and windswept old prison in the middle of San Francisco Bay.

Talk about Gardening Gone Wild!  It is a truly wild and difficult site.  The fact there are any gardens at all is a testament to the human spirit.  This barren rock had hardly any soil until early Army engineers brought soil in the 19th century for the original military prison and built a Victorian style garden.

Alcatraz gardens in the ruins

Much of what prospers today are hardy Mediterranean native plants that were planted as a beautification project starting in the 1920s.  Notice the Acanthus mollis here with the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance.

Acanthus mollis on Alcatraz

The gardens were expanded during the years as a Federal penitentiary, 1933- 1963, when prisoners were given permission to work out of doors.  Other naturalized flowers such as Centranthus ruber grow among succulents under the watchful guard tower.

guard tower and Alcatraz gardens

The ferry ride trip to the gardens is a must do tour for any visitor to San Fransisco.   The prison itself has definite if depressing history, but the very location of this island rock with sweeping views of the city skyline is thrilling.  Below we see Verbena and Achillea on a hillside overlooking the Bay.

Gardens of Alcatraz with San Francisco skyline

Since I wrote this piece, The Garden Conservancy has now finished restorations and has opened the garden to the public.  Visits can be arranged through their wonderful website –  The Gardens of Alcatraz website with virtual tours.  More of my Alcatraz photos on PhotoBotanic.

There is now the Alcatraz Florilegium, and inspired collection of botanic artwork being created by the Northern California Society of Botanical Artists and the master teacher Catherine Watters.  Their website contains even more information the history of the gardens and offers the artwork for sale.


OK. Now back to vacation:

Virginia Beach umbrella with chairs

Virginia Beach umbrella with chairs and a good book.

Saxon Holt
Saxon Holt is the owner of, a garden picture resource for photographs, on-line workshops, and garden photography stories. An award winning photojournalist and Fellow of The Garden Writers Association with more than 25 garden books, he lives and gardens in Northern California. PhotoBotanic - Garden Photography online at
Saxon Holt

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Gwyn July 27, 2016, 10:46 am

I, had the opportunity to visit Alcatraz a few years back. i was surprised by the gardens. I just never thought of gardens being there ON THE ROCK. wHILE THE FLOWERS WERE BEAUTIFUL THE PLACE SORT OF GAVE ME THE CHILLS.

Saxon Holt July 27, 2016, 1:46 pm

definitely sorta spooky which makes the gardens more remarkable.

Judith July 27, 2016, 4:10 pm

I got to visit Alcatraz last year and it is magnificent. The gardens are lovely and well-tended, and the juxtaposition of the “ruins” of the buildings provide an interesting backdrop. A bonus is that Alcatraz Island is a bird sanctuary as well (there are no predators), so two of my interests were covered in this one incredible visit. I highly recommend this to anyone visiting San Francisco. Seeing the old prison is an interesting look into living conditions (the site will not let me use capital letters, sorry!)

Saxon Holt July 28, 2016, 9:45 am

And then there is the boat ride itself in San Francisco Bay. Alcatraz is the #1 tourist trip in SF.

Linda Wright August 5, 2016, 5:24 am

This is so fascinating! I went to San Francisco as a child – you couldn’t even vist Alcatraz then! I would love to go back one day and visit it – especially now there are such wonderful gardens there! I also loved checking out the wonderful botanical art on Alcatraz Florilegium website. Such lovely paintings! Thanks Saxon for telling us about this – it’s really great!

Saxon Holt August 6, 2016, 2:29 pm

Thanks Linda – It’s pretty neat that the old prison has become inspirational.

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