Alcatraz Prison is one of the most popular San Francisco attractions. The island in the Bay holds a great deal of mystery and fascination. Most people know Alcatraz as the brooding federal prison that housed such notorious criminals as Al “Scarface” Capone, Robert Stroud (the Birdman of Alcatraz), and George “Machine Gun” Kelly. But there’s a lot more to the fascinating history of Alcatraz Island.
San Francisco Travel Association photo by P. Fuszard
Alcatraz Prison is called “the Rock” for a very good reason. The island was originally a barren chunk of rock populated by seabirds. The gardens you see there today were brought in and cultivated by the varied inhabitants. The first structure on Alcatraz island was a lighthouse, built in 1854. That was followed in 1859 by a fort to defend the San Francisco Bay. The fort morphed into a make-shift prison during the Civil War, which then became a more permanent military prison, until the military decided to spare themselves the ridiculous expense, and handed Alcatraz over to the civil authorities, who, apparently, didn’t know any better.
Photo courtesy of NPS
Alcatraz Prison operated as a federal penitentiary, used to hold the troublemakers, from 1934 until 1963, packing a lot of notoriety into 29 brief years. The Feds finally gave up on it due to the expense and difficulty of maintaining the crumbling structure. Proving that the federal government can be fiscally responsible when it puts its mind to it.
Alcatraz Island is now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, operated by the National Park Service, and is open year round, except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. It’s finally found success as a tourist attraction.
Map courtesy NPS
There is no entry fee for the park, or for any of the tours you may decide to join once you arrive; the only fees are for the ferry ride to and from the island. The Park Service has contracted with Alcatraz Cruises, which is the only ferry service allowed to land on Alcatraz.
Several tour options are available:
Day Tours: During the day, ferries leave about every half hour. For those who hate crowds, try the Early Bird Tour, which is the first tour of the day, before the hordes descend. Once on the island, you’ll have a brief orientation, after which you’ll be free to wander. You can check out the orientation video and museum displays, or join a tour. The 45 minute self-guided Alcatraz Prison Cellhouse Audio Tour is very popular, and is offered in 10 languages. You’ll tour the cellhouse while listening to narrations through headphones. The tour includes the voices of actual inmates and guards telling their stories.
Photo: John A. Martini | Alcatraz Cruises
There are also guided tours on different topics, which may vary. Tours may explore subjects like famous Alcatraz Prison inmates, prison escapes, natural history, or the military history of the island. You can also spend all the time you want wandering about on your own. There’s a museum and bookshop, gardens, and spectacular views (weather permitting).
Remember, Alcatraz was a nesting ground for seabirds long before humans got interested in it. And the birds are bound and determined to take it back, with the cooperation of the Park Service. So some areas of the island may be closed off at different seasons.
Photo ©2011 Center for Digital Archaeology | flickr.com
Night Tours: You can enjoy the sunset and see a different side of Alcatraz on the Night Tours. Before you disembark, the ferry takes a tour around the island and gives you a bit of an orientation on the history of Alcatraz. There are fewer people on the evening tours, so the atmosphere is more intimate, and since you’re visiting the infamous Alcatraz Prison at night, a bit more creepy. Many of the programs are the same as those offered during the day, such as the popular Alcatraz Prison Cellhouse Audio Tour, but there are also special programs, demonstrations and tours that are provided only at night.
Photo by Julie, Dave & Family | flickr.com
Buying Alcatraz Tickets can be a bit confusing, because so many vendors are selling them. However, only one company, Alcatraz Cruises, is allowed to land on the island, so if you buy directly from them you’ll be sure to get the lowest price. All the other vendors are re-sellers, who may charge an additional fee. Often these companies will sell tour packages, where the Alcatraz tour is combined with another local tour, such as a San Francisco City Tour or a Tour of Muir Woods. You’ll have to do the math to figure out if these tour packages are a good deal.
Photo by Paul Sullivan | flickr.com
Ferry service varies seasonally, but ferries usually leave every 30-40 minutes, starting at 9:00 am. Once on the island you can stay for as long as you like, so if you plan to make a day of it, make your reservation for a morning ferry over. The Park Service recommends allowing 2-3 hours for the tour, including the ferry rides (which take about 15 minutes one way). Tickets are available about 90 days in advance. Alcatraz tours are very popular, particularly in summer and on holiday weekends, so you’re advised to get your tickets a week or more in advance.
Many of the walkways on Alcatraz are very steep, so wear your most comfortable shoes, preferably broken-in athletic shoes, and be prepared to take your time. There are plenty of places to rest along the way. For those with disabilities, a shuttle is available, leaving from the dock area about twice an hour.
Photo ©2011 Center for Digital Archaeology | flickr.com
Be sure to wear your layers. It can get cold and windy on the island, but this is San Francisco, so you never know when it’s going to warm up. However, if you’re planning on the night tour, you can pretty much count on it being chilly.
The ferry departs from Pier 33. Parking can be a problem, so you’ll save yourself some headaches if you can take public transportation. Check out the Park Service’s Alcatraz Island web site for information on parking and public transportation.
You won’t be allowed to take food onto the island, except in the dock area. There are picnic tables in the dock area if you want to fortify yourself before you begin your tour. You’ll want to bring some bottled water; it’s allowed everywhere on the island.
Best time to visit? Predictably enough, you’ll find the smallest crowds during the winter, especially January through March. But if you want to enjoy those great views of the City without a lot of fog getting in the way, avoid the summer months and come during the spring or fall. Remember, San Francisco weather is, well, different.
There are no lockers, so whatever you bring, you’ll have to carry. Nothing larger than a standard backpack is allowed.
You’ll find a wealth of information, and tips at the Alcatraz Cruises website.