If you can only take one tour while you’re in the Bay area you’ll want to visit Alcatraz Island to learn about a significant part of San Francisco history and the American justice system! From the city, the isolated island is eerie and mysterious as the San Francisco fog rolls over it. It’s only 1.25 miles away from the nearest coast and is surrounded by dangerous currents and water as cold as 50 degrees! Nicknamed “The Rock” and “Devil’s Island”, or simply Alcatraz, the island was once a maximum high-security federal prison. Today it’s a highly visited National Park that holds one of the most fascinating unsolved mysteries in America!
“Break the rules and you go to prison. Break the prison rules and you go to Alcatraz.”
Booking with Alcatraz Cruises
📍Departs and Returns from Pier 33 at Alcatraz Landing
📞 415-981-ROCK (7625)
🎟 Ticket Prices below:
|Tour Options||Early Bird Tour||Day Tour||Night Tour||Behind the Scenes Tour||Alcatraz & Angel Island Combo Tour|
|Adult (ages 18-61)||$39.90||$39.90||$47.30||$92.30||$78.65|
|Junior (ages 12-17)||$39.90||$39.90||$46.25||$88.25||$78.65|
|Senior (ages 62+)||$37.65||$37.65||$44.00||$86.00||$76.40|
|Child (ages 5-11, 4 and under are free)||$24.40||$24.40||$28.00||—||$52.40|
Tickets are known to sell out months ahead so plan to book well in advance! We decided to take the “Alcatraz Day Tour” which includes a round-trip ferry ride to Alcatraz Island and their award-winning cellhouse audio tour. They also offer a “Night Tour” and a “Behind the Scenes Tour” for big fans of this legendary landmark to learn secrets that have been locked away from the general tour! And if you want to make it an all-day affair, go island hopping over to Angel Island for a one-hour narrated tram tour!
Once you board the ferry, there are several levels for you to find a seat during the 12-15 minute cruise over to Alcatraz Island. There’s also plenty of space to hang out outside and watch as you quickly approach The Rock! And they also have a snack bar with salads, sandwiches, coffee, tea and local beers for sale. We decided to grab something beforehand and were able to bring our own food onboard.
One of the best things about Alcatraz Cruises is that they have a ferry that runs back and forth every 30 minutes, so you can catch a ride back to the city whenever you’re ready!🙌🏼
A trip to Alcatraz can take about 3 hours. This includes taking the audio tour, exploring the rest of the island, and getting back and forth from Pier 33. To learn even more about the grounds, take a free tour with one of the Alcatraz Island rangers to see areas less traveled!
San Francisco was seeing a lot of rain during our visit, so we didn’t get to explore much of the outdoors like we wanted to or get that gorgeous view of the city from the Island. Luckily, the main portion of the tour is located inside of the prison, so we were able to stay dry for the most part!
Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary was open for 29 years from 1934 to 1963 as the first supermax prison in the nation. After the prison closed, before it became a National Park, Alcatraz was occupied by American Indians until 1971. And the red stained words “Indians Welcome” as a reminder of that time!
As you walk around today, you’ll notice a few sides of the building are a different color because they’re being painted over to restore and prevent the building from continuing to crumble and rust over.
The first room you’ll walk into at the prison is where they would issue the inmates clothing and the shower area. This is also where you’ll pick up your headset to listen to the audio of “Doing Time: The Alcatraz Cellhouse Tour”, at your own pace. The audio tour is available in 11 languages and officially starts upstairs.
The main part of the prison is 3 levels of cells with 4 cellblocks and 336 cells. The cells were cold, damp, and dark. The main cells are about 9 feet long by 5 foot wide, with a small bunk, a metal table, a toilet, and a sink. The tour starts on “Broadway” and is narrated by actual former correctional officers and inmates of Alcatraz, which makes it so much more interesting to listen to! It seems so real to listen to the actual voices that experienced Alcatraz, it’s like you can visualize the stories they told in your head.
In Alcatraz, not all the cells are the same. For those that continue to disobey the rules, they earned a quick trip to “D Block”. This is where men would get locked in for 24 hrs a day and were only allowed out once a week for a shower and some exercise.😱 Although you can tell the cells are more spacious, they were the least popular because they were cold, dark and isolated. The most famous inmate to live in this block was Robert Stroud, aka Birdman. It’s crazy to think that not too long ago this island once held the worst criminals in the country such as Al Capone, Mickey Cohen, and Machine Gun Kelly.
The cells #9-14 were called “The Hole” or solitary confinement for the unusually dangerous or violent inmates. Sometimes these cells would be in total darkness and inmates would be given a restricted diet.
The library is where prisoners would mentally escape through reading books. And for those with good behavior, they could take educational courses.
Above is a two-story walkway called the Gun Gallery, where armed officers oversaw the inside of the prison. The best way to get the keys up from the officers guarding the grounds was by a pulley that hung from the gun gallery.
In May 1946 (also called the 1946 riot) was the bloodiest escape attempt. On this day 6 prisoners decided they wanted to flee the prison, and they thought the only way to do so was to capture the keys from the gun gallery. The main inmate to plan this escape was Bernie Coy, who used his homemade bar spreader (in the photo below). He was able to successfully get the keys and guns! He tried to use the keys to open the doors to the recreational yard but none of the keys worked. Since the inmates were armed they were able to hold 8 officers hostage in cells #402 & #403. And because the inmates were raged from not being able to open the doors, the officers were shot dead. The riot lasted for two long days so officers from other federal prisons and the marines were called in to help and it became known as the Battle of Alcatraz. This gave civilians back in San Francisco a reminder of the dangers of living near a maximum security prison
On C-D street, aka Seedy Block, the cells that were located here became the most desired cells to live in because they were brightly lit from the windows. Also nicknamed the “good time cells”, some inmates were able to furnish their cells and were given privileges like headphones to listen to the radio, canvases and paints, and instruments. From 6:30-7:30pm they would have a music hour!
And right at the end of the hall is a tiny window where the inmates would look out to see San Francisco (on a clear day). It’s said they could hear people, music, girls, and people laughing especially on New Years.
The Recreation Yard was where the general population visited on Saturdays and Sundays for 2 1/2 hours each day. They played baseball, ran laps, and others would just walk up to the top of the bleachers to look out at the free world and what they were missing.
Some inmates were allowed to receive visitation, some called this area peek-in-place.
In the administration wing, you’ll find the prison control room and where correctional officers would report. Many of the officers lived on Alcatraz Island and could catch the next 12-minute boat ride to San Francisco and be back after dinner. Most of them even lived here with their wives and children. It’s crazy to think that kids grew up on Alcatraz near the world’s most dangerous inmates! Also on Alcatraz was the warden’s house, a grocery store, bowling alleys, etc. It was basically a little community on the island!
In the Warden’s Office, right through this door is where you can walk outside and get a nice view of SF.
There were 4 wardens during Alcatraz’s time. The last warden before Alcatraz closed was Warden Olin G. Blackwell, and while he was on a 2-week fishing vacation he got a call about a successful escape attempt and never imagined it to happen on Alcatraz.
Once everyone heard about the call, all the officers reported to the control room. This is where they had to figure out what to do next after 3 men were missing from the most secure building (so they thought) in the country.
On June 11th, 1962, three men escaped through small holes carved through their cells! We were told that they climbed up the ventilation shaft to the roof into freedom! There have been 14 reported attempts, but these guys were the only ones to be successful! The three guys who escaped were Frank Morris and the Anglin Brothers, John Anglin and Clarence Anglin. There was also another guy named Allen West that was involved in the original plans but he either backed out or got kicked out and didn’t end up going.
Still to this day the 3 men who escaped have never been found! The escape is still one of America’s greatest mysteries to this day!
On Michigan Ave is where you can find the “Escape Cells”. Every morning officers would do an inmate count where the inmates were up and dressed by their cell door, all except 3 inmates that looked as if they were still sleeping in bed. This is when they discovered that the 3 men created dummy heads out of soap, toilet paper, and water. The escape was so well planned!
Not only did they use the dummies to fool the guards while they escaped, but for several months beforehand they stole spoons from the dining hall to break down the 8 inch thick walls surrounding the grate of a vent in their cells. They were able to pull this off by doing it during music hour to drown out the sound of the chiseling away at the walls and would cover it up with a fake vent made out of paper mache. They also built homemade rafts crafted from stolen raincoats with hopes to float away when they escaped.
The audio tour ends in the Dining Hall, which is potentially the most dangerous room in the entire prison! They had black outlines of the knives in the kitchen so they would know if one went missing. Inmates got 3 meals a day and this is where they ate together.
Just one year after the successful escape, the prison was shut down. Rumors were that the closing was in response to the escape, but it was really because the salt water, fog, winds, and moisture of the San Francisco Bay was slowly deteriorating the buildings and it became too expensive to maintain. So stopping operation was the only option due to super high maintenance costs!
To exit the tour we ended at the gift shop where they have everything you can imagine. From souvenirs and books that are written by inmates, officers, and even the kids who grew up on Alcatraz. You can read all about their experiences! The gift shop is also the location of the last escape attempt where an inmate tried to escape out of one of the windows!
Outside, on the rest of the property is where you’ll find life outside of the prison.
Today Alcatraz National Park’s visitors can learn about Alcatraz, roam around the grounds, and walk alongside the lush roadside gardens. Alcatraz is also one of the largest nesting grounds for waterbirds, so you’ll see a large number of birds species living here. Visiting during the winter months (when it rains more) the plants were so vibrantly green and beautiful!
Below was the Officer’s Club, also known as the “social hall”, and was used by prison staff and their families for parties, dances, etc.
Once the prison closed its doors in 1963, Native American activists claimed Alcatraz starting in 1969 and stayed for 19-months, which is also when they marked the island with graffiti.
“Peace and Freedom Welcome Home of the Free Indian Land.”
Alcatraz opened as a National Park in 1973 and the graffiti still remains today as an important part of Native American activism. Every November there is an “Indians of All Tribes Day” to celebrate the historic occupation by the Indians.
They also hold other events and exhibits and book special guests to tell their stories of Alcatraz. There is still so much more to learn and see on Alcatraz and every trip to Alcatraz Island is unique! Over time, the prison will continue to restore and open up more areas of the prison for visitors.
Not only is Alcatraz a stunning sight to see from the pier in San Francisco, but to get up close and explore it is indescribable. It has a haunting feeling all around and as you listen to the audio from the tour, you can really feel the spirits of those that once lived behind the bars. It’s such an amazing story and experience that was definitely a highlight of our trip to San Francisco!
Fun Fact: Once it hits 100 years the successful escape case will be closed and the search for the three missing men will forever be an unsolved American mystery!
**Thank you Alcatraz Cruises for sponsoring this blog post!