Channel your inner Al Capone or “Machine Gun” Kelly with a visit to Alcatraz Island on your next stay in San Francisco. Located in the San Francisco Bay, about a mile offshore, the island served as a lighthouse and military site before becoming a Federal prison in 1963. Alcatraz operated as a federal penitentiary for 29 years, and during that time housed prisoners who had been problems at other locations. Some of the most infamous criminals in history were housed there, and it is claimed that no prisoner ever successfully escaped. Both Capone and Kelly were imprisoned on The Rock, which today is a historic site under the auspices of the National Park Service, and just like then, there is only one way on and off the island.
Alcatraz Cruises is the only company authorized by the National Parks Service to operate tours of Alcatraz – so there really is only one way on and off the island. Visitors reach the island by way of a 15 minute hybrid ferry ride. The an eco-friendly boat that is largely powered by solar panels, wind turbines, and grid electricity. Most of the interior fixtures and decor are made with recycled and/or sustainable materials. Tours include the boat ride to the island, a cellhouse audio tour, and other features depending on the specific Alcatraz tour you choose. This is the only tour option that will take you onto Alcatraz Island, although there are other companies that offer narrated cruises and tours of San Francisco Bay and around (but not on) the island.
I find the Cellhouse Audio Tour particularly chilling as it tells both sides of prison life, with the voices and words of inmates and correctional officers who lived on the island. The program has been updated and expanded from its original version, so if you haven’t heard it recently, you’ll want to listen again. (The tour is available in multiple languages.) If you don’t wish to take the Cellhouse Audio Tour (although I recommend that you do), let the people at the Cellhouse entrance know and they will give you a refund for that portion of the tour.
The cell block represents a rather primitive time, long before prison reform, so this historical look at the penal system is a bit creepy. Keep it in historical perspective and serve as a reminder that you NEVER want to go to prison – except as a tourist!
Once you’ve finished at the Cellhouse, take advantage of the other guided programs provided by the National Park Service including some that take you into parts of the island that you otherwise wouldn’t see. Stroll through the gardens, enjoy a look at some of the flora and fauna of the island, walk and hike some of the trails, all the while soaking up a great view of the city. Bring your camera, as photo ops are plentiful. Following your time on The Rock, you’ll catch the ferry back to Pier 33.
Alcatraz Island is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a National Historic Landmark. Allow about 3 hours for the excursion, audio tour, and time to explore the island.
Location: The ferry departs from Pier 33; look for the Hornblower Alcatraz Landing. Parking in the area is very limited, so I’d recommend you walk or use public transportation.
Departure Times: The first ferry leaves Pier 33 at 9:10 am, with the last departure to the island at 3:55 pm. Night tour departures are at 6:10 and 6:45 pm. You can return on any scheduled ferry run that you wish; the last day time return is at 6:10 pm and the last night return is at 9:25 pm.
Tickets: Prices start at $26 for adults and $16 for children. Tickets can be purchases online or at the pier, and there are advantages to each option. If you will be visiting during the summer, high season in San Francisco, I’d recommend buying tickets in advance. Nice days are a wonderful time to be out on the bay, so a little advance planning will go a long way toward avoiding disappointment.
Special considerations: Department of Homeland Security guidelines are in effect for the ferry crossing, and no luggage, coolers, or large backpacks or packages are permitted. Plan accordingly. The ferry terminal and ferry itself is accessible, but most of Alcatraz Island is hilly. Wear good walking shoes and be prepared for some climbing (the distance from the ferry dock to the prison is about a quarter mile uphill). Take your time and enjoy the views, but proper footwear is essential for a comfortable experience. Visitors unable to manage the climb up the hill to the prison can take advantage of an electric shuttle that runs twice per hour.
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Photo credit: Ben Peoples via wikimedia (Alcatraz Island); public domain via wikimedia (cell block); Svein-Magne Tunli via wikimedia (flowers)