Alcatraz Island is one of San Francisco’s most well-known landmarks and has drawn tourists now for decades. Its mysterious dark history is all part of the draw as without it the Island would just be a small rocky outcrop out in the bay covered in Pelicans.
Once an inescapable place to really fear, Today people flock to see the island and the preserved Federal Penitentiary that still stand ominously overlooking the City. Our guide to the Island and Prison is designed t help anyone get the best of their experience of Visiting Alcatraz, San Francisco. And give you our best tips on any Alcatraz Island visit.
We start with a brief history, but if you know all this, want to save your learning for the tour, or just want to read about the tours skip ahead to the different tour options available.
The Island was first occupied by Spanish settlers who named it Alcatraz after the large number of Pelicans that inhabited the island, Alcatraz meaning Pelican in early Spanish. It was later used as a Lighthouse and then A military Garrison during the Civil War years but never saw any kind of action.
With Static garrison armed with cannons becoming largely obsolete, the Military changed its use of the island to a military prison. Housing Prisoners of war, Cocienciois objectors and Confederate spies. The Prison was left almost unscathed during the 1909 earthquake so was used as a backup to the mainland jails that were damaged in the disaster.
In 1933 the Island was signed over to the Department of Justice as was opened as a Maximum Security Prison for the worst of the worst offenders. Affectionately known as “The Rock” It was considered Unescapable and was to house either the most despicable offenders or simply people that caused trouble in other jails and had a habit of attempting escape.
In its 29 years many well-known, notorious inmates “rotted” away here, many never leaving the island, while others only got out once the jail closed in 1963.
- Al Capone – If you have not heard of Al Capone then you probably should brush up on your criminal history. One of the country’s most notorious crime bosses served 4 and a half years (for tax evasion as that is all they could get to stick!) on the rock until poor health got him transferred off the island to a cushier prison.
- Whitey Bulger – Bulger served time on “The Rock” early in his “Career” and before he really turned nasty. Once his real crimes got going “The Rock” had closed down.
- Alvin “Creepy” Karpis – Notorious and Brutal gang boss, he spent 26 years in Alcatraz making him the longest-serving prisoner of “The Rock”
- Machine Gun Kelly – Not the Rapper, but the Thompson Machine Gun touting gangster of the prohibition era. This is a “proper” Prohibition gangster of the crime novel ilk, Tommy gun, Sharp suit, Fedora and all! Ignoring the Romance, Kelly was not a very nice man!
- Robert Stroud, aka “The Birdman of Alcatraz” – Robert was one of the most notorious inmates of Alcatraz and the US prison system in general. He loved his birds and showed great knowledge and caring for them (Not on Alcatraz as he wasn’t allowed his beloved birds here) His love and compassion for birds was not shared with humans as he was a violent and aggressive prisoner who murdered a guard while in custody and only narrowly escaped the noose for Alcatraz.
In the early years the Jail was considered inescapable and as such Prisoners who made a habit of breaking out of easier jails were sent here. As you can imagine, this was like a red rag to a bull and these prisoners instantly sort notoriety by trying to break out of “The Rock”…an early version of “Hold My Beer”. Like most Meme based ideas things didn’t go well!
There were 14 Attempts to break out by 36 prisoners, most were recaptured straight away, 6 were shot and killed, 2 drowned and 5 were never seen again, presumed drowned…But were they?
Well in the case of 2 of them…yes probably but in the 1962 escape attempt by Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers, John & Clarence, may have been successful, The waters around the bay are too fast and too cold to simply swim to shore but their attempt was made in a raft made of raincoats.
It is far from certain they got away but it’s also not certain they failed.
Finally in 1963 after 29 years of hosting the worst of prisoners the rock closed down. The prison building was in need of repair and the cost of housing an inmate was over three times more expensive than a regular max security prison. The solution was the huge super-prison that were being built and the age of small supermax prisons was over.
The Rock had its fearsome reputation and was eventually turned over to the tourism board to allow visitors to head out to the island and experience the horrors that were awaiting the inmates here during its time as a penitentiary.
Options for experiencing the Island
There is absolutely no need to make any real effort to see the island. Head down to Fishermans Wharf or even from the top of Russian or knob hill and you can see the Island clear as day in the bay. For some people that is enough just to say you have seen it but others want to get a much closer look.
Your next option is a Cruise around the bay. These fun tours will take you right out past the island and get a close-up view of the island along with the imposing prison structures. We love bay cruises and they can kill two birds with one stone as they sail out under the bridge and then back [ast the island, giving close up views of two of San Francisco’s best-known landmarks in just one trip, along with epic views of the bay and city skyline.
But still, some people want more Alcatraz and none of the above options actually get you on the island. There is only one company that operates tours on the island. Alcatrazcruises.com. Fortunately, these are subsidized by the National park service and as such offer really good value for what is one of America’s most highly rated tours.
They offer 5 Tour Types:
- Early Bird Tour – Adult $38.35 Child (5-11) $23.50 – 2.5 Hours
- Day Tour – Adult $38.35 Child (5-11) $23.50 – 2.5 Hours
- Night Tour – Adult $45.50 Child (5-11) $27.05 – 2.5 Hours
- Behind the Scenes tour – Adult $90.50 Child (5-11) not allowed – 4.5 Hours
- Alcatraz and Angel Island Combo – Adult $76.60 Child (5-11) $51.25 – 5.5 Hours
The Early Bird and the Day Tour are the same, the only difference is the early bird tours means you are the first on the island and get to experience it while it is quieter and creepy before the hoards arrive.
The night tour allows you to experience the island at dark which ramps up the creepiness along with the fact the night tours are limited so it’s a lot quieter. You also get a tour guide for this tour, For the Day/Earlybird you are left to your own devices to tour the island but with the night tour, you have a guide to point out highlights and important parts of the island. For all tours, even the Behind the Scenes Tour. The Cellblock portion of the tour is done via Audio Tour.
The Behind the Scenes tour is an extended guided tour taking in some of the locations not available to the rest of the tours. At over $90 and 4.5 hours you must really want to know a lot about Alcatraz to do this tour, for most people the early/day/night tours are more than enough.
The Alcatraz and Angel island Combo is a regular tour with a trip over to Angel Island State Park. A fascinating Island with Rich History and stunning views of the bay area, and Marin Highlands. For our next section, we focus on the basic Earlybird/day tour.
What to expect?
All the tours start with a 15 min ferry trip out to the island. We love cruising the bay and when the weather is fine you can expect stunning views of both the Island and the City Skyline as you sail out to “The Rock”
After docking at the backside of the Island you are met with an imposing-looking building, these are actually the residential buildings that the guards lived in, and are now where the gift shop is housed.
From here you can either take the main route up to the prison blocks or follow the Agave Trail around the side of the island. This trail is much longer but much quieter and has stunning views of the city skyline and Bay Bridge. We recommend taking the long route up and the short route back. However, the Trail is only open seasonally.
At the top of the hill, you finally get to the imposing cell block building where you pick up your audio tour of the Cell Blocks. The audio tour is excellent and very informative about the horrific living conditions the inmates faced. While it is a little dry it helps give a real insight into the nightmare endured by the prisoners while they went about there day to day life in tiny dark solitary confinement cells. remember to acknowledge these were all very bad people who probably more than deserved the punishment they were receiving
From here you can head out into the exercise yard, which can be a pleasant place but it’s easy to imagine in the depths of winter this would be a desolate windswept hole!
You then head to D-Block where misbehaving prisoners were sent for “treatment!” here prisoners were kept locked up 24/7 with only one short release per week for a quick shower. Here you can try out the HOLE. A windowless dark cell that is pitch black for extra special prisoners!
Then it’s on the library, the dining room before finally escaping the oppressive cell blocks and heading back to the dock for your ride back to shore. Ferry’s leave regularly, and you can take any you fancy, but there can be quite a queue at busy times.
- It is probably going to be cold. Dress appropriately. Even in Summer, it can be freezing out on the rock. The windswept rock can chill you to the bone even on days where the mainland is baking. San Francisco is well known for it’s Micro Climates and one of those is the Rock…and it’s invariably frigid. Layers are the best choice as even on the island temperatures can change quickly and by location!
- The best time of year is a balance. During the best summer months, when the weather is best, the crowds are at their highest. Alcatraz is a spooky and eerie place. A lot of that is diminished when the crowds are high. But while the crowds are light in the depths of winter, it really can be bitterly cold, wet, and miserable. Shoulder seasons are best where you can get light crowds but get lucky with some great weather.
- Food is not particularly great on the island and not particularly cheap. We much prefer to bring our own picnic lunch. You are restricted to the land area but there are plenty of places to set up to eat lunch here with excellent views of the bay.
- Book early. There are limited numbers allowing on the island each day to keep crowds manageable so dates can sell out weeks in advance. Book your trip as soon as you possibly can to ensure you get the date you want.
- Missed out? Keep checking, The NPS offers a pretty good refund policy meaning you can cancel free of charge up to 24 hours out from the booking. Peoples plans change and slots do become available nearer the date. So check regularly to see if anything opens up. Even after 24 hours the NPS will still try and re sell tickets so they may still become available if someone cancels!
Have Your Say
Let us know below if you have any questions about visiting Alcatraz. Or let us know if you have any comments. Have you been to Alcatraz? how did you find it? what was your favorite part? Let us know below in the comments.