Touring Alcatraz Island

I was very excited to revisit Alcatraz Island during our family vaycay. Although I’ve toured “The Rock” before, it’s been about 14 years (I feel so old saying that), so I was looking forward to seeing it as an adult. So many things were different visiting the second time around, but the most important was the change in the ticket process.

14 years ago, the internet was nothing like it is now, and we just showed up at the ticket stand and purchased our tickets the day of. Now, tours are selling out about ONE MONTH in advance online and once the availability shows as “sold out” online, they really are sold out – you won’t be able to buy tickets in person. Definitely keep that in mind!

When you arrive at Alcatraz Landing (aka Pier 39), you can see a small model of the island with fun facts and Alcatraz history. Here, you wait in line to board the ferry from Alcatraz Cruises at your tour time. This is the official company for Alcatraz tours – and the only one that stops AT the island, running boats about every half hour.

We grabbed a quick snack and some drinks on the quick ferry ride (about 15 minutes), since we boarded at 10:30 and knew we’d be getting hungry later during our tour. Also, water is the ONLY food/drink item allowed on the island, in hopes of keeping “The Rock” clean and litter-free. As we got closer to the former prison, we caught our first glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge. Seeing the two side by side was kind of eerie but absolutely beautiful at the same time.

The first thing we saw when pulling up to the dock was this old building, originally created in 1854 to house soldiers in the war days – this island wasn’t always used as a prison! But talk about creepy! A night tour of the island is offered. As scared as I’d be, I think it’d be a pretty cool tour to take at night. But definitely with a big group of people!

I loved the step back in time feel of the island. Many of the artifacts are still in place – or new ones from the time period placed in for added effect to show us what life was like in prison “back in the day.” This old truck was so cool to see! Obviously had to pose with it and the Guard Tower.

We opted for the free audio tour of the cellblock, where the prisoners were housed, after hiking up a pretty steep hill. I thought having to walk the hill would’ve been punishment enough – what a workout! Once we entered the building, we walked through the clothing assignment and shower area. This long room houses a line of very open showers and little bars for holding soap. Zero privacy at Alcatraz!

If you were thinking Alcatraz might not be kid-friendly, think again. My sisters Riley (9) and Carmody (6 at the time) couldn’t be more excited to see what this infamous prison was all about – and more importantly, to learn about the prisoner escape decades ago.

Our audio tour was narrated by some of the former guards of Alcatraz with some guest quotes by some of the infamous prisoners. Hearing them talk as you walked around the prison gave it so much more life and was so interesting hearing the people who were there firsthand versus a tour guide narrating it.

Two of the cells were open for tourists to pose as prisoners. This was a major hotspot. Kind of funny that everyone was excited to pose in a prison, but considering the history behind the location, it’s understandable… I guess?

To me, the creepiest thing was going inside the solitary room. For the prisoners who got in trouble at Alcatraz, they were taken from their normal cell and placed in this dark room which had a gate and two doors, where they had to wait in pitch black until their time in solitary was up. Although the doors remained open while we stepped inside, it still gave me the chills!

The Recreation Yard was a sight to see. Although there are only tiny little patches of grass here, this is where the “good” prisoners would get to spend some time during specified days. To the right (not pictured), there was a small field where the inmates could play games of baseball. To the right, some steps allowed inmates to sit and take in the fresh breeze coming from the Bay and the breathtaking view of the Golden Gate Bridge. The sound effects we heard allowed us to picture what a day in this courtyard might’ve looked like.

For the “good” prisoners, hobbies were allowed, and this cell depicts what an inmate’s “home” might have looked like, with paintings, games, or some other way to pass time. Kind of bizarre seeing it all jazzed up (the majority of the cells we passed had cots with no bedding – or nothing in them). You can almost picture someone sitting in there!

We got a kick out of the visiting area. Separated by a thick wall and glass, inmates were able to have visitors sit on the other side of the glass. Naturally we had to take advantage of this photo opp, so Carmody and my mom visited Riley and I like we were prisoners.

Now for the really cool stuff.. The famous case of the 3 prisoners escaping and never being found? We heard more about it and were able to see the dummy head used to fake out the guards AND the hole carved into the wall that the prisoners slipped through. I couldn’t get a good picture of the narrow utility hall behind the cell that they supposedly climbed up to get out, but it’s pretty mind boggling to think that actually happened. And YES the hole in the wall looked as small in person as it does in the picture. I can’t imagine trying to squeeze through it!

Our last stop on the tour was the Dining Hall, which still has the menu from the very last day Alcatraz was open before being shut down by Robert F. Kennedy in 1963. Supposedly the food in the prison was so good that both the guards and the prisoners ate the same thing. Pretty crazy!

We were fortunate that the day we visited, a former inmate, Bill Baker (Inmate #1279) happened to be doing a book signing, of his book about life in prison and at Alcatraz. We felt silly being excited to meet an Alcatraz prisoner, but with so much history that we learned, it was crazy to meet someone who was really there (and that he voluntarily came back)! He was in prison for most of his life due to cashing fraudulent checks (ironically mastered the trait during his time at Alcatraz) and other money schemes, so he said he was “happy to be making money legally,” which gave us a good chuckle.

Meeting former inmate Bill Baker at Alcatraz

It was such an awesome experience to be able to walk around Alcatraz and learn the history of the most famous prison in history, housing names we all know so well, such as Al Capone, Robert Stroud, and Mickey Cohen (to name a few).

If you find yourself in San Francisco, this is something I definitely recommend doing! But remember – you’ll want to reserve your tickets well in advance! Also, wear tennis shoes! I usually only wear mine when working out but the amount of walking you do on the island is insane and your feet will thank you later! And last but not least, layer your clothing. San Fran has a reputation for being chilly but when we were in town it happened to be a little warmer. Since we were by the water we still wore pants but with the combination of the sun shining down on us at the top of the island and all of the walking, we were dying of heat!

Have you visited Alcatraz? What was your favorite part?

Disclosure: I received a complimentary ticket to Alcatraz Island for review purposes. All opinions are my own.
  • Anonymous

    Yay we are famous on your blog!!!

  • Carmody

    I remember this! I was there!!