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As we learned about visiting Alcatraz, it was soon apparent that the Alcatraz Night Tour was the option for us.
We initially weren’t planning to stay in San Francisco on this road trip; we planned to drive through on our way to Yosemite National Park from Monterey, California. But as we planned our trip, we realized we’d need to stay a night near San Francisco. So why not check out some of the attractions in the city? And though the Alcatraz Night Tour isn’t technically a ghost tour, the description sounded close enough. After all, we love a good ghost tour in a new city.
Planning Our Alcatraz Night Tour
To visit Alcatraz, you need to buy tickets for a tour, and the tickets are only available through the Alcatraz Island Tickets website. If you purchase tickets from another source, they may not be valid. If you visit Alcatraz during the day, the ferry leaves hourly beginning at 8:45 a.m. We chose the night cruise, so we were able to choose from two sailings. We chose the first cruise which starts at 5:55 p.m.
Since we only had one night in San Francisco, I made sure to purchase our tickets well in advance; I didn’t want to risk not being able to get tickets for our date. I purchased the tickets about five months out. It probably wasn’t necessary, but the site did say that some sailings could sell out.
Arriving at Fisherman’s Warf
Many people choose to stay in the Fisherman’s Warf area of San Francisco. There’s a lot to do: dining, shopping, and attractions. We decided to stay at Hotel Kabuki in Japantown. This put us about 20 minutes away from Fisherman’s Warf and the Alcatraz boat launch. Before checking into our hotel and heading to Alcatraz, we explored Chinatown. Click here to read more about our experience.
After a short break at Hotel Kabuki, we needed to find an early dinner before our Alcatraz adventure. We decided to take an Uber from the hotel so we wouldn’t have to worry about parking or navigating the city. Our Uber dropped us off at the Alcatraz launch, and we walked a few blocks over to the restaurants at Pier 39.
You can pick from several seafood places and popular chain restaurants, like Hard Rock Cafe.
My family is not huge on seafood; I enjoy fish and shrimp occasionally, but my travel companions are not fans. So, in the end, we chose an American-grill-type place with a lot of options. And chicken strips.
In the end, we chose a local restaurant called Wipeout. It’s themed to California surfing, so that is fun.
Some of the tables are shaped like surfboards.
I liked this mural on the wall.
We informed our server that we needed to make our Alcatraz check-in time, and he made sure to keep the meal moving. He brought the check promptly, and we walked back to the boat launch.
When we return to San Francisco someday, we hope to explore the Fisherman’s Warf area more.
We just got a small taste, but it was a lot of fun.
We’d love to check out the aquarium in the future.
When you’re a land-locked girl from Missouri, you never tire of seeing harbors and marinas full of all types of boats.
When we returned to the boat launch area for our trek to Alcatraz, we had a nice view of the famous Coit Tower.
Cruising to Alcatraz
After our early dinner, it was time to queue up for our cruise. During our visit, masks were required in the queue and on the boat. After your arrival at Alcatraz, you could remove your mask.
There are also restrooms available after you go inside the check-in area.
Once we boarded, we looked around a bit to decide where we wanted to ride. There are interior places you can sit and take in the sights. If it were any colder, I would’ve been all about this option! Luckily, it was early summer and not too chilly for our short cruise.
There are some snack and drink options during the cruise.
Like good tourists, we headed to the upper deck so we could have unobstructed views of San Francisco and Alcatraz. Well, you may need to maneuver around the other tourists to get those views, but we were able to take the pictures we wanted without much trouble. The most challenging part is not falling down while walking during the actual cruise.
There is seating on the upper deck, so if you find standing at the rail the entire time to be challenging, you can have a seat as long as one is available. We took turns standing at the rail and saving each other’s seats during the quick ride. The views looking back at San Francisco alone make it worth taking the cruise.
I love getting out on the water.
You’ll also get a distant view of the Golden Gate Bridge. This view (and the return cruise view) turned out to be our best view of the bridge. The following morning we drove over it, but we couldn’t see it. Like, at all. Dense fog completely obscured it. Lesson learned for land-locked Midwesterners!
Soon, we had our eye on Alcatraz. Of course, you can see it from the mainland, but as we approached, our mission formed itself more concretely in our minds. It’s time to explore Alcatraz.
Arriving at Alcatraz Island
Soon we arrived at the boat dock. Above is a picture we took of the next tour arriving.
When you first disembark, you will be asked to stay with your ferry group for a couple of stops while rangers give you some background about Alcatraz and those who lived here–inmates, guards, and the guards’ families. I hadn’t considered that families actually lived here.
These ranger talks are given at stops along an uphill trek to the buildings of the prison. If you have accessibility issues, there is a tram available, but it is reserved for those who need the transportation.
As you can see, it takes a bit of effort to make it to the top.
Of course, more history plays into Alcatraz’s story than just the existence of the prison. In 1964 after the prison closed, Alcatraz had a brief occupation by Native Americans. In 1969, a Native American group called Indians of All Tribes occupied Alcatraz for 19 months to shine light on Native American civil rights and to call out the atrocities inflicted on native people.
And prior to being a prison, Alcatraz was a military installation to defend San Francisco Bay. Troops were stationed here until 1934.
Alcatraz is most famous for being a U. S, Penniteniarty. From 1934 to 1963, approximately 1500 people served time at the federal prison. Alcatraz was a novel idea; the government decided to separate the most difficult inmates–those prone to violence and escaping–from other prisons across the country and send them to “The Rock,” the first maximum-security prison in the United States.
As you can see, the history of three distinct time periods is represented here, and all of them are fascinating.
Before Entering the Prison
As the rangers gave us an orientation of the island, we learned about the guards and their families. As I mentioned before, I hadn’t thought about families living on Alcatraz. Apparently, school-aged kids took a ferry to San Francisco for school, but aside from that, the guards and their families lived their lives at Alcatraz quite normally, socializing with each other and being part of a small community.
We also learned that federal inmates were not the first prisoners on the island. During the Civil War, Confederate troops were held here. And at various points in time, Hopi and Apache people were imprisoned here.
In the 1920s, the military began a beautification project involving trees, shrubs, roses, and other flowers. When Alcatraz became a penitentiary, inmates were allowed to care for the gardens. Though the gardens were unattended after the prison closed, in 2003, the gardens of Alcatraz were restored. I’ll be honest; I was not expecting to see gardens at Alcatraz.
Entering the Cell Blocks of Alcatraz
After a final ranger talk outside of the prison entrance, it was time to go inside.
For the Alcatraz Night Tour, your party will be issued devices for the audio tour in one of ten languages. After a brief tutorial on how to use the device, we were off. From here on out, everything is self-guided. You can wander freely. The audio tour does have a chronological order to it, but my family found ourselves not listening as we explore. Maybe it’s an attention-span thing. We started out with good intentions, but we were often distracted by what we saw.
In this area of the prison, you can follow a path laid out for you by the audio tour. This part of the tour starts in Blocks A-D.
The hallways are named after famous streets in the U.S., like Michigan Avenue.
I was most familiar with Cell Block D due to a Ghost Adventures episode filmed there. If you’d like to see a clip from that episode about these cells, click here.
So, naturally, we had to check out Cells 13 and 14.
We encountered nothing out of the ordinary here. Still, it was cool to walk into a place from that episode. And maybe there were too many people around for the spirits to come out.
Apparently, in Cell Block D, prisoners were confined to their cells 24 hours a day. Inmates in these cells got one recreation yard visit per week. Robert “The Birdman” Stroud’s cell was in D Block before he was moved to the prison hospital. Stroud earned his nickname because of his work breeding and studying canaries in the federal prison at Leavenworth, Kansas.
Cell Blocks B and C had smaller cells, but the inmates within them had more time away from the cell. Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly both had cells in B Block.
You can also see the actual cells of the inmates who were part of The Great Escape–Frank Morris, and John and Clarence Anglin.
In the exhibit, you can see how they used dummies to make it appear they were in their bunks while they made their escape. Though Frank Morris and the Anglin Brothers did escape from their cells, there is no evidence that they made it to the mainland.
You can also see George Franklin Heck’s cell, covered in pictures of his paintings and sketches. Exhibits like this help visitor’s understand what life was like here; the average stay at Alcatraz was eight years.
Visitors and Administration at Alcatraz
Most inmates were granted one visitor per month. At one end of the cell blocks, you can see how visitors met with inmates.
You can also see the front office and the offices of various administrators, including the warden.
You can also step outside the main entrance here and view San Francisco.
The view is nice.
Special Exhibits During the Alcatraz Night Tour
There are some special ranger talks and areas open during the Alcatraz Night Tour that aren’t usually available during the day. We chose to explore the prison hospital.
It was in the prison hospital that we learned more about Robert “The Birdman” Stroud. It’s also the place where we did have a paranormal experience, but I can’t provide compelling evidence of what happened. We asked some questions aloud, and using an app called iOvilus on my phone, we had a reply that surprised us.
Before we knew the name of the man in the exhibit we were near, we got this response when we asked if anyone was here.
When we went back to check The Birdman’s name, we were surprised to see it was Robert!
You can’t type words into this app or anything, so we were pretty excited to see this name on the poster for The Birdman. Now, I know it’s a phone app, and that you’ll have to take our word for what we experienced, but I thought I’d go ahead and include this little paranormal moment!
Winding Down Our Visit
As the sun set, it was time to make our way back to the boat dock. After a quick visit to the gift shop, we were on our way.
We took our time so we could check out some of the areas we missed, like the military areas.
While it was certainly dusk, it never was completely dark during our visit. That’s why I’d refer to this tour as the Evening Tour.
Sometimes, you could forget that you were actually at a prison.
After we were off, we had another glimpse of The Golden Gate Bridge.
As we got closer to the mainland, it finally became night, and we were able to get some shots of San Francisco in the dark.
Since it was so much cooler, we spent most of our cruise in the interior deck. Be sure to bring layers, even in the summer! We also brought water in our Hyrdo Flasks for our adventure.
If you’re wondering if you should add Alcatratraze to your San Francisco visit, I would certainly consider it. We learned a lot, and we also enjoyed some of the spookiness of the place. I’m not certain I would return; I think it’s a one-and-done for us. But I’m definitely glad we had the experience.
When we made it back to land, we ordered an Uber to get back to our hotel. We had a great driver, and I loved seeing the neighborhoods we passed in the evening. We saw a lot of dog walking in front of Brownstones. It reminded me of a romantic comedy, and I was so grateful to be able to spend some time in this beautiful city.
“Guided Tours – Alcatraz Island (U.S. National Park Service).” Nps.gov, 2019, www.nps.gov/alca/planyourvisit/guidedtours.htm. Accessed 17 Oct. 2022.
Ocean. “Famous Alcatraz Inmates – AlcatrazHistory.com.” Alcatrazhistory.com, Alcatraz History, 2022, www.alcatrazhistory.com/famous.htm. Accessed 17 Oct. 2022.
I’ve never taken a night tour of Alcatraz, although I have been there during the day. I loved it, although my heart broke as I thought of the many prisoners living their lonely lives there. Your details and pictures are so accurate that I went back in time to relive my visit. It was a pleasant memory from 24 years ago. I’d love to go back someday.
I’ve toured Alcatraz twice before and found it fascinating. But I’ve never taken the night tour…that would be cool.
I’ve always wanted to see Alcatraz, but I’m also worried I’m going to have nightmares afterward! LOL. Glad you had fun!
Oh, hopefully you won’t have nightmares if you go someday!
Wow! I feel like I got to be apart of this trip to Alcatraz without actually visiting Alcatraz. It has always been fascinating to me how some places always maintain such a high level of interest no matter their age because of their strange, and sometimes dark history. I think it would be cool to visit Alcatraz one day too. Did it feel scary at all being there? I’m not sure if that is the right word, but from any documentary I have ever watched on it, people seem to describe it as having a very eerie feeling.
I would agree with the eerie feeling. I don’t know that it was scary; it mostly felt sad to me. But, if we actually stayed at Alcatraz until it was pitch black outside, I think I’d have a different opinion! Some of those areas would be spooky in the dark.
Alcatraz looks like a fascinating tour! Visiting at night would definitely put a different spin on the experience.
The view of San Fran on your way back from the Alcatraz night tour is gorgeous. I love photos of the city from the water.
San Francisco is on my travel list. When I go I intend to visit Alcatraz! A night tour sounds fun.
This was so helpful, we have a tour in a few days! So excited!
The Alcatraz Night Tour sounds terrific! Glad you had a fabulous time.