Alcatraz Island, also known as “The Rock,” was home to some of the countries most notorious prisoners during its tenure as a penitentiary. Now it is an incredibly popular part of the National Parks System that draws thousands of visitors a day and often books out weeks in advance. It was one of those places that I always avoided because I felt like it would be too touristy and not that enjoyable, but boy was I wrong. This entire experience is fantastic, from the boat over, to the audio tour through the cell. If you are spending some time in San Francisco, then I highly recommend it. Here is all the information as well as some tips to make the most of your day on Alcatraz.
- Cost: $37 for ticket and boat passage to the island, book online before going
- Books out weeks in advance especially during summer and weekends
- Arrive 30 minutes before departure time
- Can take any boat you want back
For an island, about a mile of the coast of San Francisco, of course, getting there is the hardest part. The parks service has partnered with one company that runs all of the boats to take you over. The boats leave from Pier 33. Parking is terrible here as the lots nearby are very expensive. I would recommend taking public transportation or Uber / Lyft as that is a much easier and cheaper way to get to the pier.
After getting to the pier, you will want to pick up your tickets from will call and then get in line for your tour.
The lines start forming up to an hour before you are set to depart, but I am not sure why you would want to get in line that early.
I walked around the dock and looked at the mini replica they had of the island as well as reading the placards about what to expect. After that, I got in line and waited to board.
The three-story boat has plenty of room for sitting or for exploring if you want to walk around while it heads over. I just chose to stand in the front for our ride, and it only takes about 20 minutes to get across.
This gave me some great views of the island as we approached it and even the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance.
We were the first group over (which I recommend you book), so when we got there, they were still setting some things up.
After orientation and rules from the NPS volunteer stationed on the island, you are free to walk around and catch the boat back when you are done. The boats came about every 30 minutes during the day, and I was there for about 3 hours before heading back.
Do note that the walk from the boat to the cellblock is pretty steep so take your time. Also, wear good walking shoes as you will be walking a lot and there is bird poop everywhere.
Since the island has been written about many times, here are some of my favorite stops in photos with just a brief synopsis of each.
I liked the look of this old building that you see right when you get off the boat.
Inside there is a visitors center with a movie on the island, a few small exhibits, and even a store.
Be sure to walk in the back where they have the above awesome looking alleyway and more exhibits.
The officers quarters is just a shell of a building now with walls covered in moss. It is cool to see as you make your way up.
This is the main area that everyone visits during their time here. While I don’t need to retell the history again, you can read about that here, here or here, the audio tour in the cellblock is great.
Listening to it will walk you through the building and instruct you where to look while it tells you stories about the prison and inmates.
This is the main reason why I recommend the early tour. When you get to the cellblock, you basically have it to yourself during that tour. When I left, there were four times the people in the cellblock, including a line to even enter the building.
The cellblock was impressive as it was in good condition and many of the cells had been restored to show what they would have looked like with inmates in them.
I can’t imagine being in here as it would be so tough to live in such a small area.
Cell Block D
From here I went into Cell Block D, which is where the hardened criminals went.
There are even five cells for those in solitary confinement, with no light in their cells at all. I can’t imagine how tough this would be to live through.
On the backside of the cellblock, there are a few small exhibits in the warden’s office.
Outside there is also an old warden home that looks like the remains of the officers quarters with the broken walls and green moss.
This area also has some of the best views looking back at the city.
The flat spot below you is closed, so you will see hundreds of birds that have taken up residence in that area, and it makes for a cool picture.
The views are spectacular though, and I just sat on a bench and took them in.
From here you can walk down the hill around the other side of the cellblock and over to the Rec Center.
This is where the inmates got their outdoors time, playing games like baseball.
You can still see home plate sitting there waiting for a game.
After seeing this area, you have seen most of the main spots on the island.
There is always more to explore or spend more time at, but many of the remaining areas are closed for restoration.
Even though this might not seem like a lot, I did all of this over the course of 3 hours, so it is longer than you would anticipate, and you will be walking a lot.
If you are visiting California and have the time, you really should consider taking the boat over to Alcatraz Island. I guarantee that it is not something you will forget. Let me know what you think in the comments.