Alcatraz: Touring San Francisco’s Infamous Island
Alcatraz Island, also known as “The Rock,” was home to some of the countries most notorious prisoners during its tenure as a prison. Now it is a popular part of the national park 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, but boy was I wrong. This entire experience is fantastic, from the boat over, to the audio tour through the cells. 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: $49 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 your departure time
- Can take any boat you want back
- This information was from my visit in 2017 and 2022
For an island about a mile of the coast of San Francisco, getting there is the hardest part. The park 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 and break ins often occur. I would recommend taking public transportation or Uber / Lyft as that is a much easier and a cheaper way to get to the pier. Once you get there though the boat is easy to find and board for your trip to the island.
I have made two videos on my visits to the island. First is the most recent video from my trip in 2022.
Next, this video was from my first trip in 2017.
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 usually line up 15 minutes before my tour.
I walked around the dock and looked at the mini replica they had of the island and read 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 15 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 (I highly recommend the first tour of the day), 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 and its history has been written about many times, here are some of my favorite stops in photos with just a brief synopsis of each location.
I liked the look of this old building that you see right when you get off the boat.
Inside there is a visitor 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 officer’s 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 but there is not much left from a fire in the 1970s.
This is the main area that everyone visits during their time here. There is a fantastic audio tour that you can take that directs you around the cellhouse and tells stories of the prisoners and the guards.
The audio tour takes about and hour but you can spend more or less time exploring on your own as well.
This is the main reason why I recommend the first tour. When you get to the cellhouse, you basically have it to yourself during that tour. When I left, there were four times the people in the cellhouse, including a line even to enter the building.
The cellhouse was impressive as it was in excellent 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 jailed here as it would be so tough to live in such a small area. The prison was only open for 30 years before it was retired.
Cell Block D
From there, I went into Cell Block D, which is where the worst 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 like a replica of the island from the 1950s.
Outside there is also an old warden’s home that looked like the remains of the officer’s quarters with the broken walls and green moss. There is also a lighthouse here which is the oldest on the west coast.
This area has some of the best views looking back at the city with the skyline of San Francisco and the Bay Bridge right in front of you.
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, and I just sat on a bench and took them in while watching all the birds fly around.
From there, you can walk down the hill, around the other side of the cellblock, and over to the Recreation Yard.
This is where the inmates got their outdoor time, playing games like baseball.
You can still see the 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 see again, 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.