One place I have always wanted to visit when in San Francisco is Alcatraz, which is as notorious as some of its former prisoners. The 9 hectare island sits about 2.4kms from San Francisco and has had many lives. First as a lighthouse, military fort and military prison in the 1860s, then as a federal prison from 1933 until 1963.
“Break the rules and go to prison, break the prison rules and you go to Alcatraz.”
It was then occupied by Aboriginal peoples from San Francisco throughout the 1970s, and finally it became a National Historic Landmark in 1986. Commonly referred to as “The Rock”, it’s known most for being a federal prison that housed the worst of the worst offenders from across America.
Our group (of Canadian journalists who are touring California with Disney Canada this week) was booked on Alcatraz Cruises, thanks to San Francisco Travel, so we made our way down to San Francisco’s Pier 33 to board at 9:30am on a sunny Sunday morning.
The ferry is for foot passengers only and the particular boat that we were on — the Alcatraz Clipper — was generating wind and solar power. The outside decks were about as breezy as a BC Ferry heading into Active Pass and watching the city diminish on the horizon was reminiscent of taking the SeaBus to North Vancouver.
Alcatraz is visible from the shore and all along the waterfront piers of San Francisco. It seems to tiny on a map but once you get up close you can see just how much this hunk of rock in the bay really holds. Some of the buildings from the Civil War era are nothing but ruins but you can walk around the Main Cellhouse, Dining Hall, Library, and a few others.
Aside from the inmates — at any given time there were only about 200 or so in Alcatraz, probably fewer than the amount of people who arrived on our ferry — the officers and their families also lived on the island. It was fascinating to learn about their lives as well which reminded me of old company towns like at Britannia Mine or Powell River townsites along the BC coast.
Tips for Touring Alcatraz
- TOP TIP: Book early! We were fortunate to be with a media group arranged by San Francisco Travel so they booked us in far in advance. As of the date when this post was written and published, tours are sold out for the next 6 days. So, if you’re planning on making Alcatraz a stop during your stay in San Francisco, be sure to book at least a week in advance through Alcatraz Cruises (book online and print your ticket to get a special web rate).
- There’s no need to rush onto the boats because even though you’ll be among 250+ others filing onto the decks, most people move around quite a bit during the ride walking from the inside lounges to the outside areas to take photos. Those who head outside to grab a seat on a bench (there is plenty of seating) also might duck back inside because of the windchill. Even on a hot sunny day, the wind can have a bite (but it’s rather refreshing during the summer). Once you’re on the island, you can take any sailing to return to the city that same day.
- Do the audio tour! It’s included with your ticket and you’ll be directed to the appropriate starting point to pick up your remote control system and headphones (in several languages). It’s not like other monotone tours with single narrators. A woman on our trip described it best as being like an old radio show. The commentators are former officers and prisoners offering several perspectives, and there are sound effects that make you feel like you’re in the middle of the action even though the prison corridors are eerily silent.
- Alcatraz is a part of the National Park Service and many efforts have been made to protect the island and its sea bird habitats. Be sure to respect the wildlife, the assigned walkways, and follow the signs.
- Although the audio tour does take you outside for a moment to face the parade grounds and the city skyline in the distance, we paused our devices anyway so we could take some photos and not miss a beat with the tour. Simply press the stop button once to pause, then press play again when you’re good to keep going.
- Finally, be prepared to walk a lot and wear comfortable shoes as you will be walking up from the dock along switchbacks to climb up to the Main Cellhouse when you arrive. The elevation change is about 130 feet (equivalent of a 13 storey building).
I thoroughly enjoyed the quality of the audio tour, the layers of history that unravel throughout the last two centuries, the fascinating stories, and the spectacular city views offered from the island. Even the shop at the very end of the tour was filled with books and even more stories to take with you — along with the expected prison-themed bobbles and souvenirs.
There are no flashy lights, video displays, or interactive displays at Alcatraz but kids really enjoy it. Every child that I saw was participating in the audio tour, checking out the cells (a few brave ones walked into the solitary cells that were open for visitors), and posing for photos outside with their family.
My niece and I finished the audio tour, walked around the Historic Gardens, and hopped on the 11:55am boat back to San Francisco with a few other members of our group. As the wind whipped through our hair on the deck of the ferry as it backed away from the dock I was really happy to have finally made it to the mysterious island that had eluded me during past trips to San Francisco.