Do you want to roam the halls of a prison that once held some of the world’s most dangerous criminals? Would you like to spend time on a mysterious island? Do you enjoy haunting history and natural beauty? You can experience all this and more at Alcatraz Island, a national park site unlike any other. We will outline everything you need to know to visit Alcatraz.
At First Sight, No Second Guessing
The first thing most visitors to San Francisco Bay recognize is the famous Golden Gate Bridge. Shortly after, an island catches your eye a mile and a quarter from the bustling city’s shoreline.
With a fortress and a towering lighthouse, there is something strange yet appealing about the island. It is a rare combination of natural beauty and haunting history. The island disturbingly beckons you.
Alcatraz Island is renowned for being a maximum security federal prison. Some bristle at the thought of touring a prison. Is it odd to want to see a place where feared villains lived? Probably.
Do not let fear keep you from such a fantastic experience. It is creepy yet exhilarating and educational. Touring Alcatraz is one of the best things to do in San Francisco and a unique national park site experience. You will be glad you answered the call.
Essential Information for Your Alcatraz Visit
The National Park Service (NPS) manages Alcatraz Island, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It is one of many national park sites in and near San Francisco.
Hours of Operation
The park is open daily from 10:00 am to 8:00 pm except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Days.
Alcatraz Island Location
Alcatraz is an island that sits 1.25 miles from San Francisco’s vibrant shores. Its address is Alcatraz Island, San Francisco Bay, CA 94133.
How to Get There: Alcatraz Landing Location
There is only one way to reach the island: by ferry. The Alcatraz Ferry Terminal, also known as Alcatraz Landing, rests on the Embarcadero near the intersection of Bay Street at Pier 33.
Its exact location and the more critical physical address for you is Alcatraz Landing, Pier 33, Suite 200, San Francisco, CA 94111.
To give you another reference point, Fisherman’s Wharf sits at Pier 39, less than a 0.5 mile away. It is a short, easy walk between the two iconic locations.
Although all tours depart from and return to Alcatraz Landing, the area does not have parking. Nearby commercial parking lots typically fill up quickly. Due to limited parking, the NPS suggests visitors use public transportation.
Would you expect the weather to be perfect on a mysterious island that housed convicted felons? Of course, the weather is unpredictable, almost sullen, and moody. The only thing predictable about the weather is that it suddenly changes regularly.
Mornings are often cold and foggy. When the fog clears, visitors usually experience sunlight. However, blustery winds and fog often return.
Spring and fall typically offer the most pleasant weather, while summers are cool and foggy. Winters tend to be gloomy and rainy. No matter when you visit, we suggest a light jacket.
Throughout the year, temperatures rarely exceed 75 degrees Fahrenheit or dip below 38. Dress accordingly and embrace the weather. It is all part of the experience, setting the tone for your adventure.
Internet and Cellular Access
WiFi is not available. Most guests find cell reception very limited on the island. Again, it is all part of the theme.
Entrance Fees and Passes
Alcatraz Island does not charge an entrance fee per se. What does this mean?
Although the park technically does not have an entrance fee, you must purchase a ticket for a park tour and ferry rides to and from the island. In other words, a national park pass does not grant you free access to Alcatraz.
To visit Alcatraz, you must secure a reservation by purchasing a ticket. The NPS strongly recommends visitors make reservations in advance. Tours can and do sell out, especially in summer and around holidays.
The NPS partners with Alcatraz City Cruises, the only approved vendor, to provide ferry services for all tours. Please click on the provided link to check availability by type of tour, day, and time and to purchase Alcatraz tickets. Or, you can call them at (415) 981-7625.
Alcatraz tours come in three flavors, all beginning and ending at Alcatraz Landing. Let’s review your ticket options.
- Adult: $45.25
- Child (ages 5-11): $27.55
- Junior (ages 12-17): $45.25
- Senior (ages 62+): $42.65
Note that prices may change at any time.
The day tour provides access to the island’s open areas, including exhibits, gardens, the historic cellhouse, dining hall, and recreation yard. It includes a self-guided cellhouse audio tour where you hear from prisoners, guards, and wardens as you make your way through the cold, damp halls. The audio tour provides some fascinating history, transporting you back in time as the cells and corridors practically come to life.
- Adult: $56.30
- Child (ages 5-11): $33.00
- Junior (ages 12-17): $55.10
- Senior (ages 62+): $52.25
Note that prices may change at any time.
The night tour delivers more of a personal touch. Groups are smaller, and park rangers provide information and tell exciting stories. Like the day excursions, you will take a self-guided cellhouse audio tour. Visitors at night get to explore an unannounced area that is not typically open during the day. And the icing on the cake is your spectacular sunset views of the city skyline, bay, and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Behind the Scenes Tour
- Adult: $101.30
- Junior (ages 12-17): $97.10
- Senior (ages 62+): $94.25
Note that prices may change at any time.
The behind-the-scenes tour provides the most intimate outing, with group sizes capped at 30 people. Best of all, you gain access to areas not available to the public on the other tours, such as tunnels, underground jails, and unique gardens.
Eating and Smoking
The island has one area near the dock where visitors can eat and smoke. Consuming food and tobacco products is prohibited in all other parts of the island. Why is this? The rule is to help protect the island’s seabird populations. Note that you can purchase and eat food on the ferry.
How Long is the Tour?
Plan on 2.5 to 3 hours for the entire experience, including the ferry rides and tour. Each ferry ride is about 15 minutes.
Your ticket shows the ferry departure day and time. Plan to arrive before your scheduled ride so you can catch your ferry.
If you take a day tour, ferries return from the island about every half hour. Return trip departure times are posted on the ferry and at the island dock. You have an assigned ferry time to the island but may ride on any returning ferry.
The Alcatraz Landing entrance has an accessibility drop-off zone. Nearby commercial parking lots provide accessible spaces, operating on a first-come, first-served basis. Those with a valid disabled parking permit may park in the area at blue-painted curbs or blue zones.
Accessible features at Alcatraz Landing and Alcatraz Island include a tactile model of the island and Pier 33, accessible restroom facilities, an audio-described tour with Braille posts for wayfinding, assistive listening devices, and a Braille transcript of the cellhouse tour.
The prison sits atop a steep hill, about .25 miles from the dock, with an elevation change of 130 feet. Visitors requiring mobility assistance can ride an electric shuttle, Sustainability Easy Access Transport (SEAT). The tram meets each arriving ferry at the dock and makes regular return trips from the prison to the dock throughout the day.
Wheelchair-accessible areas include:
- Alcatraz Landing
- Alcatraz dock
- The main floor of the prison
- Museum displays
- Island theater
Deaf visitors can watch an American Sign Language (ASL) version of the cellhouse tour on a handheld digital device. Upon arrival, a park staff member can provide you with a handheld device for the ASL tour.
When is the Best Time of Year to Visit Alcatraz?
Your primary goal will impact the answer to this question. The best weather occurs in April, May, September, and October. If summer fits your schedule, prepare for bigger crowds and surprisingly cold, foggy weather.
For those who want to avoid crowds, the following windows offer the best experience:
- First two weeks of November
- First two weeks of December
- January through March (rainy season)
The best time to observe nesting seabirds is February through August. April and May bring nest building and egg laying, with chicks beginning to hatch around mid-June.
Best Time to Go
Based on your perspective, the best time to go is a matter of opinion. However, if you aim to escape crowds, morning is the best time. For those who seek the possibility of some warm sunshine, midday is best. Consider the night tour if you love sunsets or desire a unique excursion.
What to Expect When You Visit Alcatraz
Now that we have discussed essential information, what can you expect on your visit to Alcatraz Island?
The ferry ride to the island takes approximately 12 to 15 minutes. Water can get choppy sometimes, but the boat is large enough to absorb the waves, making it reasonably smooth. Along the journey, you gain fantastic views of the island, city skyline, and Golden Gate Bridge. Savor the vistas and enjoy!
Arrival and Exploration
After disembarking the ferry, a park ranger will greet you and deliver a brief orientation talk. If you are taking a day tour, you can freely explore the island after your briefing. A park ranger escorts visitors to the prison during the night tours. The behind-the-scenes tour is a ranger-guided tour with additional time for visitors to explore independently.
The park is considerably different from most national park sites. So, what can you do on the island? Alcatraz is primarily about walking and exploring an island with a fascinating history. That history is disturbing, yet it leaves you feeling exhilarated and educated.
The park houses a museum, bookstores, theater, and exhibits to explore. You will encounter information placards throughout the prison and its grounds. The two primary exhibits are:
- Red Power on Alcatraz: Perspective 50 Years Later
- The Big Lockup: Mass Incarceration in the U.S.
Understandably, the prison is the main attraction for many visitors. The self-guided audio tour takes approximately half an hour, leading you through the prison corridors, dining hall, and recreation grounds. You have an opportunity to step into a jail cell if you dare.
The audio tour is a fantastic way to experience Alcatraz as you hear the voices of former guards, wardens, and prisoners. Even if you do not enjoy audio tours, I highly recommend this one. The combination of the audio and exhibits gives you a glimpse of the harsh conditions and hopelessness the prisoners must have felt. Walking through the prison without the audio is excellent, but the commentary gives you historical information and perspectives you would otherwise miss.
Park rangers hand you the audio device, which includes headphones and a neck strap, leaving your hands free to take pictures with your phone or camera. The tour is available in multiple languages, including English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Dutch, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, and Mandarin. You can request a transcript if you prefer. An English Braille version of the transcript is available as well.
Where many national park sites fill your soul with beauty, Alcatraz floods your mind with vivid images of its past. Seeing it firsthand is oddly rewarding.
I want to ensure your visit is well-spent by giving away only a little information on the history. Alcatraz was a military fort protecting San Francisco Bay in the 1850s. It was an army prison beginning in 1859. Alcatraz gained its fame as a maximum security prison for the worst of criminals from 1934 to 1963. Most inmates got transferred from other prisons after proving to be troublemakers or escape risks.
“The Rock” was believed to be inescapable, located on an island in the middle of San Francisco Bay, resting atop a large rock. Notorious inmates include Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Robert Stroud, “The Birdman of Alcatraz,” and Alvin “Creepy” Karpis.
The inmates’ history and escape attempts are essential to its lore. Thirty-four men made fourteen separate escape attempts from the federal prison. The infamous escape attempt in 1962 saw Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin make it to the bay. The trio was never found, presumably drowning.
American Indian political activists occupied Alcatraz three times in the 1960s and early 1970s. Congress created the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 1972, resulting in Alcatraz being under the organization and part of the NPS.
When most people envision Alcatraz, they picture a drab facility with harsh conditions. Surprisingly, despite this haunting history, the Rock harbors beautiful gardens of lush plants and colorful blossoms. In 2003, the NPS, Garden Conservancy, and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy began collaborative efforts to restore and preserve the historic gardens.
The island contains a beautiful trail that is widely unknown. You can visit Alcatraz almost any day of the year. Still, the Agave Trail, a short path between the dock and Parade Ground, is typically open only from late September through January. The path skirts along the island’s edge, delivering exceptional views of the island and bay. It is closed for the rest of the year to protect nesting birds.
Although not a highlight for some visitors, many beautiful waterbirds call Alcatraz Island home. Accordingly, park rangers close some parts of the island for your safety and theirs.
Due to abundant birds, early Spanish explorers named the island after alcatraces or seabirds. Most birds disappeared for years while the island was a military fortress, prison, and federal jail.
When the prison closed in 1963, the seabirds returned. The National Historic Landmark now harbors more than 5,000 nesting birds, including western gulls, cormorants, black-crowned night herons, snowy egrets, and pigeon guillemots.
Park rangers first spotted a pair of peregrine falcons on Alcatraz Island in 2019. The NPS announced the birth of four peregrine falcon chicks in early April 2023.
The historic Alcatraz Lighthouse, lit in 1854, was the first built on America’s west coast. It has gone through many changes over the years. The current 84-foot concrete tower was built in 1909, replacing the original. Shortly after the prison closed in 1963, the lighthouse was automated. It is not open to the public for tours. However, the beacon adds a touch of beauty and mystery to the island.
Is Alcatraz Haunted?
Guests have reported hearing moans or cries from empty cells. Legends say an inmate from the infamous cell 14D died after incessantly screaming that a ghost was after him. Many visitors report feeling cold when passing that same cell. Perhaps ghosts roam the halls, or maybe it is the wind blowing through the corridors, or just wild imaginations or fears getting the best of us. I will let you decide for yourself.
Tips Before You Visit Alcatraz
We suggest you reserve your Alcatraz Island tour tickets in advance. Attempting to purchase last-minute tickets is risky since many tours fill up days or weeks before.
Plan to arrive twenty to thirty minutes early for your scheduled ferry ride. Your spot is reserved for a specific day and time. Once on the island, you can take your time and catch any returning ferry.
Wear comfortable but sturdy shoes due to the park’s uneven and steep walking surfaces. Your initial climb from the dock to the prison is steep.
The park does not offer storage facilities of any kind. Although we suggest packing layers, including a light jacket, only bring what you can comfortably carry.
Since the island only allows food in a small area near the dock, plan to eat shortly before your tour. Or, you can eat a snack during the ferry ride.
Bring your camera to capture views from the ferry and Alcatraz Island. While touring the island, do not focus solely on the prison. Remember to savor the spectacular views of San Francisco Bay, the city skyline, and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Wrap-Up: How to Visit Alcatraz
With an odd combination of haunting history and natural beauty, Alcatraz Island delivers a riveting experience, unlike any other national park site in America. Use our guide to plan your Alcatraz escape!
Featured image credit: Rodrigo Soares
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