It was another great day in San Francisco, and we spent about four hours touring the island of Alcatraz. This island in San Francisco Bay is best known because of the inescapable federal prison that existed there between 1934 and 1963. We're going to tell you a little about the best way to do this tour. And, it is a tour that you really should do some day!
Alcatraz Island is administered by the United States National Park Service. It's a busy, popular tour site, and in fact the only National Park that receives more visitors than Alcatraz is Yosemite.
So, because it's such a busy park, you need to plan your tour in advance to avoid disappointment. In fact, the first part of your plan should be to time your trip to San Francisco during low season. The best time to go to ensure ticket availability is January through March.
For booking tickets up to 90 days in advance, you're going to want to go to the Alcatraz Cruises website.
When booking tickets, we recommend getting the earliest start time that you can realistically make. Something we didn't realize is that this is a totally self guided exploration. Even though you book a tour time, and you have to get on the boat at that time, you do not have to remain with any kind of a group once you have had the ranger talk when you arrive at the island. The earlier you go, the more you will enjoy your visit.
The first cruise of the day leaves at 8:45am, and if we were to do things over again, that's the time we would go. We had chosen the 10:00am tour. It was fine, but very busy and earlier would have been better.
You want to arrive at the ticket booth at Pier 33 about a half hour before your boat leaves.
We went on the Thursday tour. Notice that all tours up until the following Tuesday are already sold out!
People start lining up way before they need to.
You might as well sit and relax until about 10 minutes before your boat leaves. You already have tickets, so it's not like you're not going to get on the boat. And it's only a 12 minute boat ride, so you really don't need to get a seat. If there's none left, just let the wind blow through your hair!
Large display replica of Alcatraz.
Another nice view of the city.
Arrived at Alcatraz!
When your boat disembarks, you'll be herded over to a ranger so that he can explain some rules and welcome you to the island. Ranger Matt had a great sense of humor and we enjoyed his welcoming comments. He also informed us that one of their most famous inmates was a Canadian...Alvin "Creepy" Karpis!
After you hear the ranger speech, and the masses of people start heading up the hill towards the movie theater, you're going to want to head the opposite way and just grab a seat for 10 minutes and read the guide that you have just bought for $1. That way, all of the people who have packed the movie theater will have gone, and you can now watch the movie pretty much alone because it just replays with a two minute break in between showings. It's about a 15 minute movie, so it works perfectly.
Now, you're comfortably behind the large group, and in front of the next large group!
The only remaining guard tower. There used to be four of them.
You now make your way up to the audio tour of the cell blocks, get your headphones, and begin the tour.
Incoming inmates were stripped down and herded into the shower. Then, paraded naked down to the cell block.
Home, for the next few years!
Better get used to the sight of bars.
A typical cell.
Alcatraz Prison was designed as punishment. The only people brought here were those who couldn't behave in the other federal prisons.
Sign at the entrance to the cell block says "Welcome to Alcatraz. You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter, and medical attention. Anything else you get at Alcatraz is a privilege."
Almost as if it were designed as additional punishment, prisoners could often get glimpses of the surrounding waters and sights including the Golden Gate bridge and the city of San Francisco. All of that freedom, in fact everything they wanted was only a mile and a half away yet they couldn't get to it.
Heading out into the prisoner recreation area.
Walking down the stairs, prisoners got a nice view of the Golden Gate bridge.
Not a very nice place to play baseball.
Solitary confinement. Some prisoners spent up to two weeks in "the hole".
But, if you behaved yourself, you could actually get by here. It was all about following the rules. You would even get access to visitors. "You will be allowed one visit each month from members of your immediate family or other approved visitors."
There was one succesful escape from Alcatraz, although nobody knows if they actually made it. Three prisoners used the broken end of a spoon to chip away at the concrete surrounding the air vent in their cells. It would have taken at least a year to break away the concrete. One night, they designed fake heads for their bunks, and disappeared into the ducts behind the thick walls, and up onto the roof and over the side.
This is one of the cells they escaped from. The fake head is in the bed.
The official story is that the three escapees drowned in the chilly waters, but the bodies were never found. Did they make it to freedom? Nobody will ever know. Prison story was that the men had been studying Spanish, and made it to South America.
The prisoners who had done time there said that the food was actually quite good at Alcatraz.
Breakfast menu, March 21, 1963.
The prison hospital didn't look like a great place. I'm sure it was a little cleaner when it was actually operational, but it still didn't look like anywhere you'd want to be to get "fixed up" in any way!
The prison operating room.
The prison hospital is where Robert Stroud lived. He was the "Birdman of Alcatraz". I get the impression he was a little bit nuts.
He did 17 years at Alcatraz, 11 of them in this room at the prison hospital.
As we exited the hospital and turned in our audio headsets, we saw a lineup at the gift shop. It seemed that an author was doing a book signing, so we wandered over to see who it was...
Old Bill Baker was an inmate at Alcatraz from 1957 to 1960. Just a kid at the time, he learned the counterfeiting trade while at Alcatraz. In and out of prison until 2011, he bought a computer when he last got out and wrote a book about his time on "the rock". Now at age 82, he sells his book and loves meeting the tourists.
By the way, the book is $19.95 at the Alcatraz book shop, but you can buy it for $13.30 at Amazon!
Of course you won't get a signed copy. I think it would be an interesting book.
Some neat viewpoints from the rock.
The ruins of the Warden's house. It burned in 1970, and only the reinforced structure is left.
Alcatraz Island is now a bird sanctuary.
And there are some pretty gardens.
San Francisco, from Alcatraz.
It's a really good tour, and an interesting place to explore. For $30 per adult, boat ride and tax included we think it's a really good deal and you shouldn't miss it if you're coming to San Francisco!