Touring San Francisco's Alcatraz Island

Today on Facebook, one of my friends shared a photo taken last September during our ladies' San Francisco trip. In the image, four of us are standing in the interior of a ferry, soaked to the bone. We are dripping wet, cold, and smiling like fools. The picture brought back such excellent memories, and now I have been inspired to write about that time we visited Alcatraz Island.

My ladies' group on our San Francisco trip: Jennis, Jyll, Tara, me, Kerry, and Elissa

To me, Alcatraz Island is one of the quintessential 'San Francisco' sights that can't be missed. And I know I am not alone in this thinking, because the tours book up months in advance. All of us had heard this information from various sources, so we'd made sure to book well ahead of our trip to ensure we didn't end up losing out on seeing the island-bound prison. We had booked a 1:00 p.m. tour on our first full day in San Francisco, as it was one of the few things we'd all agreed we wanted to see and we wanted to see it right away.

Some things you might want to know about booking an Alcatraz Island tour:

1. As I stated before, the tours book up quickly. So try to grab tickets months in advance. I did see people at a 'stand-by' area waiting for no-shows and free spaces, but they seemed to be waiting for a very long time, and there were no guarantees that after standing in there for half a day, they were actually going to get on the island. So if you know you will be in San Francisco, and you know you want to tour the island, just pay for tickets sooner rather than later.

2. There are day tours and night tours. Both offer great benefits. The day tours are more plentiful, so they have more availability and don't seem to book up as fast. They also provide better photography opportunities and, for those of you a bit jumpy in the dark, aren't as creepy. The night time tours have fewer time slots, and are perhaps even more popular than the day time tours, so they fill up fast. Obviously, photography is worse in the night time, but the ambiance and spookiness factors make up for that. Since none of us ladies on our September trip were into ghost-hunting, we opted for the day tour so we could take some great shots of the island and the prison.

3. Within those day and night tours, there are various tour 'levels'. Some are guided, some are of the basic prison area, and some go behind-the-scenes (like the gardens, which I didn't even know existed until we were leaving). Being a frugal bunch, we chose the cheapest version: the self-guided basic tour. No backstage passes, just an afternoon of wandering around the island on our own. It was more than enough for us. All of these different tours obviously cost different amounts, so I won't post any links or prices here, since a) it will take too long and b) no one is paying me to promote them, so I won't! ;)

Alcatraz Island as seen from the ferry

To access the island, groups travel by ferry to the dock at the island. To get to your ferry, you must wait in a crazy-long lineup at Pier 33 where the Alcatraz Tour boats await you. It is a little confusing and slightly over-whelming as the lines are so long, and zigzag across the entire width of the pier.

Pier 33 doesn't have much to do, other than stand in line, but there is this model of Alcatraz.

Once you figure out where the 12:30 line ends, and the 1:00 line begins, you are okay. I recommend lining up no less than 30 minutes before your boat ride so you can grab a decent spot on the boat. We wanted that front spot so bad, we made it happen. (It was worth it - we made friends with the security guy guarding the gangway entrance. He and my friend Jennis bonded over hair combs of a very different nature.)

Daniel the guard and Jennis bonded over beard and extension combs, respectively

I would have initially insisted that the best spot on the boat would be the front of the deck, with a gorgeous view of the bay and the approaching island laid out before you. That's where we first headed, being at the utmost front of the line. We packed into the front of the boat, on the bottom floor. Signs around the bow of the boat suggested we were in a 'wet zone', and we chuckled, as in, "Oh, a little spray will feel nice on this sunny day." Little did we know.

This is where we naively chose to stand during our ride out to Alcatraz

By the time we got to Alcatraz Island, we were saturated. The term 'wet zone' is understated. It was a 'soaked zone'. Between getting plastered with waves of salty water, however, we managed to see a dolphin leaping in the waves. So that was fun.

Dripping wet after our ferry ride to the island

We disembarked the boat at Alcatraz, wet and smelling of the sea. However, the day was hot and the sun shining bright, so we soon dried off outside. When you first arrive on the island, all passengers from your particular ferry are ushered to an area just outside of the prison walls, under a giant government sign, where a guide gives you a welcome speech, outlining where to go, what to see, what the rules are, and where to find the washrooms. After that, you disperse and go on your merry little way.

The giant sign that greets you upon arrival to Alcatraz Island. Photo by Tara L (maybe?)

We started our tour with a quick movie in a darkened room in one portion of the prison, then followed the crowd into a hallway where rooms had been designed as a museum exhibit. Some of the items featured were weapons, clothing, and various prison paraphernalia. This section of the prison was interesting simply because of the lichen-y walls and brickwork. It was oddly pretty.

The strangely beautiful walls of Alcatraz prison

I won't go through our tour step-by-step. I will recommend that you grab the audio tour with the headsets, as it nicely guides you from place to place on the island in a logical fashion. The audio tour introduces you to the various sections of the prison, who the guards were, who the prisoners were, special and interesting spots, narrates some of the violent history of the prison, and even has clips from past guards and prisoners themselves. It was well worth it, and free!

A typical prison cell at Alcatraz prison

I enjoyed hearing about the prison riot the most, as the audio tour makes you stop at a spot in the hallway where the actual riot first began. You could visualize it unfolding quite easily - they even had a few props and paper machee dolls inside of the prison cells to really set the scene.

I don't think being behind bars suits me

At one point I snuck in with a guided tour group (shh, don't tell) and got a free demonstration of how the triple lock system worked on the prison cell doors. It was very old-school but effective technology, involving a lot of pulleys, levers, and clanking sounds.

Rows upon rows of prison cells at Alcatraz Island

Some cells had artwork made by the actual prisoners during their time in Alcatraz, and some had books that the prisoners enjoyed reading. Placards on the wall depicted past prison personnel and inmates alike, with their biographies for you to read.

The two creepiest places, in my opinion, were the morgue (naturally) and the shower room. The shower room had been converted to the room where you grabbed your audio headsets, so you kind of had to ignore the long line-up of people to get the full effect. I shuddered at the thought of having to shower in that long, cold, open cement room, with guards pointing guns at you while you tried to quickly wash up with everyone else, freezing and miserable. It wasn't exactly creepy, I guess. More like despairing.

The creepy morgue at Alcatraz Island

At one point during the audio tour, the headset encourages you to wander outside towards some prison ruins. Just beyond the ruined administration building is a fantastic view of the city and the bay. You can see the outline of the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance. It is a very peaceful and gorgeous part of the audio tour.

The observation tower at Alcatraz

Before you leave the island, you must exit the prison through the gift shop. (Isn't this the case with just about everything? "Thanks for paying a lot to visit us. Here, please, spend some more money before you are allowed to leave.") It was here I had the chance to meet a former inmate, William Baker, who had written a book about his experience at Alcatraz. I bought his book and got to chat with him a little while he signed it. He wasn't a man of many words, but he was friendly all the same.

Meeting a true-blue prison inmate from Alcatraz Island

I really enjoyed the Alcatraz Island tour. People have asked me since if doing the tour was worth an entire afternoon in San Francisco, and I say it definitely is. The island is a huge part of San Francisco's history, its landscape, and its people. The building itself is interesting, the stories fascinating, and the views from the island are incredible. (Maybe just don't stand in the splash zone on the ferry.) Make sure you don't miss out!

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