Visiting Alcatraz Island is a popular historical attraction that is at the top of many people’s bucketlist. Should you take your kids to Alcatraz? Is it worth the price to get to Alcatraz? How DO you get to Alcatraz? Did anyone really escape from Alcatraz? What famous criminals lived on Alcatraz Island? This and SO MUCH MORE below! PSSST – We actually MET one of the former Alcatraz INMATES!
First, getting to Alcatraz sounded a little more confusing online when I was researching it than it really was! We decided to just show up the day of (with plenty of time of course!) to search for somewhere to park. Just scroll through below for tips on the logistics of how to get to Alcatraz, buying tickets, and where to park. Then keep scrolling past that for our experience on Alcatraz Island and things you should know before you go! A special thanks to Alcatraz Cruises for providing me a media ticket to visit the island.
How do I buy tickets for Alcatraz?
There are 3 ways to purchase tickets for Alcatraz:
- Buy Tickets Online here!
- Over the phone: 1-415-981-ROCK
- At the Pier 33 Alcatraz Landing Ticketbooth.
Note – Although National Park Passes are not accepted, they do offer family ticket discounts!
Alcatraz Cruises is the official concessioner to the National Park Service so I highly recommend using Alcatraz Cruises for your tickets so that they are guaranteed and the lowest price! PLUS don’t forget to look up at the top of the ferry boat! They have solar panels and special wind turbines that help to propel the boat, powers lights, light up displays, work the audio system and more!
How Far in Advance Should I Buy my Tickets?
I recommend buying them as soon as you know you want to visit – at least a week or more in advance if you can! As you can imagine with over a million visitors a year, Alcatraz is a popular destination! You CAN walk up and try to get a ticket but they are extremely popular and seem to be always sold out so I definitely wouldn’t go this route if you have another option to pre-plan.
Where can I park to go to take the ferry?
This was the most confusing part of my research, especially not being familiar with the San Francisco area! If you’re not familiar with the area there are several Piers off of the Bay that you will come across as you drive down The Embarcadero. You’ll see Pier 3, 7, 9, 15, 27, 29, 31, 33, 39….you get the idea. Alcatraz Landing, where you will meet to buy/pick up tickets and get on the ferry boat, is at Pier 33. Just before you get to Pier 33 on the right hand side (the bay) there are several parking lots easily visible and accessible from the street! Parking costs varied but ran from $20-$35ish depending on how far you wanted to walk. We got cheaper parking about a block from the pier (approximately 5 minutes walk).
Since we were a little early for our tour we decided to continue walking down to Pier 39 which has plenty of sea lions to enjoy in the bay!
Take a 90 Second Tour of Alcatraz Island:
What famous criminals were in Alcatraz?
Although there were over 1500 inmates housed at Alcatraz in it’s years of operation, here are a few names you might recognize: Clarence Anglin, John Anglin, Frank Morris, Joseph Bowers, Al Capone, Meyer Cohen, Theodore Cole, Volney Davis, Herbert Allen Farmer, Ellsworth Raymond Johnson, Alvin Francis Kapavicz, George Celino Barnes, James C. Lucas, Robert Stroud, and Irving Wexler…..to name a few.
How many people escaped Alcatraz?
Over the 29 years that Alcatraz operated as a Federal prison, 36 men (including two who tried to escape twice) were involved in 14 separate escape attempts. Of these, 23 were caught, 6 were shot and killed during their escape, and 2 drowned.
Clarence Anglin, John Anglin, and Frank Morris made the great escape from Alcatraz in 1962, although to this day there is no public knowledge of what actually happened to these men. You can imagine the conspiracy theories swirling around this mystery! For many years it was assumed they didn’t make it past the San Francisco Bay, but fairly recently that idea has been challenged with multiple other theories. There has been no final conclusion and these men remain on the “wanted” FBI list to this day. Allen West was supposed to have escaped with the 3 in 1962 but a series of unfortunate events made his escape impossible.
Also in 1962, inmate John Paul Scott successfully swam from Alcatraz to Fort Point (the southern end of the Golden Gate Bridge) where he was found be teenagers and suffering from hypothermia. After recovering in a local hospital he was sent back to Alcatraz.
Why did they close Alcatraz?
March 21, 1963 Alcatraz Prison closed it’s doors and transferred its last prisoners. Famously known as “The Rock”, this 12 acre island has been known in history as one of the most inescapable prisons. Although many people believe that Alcatraz was closed down due to the 1962 prison escapes, the real reason is much simpler. It simply was too expensive to continue in operation. You can read more about the history and specific details about the cost of operations here.
When we first got off of the ferry we had absolutely no idea where to go. There were no signs or directions from rangers. We literally just started walking until we could figure out where we were. We discovered an open room not far from port that had an interesting video about the history of Alcatraz Island – not just about the popular known jail itself. It was home to far more than simply a prison. In fact many kids lived on the island as well!
The Audio Tour:
For the actual “prison” side of Alcatraz I wish we had known to start at the very top of the hill, up where the cell block was. There we had access to free audio tours which gave us far more history and background to the island than we arrived knowing. You begin by walking through the shower room, laundry room, and then you will wind around through the cell blocks.
The audio tour will tell you exactly where to go and turn if you are interested in following along with that. Signs for the cellblock row “names” are hanging just above your head on each row of the prison. The displays are great although more than likely will be very busy!
The headsets were very easy to use and you could pause them at any time you felt you needed more time to look around.
Can you go INSIDE the prison cells at Alcatraz?
YES! Well, you can go inside SOME of the prison cells including several solitary confinement cells! Some are closed of course due to deterioration and for safety reasons (many toilets are broken with jagged pieces of ceramic sticking out) but there are enough cell blocks for photos and to get the feel of being inside one. You can see the audio tour headphones around our neck above.
- Did you know that some of the first metal detectors EVER were used at Alcatraz?
- The first lighthouse in California was on Alcatraz!
- Alcatraz Island actually had a Civil War fort and military prison in 1907.
- The average cell block size in the prison was 5 feet by 9 feet.
- There is an extensive garden on Alcatraz Island! Originally a volunteer garden from the 1860’s-1963 it is now flourishing again.
- In 1969, a group of Native American Indians claimed Alcatraz as Indian land with the hope of creating a Native American cultural center and education complex on the island.
- Alcatraz became part of the National Park Service in 1972 and opened to the public in 1973.
Morgue on Alcatraz Island:
For those interested in the darker side of life like I am, you will find this makeshift morgue on Alcatraz Island interesting. It has a rather lackluster history as it was never actually used for an autopsy and only saw one body for an overnight stay. There were actually not many deaths at the prison itself that required use of a morgue but above you can still see the interior.
Birds of Alcatraz:
There are 5 main bird species found nesting on Alcatraz Island:
- Western Gull (babies seen in the photo above)
- Pigeon Guillemot
- Snowy Egret
- Black-crowned Night-Heron
What I wished I knew before visiting Alcatraz:
- Bring water and snacks! I wish I had thought of bringing lunch with us because we were SO hungry! Thankfully Alcatraz Cruises has fabulous tables and chairs and a snack bar on the ferry which we took full advantage of after our tour!
- You can bring strollers! We took our umbrella stroller and it was easy peasy! A few things to note, however. Strollers cannot go everywhere but if you’ve got a munchkin who needs a stroller I’d rather have one than not have one! We just left it outside when we went inside any of the buildings. I will say though, that pushing a stroller up those steep hills is no easy feat!
- You CAN wear flip flops! So this tip is for those of you who are DIE HARD flip flop wearers like me. I was deterred from wearing flip flops due to the strong cautions against it but I regretted wearing sneakers and got plenty of blisters from my visit. If you hike, sleep, and breathe in flip flops – don’t worry, I would wear them if they are more comfortable for you! You will be doing a lot of walking, and more importantly – STEEP walking. Wear what you would normally wear for such an occasion.
- Bring a jacket or sweatshirt! We visited in the end of June and it was FREEZING out on the bay. Don’t be fooled by the beautiful sunshine! There are places you can sit indoors on the Alcatraz Cruises ferry boat but I wanted my first visit to Alcatraz Island to be up front and center. I asked the captain where the best view would be and staked my claim there – for better or for worse. It was frigid! Painfully frigid. You’ll probably warm up though hiking around the island so be warned you might need to carry your jacket eventually.
- There are multiple gift shops on the island! I was surprised that there are multiple gift shops on the island – and they are all different. So if you’re looking for a souvenir I definitely recommend checking out each of the gift shops – they really had some fantastic stuff!
- Alcatraz maps are for donation so bring a dollar! The map layout is simple but really great and we found it beneficial to have one.
Meeting a former inmate of Alcatraz:
One thing that I didn’t know before I visited the island was that we would have the absolutely incredible opportunity to meet a former inmate of Alcatraz! YES – an INMATE! We met Bill “William” Baker, former inmate #1259 who was an inmate in Alcatraz prison from 1957-1960. He originally landed in the prison due to 3 escape attempts and 3 previous prisons and made use of his time in the “Rock” by learning how to make counterfeit checks which landed him in and out of prison for the following 50 years.
Since then he has written a book and can often be found in the gift shop on the island signing his books and talking with visitors. In fact my son had the chance to talk to him and Bill signed his postcard! I really wish I’d gotten a better photo but I LOVE the fact that my son now has a small connection to the history of this iconic prison in history.
A few more photos around the island: