I used to picture Alcatraz Island sitting off the shore of San Francisco in the Pacific Ocean, far away; however, as I found out this past July, this is not the case. Alcatraz Island actually sits in the middle of San Francisco Bay and is surrounded on all sides by views of land and bridges.
Alcatraz has a rich history and is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It became a National Historic Landmark in 1986. I was excited for this part of our trip, as we were taking the night tour. The night tours sell out in advance. Because of this, we purchased our tickets the day they appeared online, which was exactly three months in advance of going. I would highly suggest doing this if you know ahead of time when you’ll be in the city. Night tours are offered every day of the week except Tuesday and Wednesday.
The tour takes off from Pier 33 and Alcatraz Cruises is very strict about leaving on time. We made the boat by three minutes because of waiting for a friend driving up from Palo Alto in rush-hour traffic.
On the boat tour to the island the views of San Francisco at sunset are very pretty. The boat takes you around the island and the guides narrate what you are seeing. I found it quite difficult to hear what they were saying over the loudspeaker, mainly because people were talking and it was very windy on deck. Make sure to dress warm for the night tour even in July! I had a fleece coat on with a raincoat on over it.
The boat pulls into dock and there are guides waiting on land to take groups up to the prison. They narrate along the way as they take you to the top. It was dusk and that certainly added a bit to the creepiness of it all, especially walking past the morgue. Once at the prison we entered the area where the prisoners would have received their uniforms and/or taken showers. At this point, visitors receive their headsets for a self-guided tour of Alcatraz.
I’m always weary of headsets and self-guided tours, but I have to say this one was excellent. They have narrations by both past prisoners and prison guards as they lead you through the building. The directions of where to turn and stop are also spot-on. They also add in the sounds of what it would be like to have been imprisoned there, and it really adds a great third-dimension to it all. You can hear the shouting during the prison break or the clanging and yelling in the cafeteria during meal times. The tour even goes outside to the grounds.
I found Alcatraz to be much smaller than I had pictured for a prison. The cells were stacked three stories tall and on loud nights in San Francisco the prisoners could hear the people on shore. I also thought it was interesting that even some families of the guards lived on the island. It would have been nice to have been able to walk the island a bit more outside, but if I ever find myself back in San Francisco I will definitely book a daytime tour.
The cool thing about the night tour though is that they open the hospital wing on the top floor so you can walk through it. I didn’t find the prison area as creepy as I thought, but the hospital wing was certainly where the creepy factor kicks in They put camping lanterns in the hospital rooms that gave off an eerie blue glow as we gazed at 1950s-ish equipment for surgery, X-rays and “water therapy.” We also saw the room where they kept a notorious prisoner, the Birdman, in solitary confinement.
During the evening tour they also have a few presentations that you can sit in on where they talk more in-depth about the island. We went to Myths and Misconceptions about Alcatraz and didn’t find it very good. However, the Sound of the Slammer was excellent. The guide talked about the prison cells and then did a demonstration on how all the doors worked. It was very enlightening and very loud. View the video I took below:
Back outside, they loaded us on to the ferry. By then, it was very dark and the prison looked quite scary from the outside. And while we were loading on to a ferry, a school group was heading in to spend the night in the prison cells. No thanks.
It was a quick trip back to the mainland dock and the tour was over. As I mentioned earlier, I would definitely do a daytime tour on my next visit so I could spend more time walking the grounds and seeing the island as a whole. However, I would recommend the nighttime tour to anyone going to San Francisco for their first visit. Book in advance though!
Tour website: http://www.alcatrazcruises.com
And if interested in finding out more about the latest research on the prison outbreak that happened in 1962, visit the below website. The research says there is a possibility they could have survived. http://www.iflscience.com/technology/prisoners-1962-alcatraz-escape-could-have-survived