Evening on the Rock – Alcatraz Island

Evening on the Rock - Alcatraz Island | Smiling in Sonoma

Is it crazy for the hubs and I to pay to go to prison? Well we did…and they took us! We played tourist in San Francisco this weekend and checked off a bucket list item. Alcatraz!

Tickets for the night tour were purchased almost 3 months ago which meant we had to wait and wait to get on the rock to check it out! Definitely did not disappoint!

We got to Pier 33 a little early so we could walk around and check things out. The GGNRA has a great display of Alcatraz and historical points so even if you don’t take the short ferry ride out you can still learn about the history. There is so much history outside of what Hollywood has shown us!

It was the first fort built on the west coast, families of the prison workers lived on the island (“hey where did you grow up?” reply: “Alcatraz”), the gardens were tended by the prisoners and the kids of the families, there was a Native American occupation for 19 months that led to changes in federal policies, historic buildings were lost due to fires and bulldozers, and thankfully in 1972 it became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area to be preserved for future generations.

Prepare to feel like a herd of cattle as you get in line for the ferry ride and to show your tickets 3 times. Once on the ferry, we headed to the third floor where it is open air and has some of the best views! It was a bit chilly and windy oh and yes some fog of course but so worth it to see the amazing views of the Bay Bridge, the city skyline, the Golden Gate Bridge, Angel Island and the entire island of Alcatraz. The narrator was so full of great information as you go around the island. Once you reach the dock at Alcatraz, you once again are herded off the ferry and onto the island in groups. This is so you have a tour guide to narrate along the way up to the cellhouse.

The guides did a great job keeping large groups of tourists in line and engaged. The first part is an introduction…I wandered around a bit to snap pics while listening then we all headed up to the first stop where we had beautiful views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge. More wonderful information then we walked further up to the water tower and more amazing views! Oh yes, and more wonderful information from the ranger. I’ll let you hear all about it yourself. I wouldn’t want to spoil all the fun!

Once we were in the cellhouse, we got to experience what it would have been like as a new prisoner coming in and getting handed your clothing and bedding…the line of very public showers and then were handed our own audio tour headphones to follow along at our own pace the rest of the tour.

Cell block after cell block we learned about what happened, how life was, who was in there and all the craziness of prison life. I think all school children should go on this tour so they don’t get into trouble and end up in a place like it! We were touring with hundreds of other people. Even the night tour was crowded. The lights were on in the cells casting an ominous yellow glow on everything. The sights outside through the bars were great but I can see how this would be taunting to the inmates, “look how much fun the rest of the world is having while we rot in this prison”. We learned about the escape attempts and possible successful escapes as we walked along the halls. So much happened on this 12 acre island.

The audio tour takes you back outside to the lighthouse, one of the first on the west coast, and more amazing views of the San Francisco skyline. The warden’s house has incredible views and mother nature has been trying to take over the remaining walls with her beauty.

Inside, you once again you walk along the cell blocks then end in the dining hall. They have great displays of photographs from over the years, what the prisoners ate and places to sit to listen to the remainder of the audio tour.

From here they lead you down to the gift shop. Good luck trying to escape without buying something!!

We had about 30 minutes until our ferry back to freedom started loading so we went on an interpretive tour done by one of the rangers about Al Capone. He was very animated and seemed to know details of Capone’s life that most of us probably don’t because all we know is the Hollywood version. We all walked as a large group back down to the dock to board the ferry. They tell you they haven’t ever left anyone behind but wanted on this ferry and it almost didn’t happen due to tourists not boarding very fast and the strict ferry schedule…everyone please board quickly and orderly!


The night tour was $40/person and included the ferry ride, guided walking tour, audio tour and brochures. Some things are not available at night that are during the day due to safety. No food on the island except at the dock. Only bottled water is ok on the island, there is food and drink on the ferry for purchase. Use the portable toilets in the rollup doors at Pier 33 instead of the inside ones where there is a long line, they are nice! Restrooms are on the ferry and at the dock as well as at the lighthouse. We also saw a couple scattered around that people were using (don’t judge, these things are important!). Ferry ride out is about 20 minutes, 15 on the way back because you don’t go around the island. You have 2 hours on the island to take the tour unless you want to stay longer and take the last ferry out. Wear walking shoes and dress in layers. We parked in a parking structure on Kearny for $20 and was practically across the street from Pier 33.

2 Comment

  1. A very interesting post and really great to see how it looks for real, not just like in the movies. It must have been a horrifying place to be in. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thank you! I couldn’t have imagined being in prison there. There were quotes up “if you broke the rules you went to prison, if you broke the prison rules you went to Alcatraz.” No one wanted to be there!

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