The Ultimate Guide to Visiting Alcatraz Island in 2023-24

Ever since opening its doors to the public in 1973, Alcatraz welcomes more than 1.4 million tourists annually and is the top-rated attraction in San Francisco. Visiting Alcatraz Island is a unique experience, its rich and complicated history makes it quite an appealing site.  Alcatraz has gone through its fair share of multiple stages of claims and ownership; however, it is most famous for its service as a Federal Penitentiary.

From 1933 till 1963, when it closed, Alcatraz also known as The Rock was home to America’s most notorious inmates including, George “Machine-Gun” Kelly, Roy G. Gardner, Al Capone, and Bob Stroud. For those who are interested in visiting Alcatraz Island, check out our ultimate guide to learn about the history of the place, opening hours, and ticket prices. 

Visiting Alcatraz Island – History 

Military Period

Alcatraz Island military period

The name Alcatraz was given to the island by the Spaniard Juan Manuel de Ayala, in 1775, when he charted the area. The first permanent structure was built on the island during the 1850s. In 1854, the first lighthouse on the West Coast of the United States was constructed here and in 1859, the U.S. Army built a defensive fort on the island.

The military started using Alcatraz as a prison island, with the first inmates arriving in 1860. Alcatraz was heavily used to retain prisoners during the Spanish-American War and until 1898, when the war came to an end, Alcatraz was filled to the brim with inmates. As the year 1912 rolled around, a new prison cell was built using convicted labor.

Federal Penitentiary Period

Alcatraz Island federal penitentiary period

In the year 1930, the Federal Government was on the lookout for a tough prison that could house criminals that were either too difficult, had a high potential for escape, or too dangerous. Therefore, in 1933, Alcatraz was placed in the hands of the Feds and began its journey as a Federal Penitentiary. 

The Federal Government wanted to establish a prison that would evoke fear among the inmates, and Alcatraz fit the bill. With small cells and minimal frills, the place quickly earned a reputation of being miserable, tough, and impossible to escape. Alcatraz welcomed James A. Johnston as its warden, who served the place for 14 years. James A. Johnston implemented numerous rules and installed various security features like strategically placed guard towers, and fortified bars. Despite having a reputation for being inescapable, some daring ones took on the challenge, but in the end either had to surrender or fell into the gaping maw of death. 

In 1946, some masterminded inmates planned and executed an escape attempt, however, the unforgiving Alcatraz didn’t let them step a single foot outside. The escape attempt went awry resulting in the death of all inmates who were directly involved and two guards. Over a dozen guards were also left severely injured as a result of this fiasco. There were, however, three people who made it out of Alcatraz but no one knows if they survived the journey beyond the island or not. Frank Morris and two brothers John and Clarence Anglin orchestrated an escape attempt. They spent several months, diligently chipping away at the deteriorating walls of the prison, around the vent at the rear end of their cells.

The three even went as far as making dummy models of their heads out of plaster, paper, and real hair, which they intended to place on their beds the night of the escape to fool guards. On June 11th, 1962, after the final count, the three made their move, squeezing through the vent into the world beyond bars and shackles. The trio made it successfully to the island’s north shore, undetected, and constructed a raft from 50 raincoats. Boarding the raft, the three set out into the frigid waters, never to be seen again. Many believe that the trio never reached the other side and succumbed to their deaths at the hands of the cold water and strong currents.  

Alcatraz Island the escaped trio's cell

Even though Alcatraz was quite successful in evoking feelings of fear and despair, its maintenance was too costly. The salty ocean air was slowly deteriorating the prison and not being able to keep up with the expenses, the Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy ordered the closure of Alcatraz in 1963. 

Tribal Occupation Period

Alcatraz Island Indian Invasion Period

In 1969, an activist group, Indians of All Tribes rolled around the abandoned Alcatraz Island to claim it as Native American Land under an 1868 treaty that allowed Indians to reclaim unused federal land. The group wanted to redevelop the island and turn it into an Indian culture centre and school. However, the federal government did not agree with their interpretation of the treaty and started negotiating with the activist group. When it became clear that the group wanted nothing else but complete ownership of the island, the Feds cut the power to the land and deployed other tactics to remove them. 

In the year 1970, when the young daughter of the leader of the group, Richard Oakes died, he left the island. Soon after more activists started to leave, and by 1971, just a handful of Indians remained on the Island. Taking benefit of this opportunity the Feds moved into the island and removed them. The actions here inspired numerous Indian-related protests including Plymouth Rock and Mount Rushmore. 

Alcatraz Island Indian Invasion Period 2

Visiting Alcatraz Island before 1973 was something no one wanted. However, everything changed in 1973 when the prison was transferred to the National Park Service and opened to the public for official tours. 

Visiting Alcatraz Island – Tickets 

Alcatraz Island tickets

As we all know nothing is free in this world, even a visit to the prison, therefore you will have to pay a certain amount of fee when visiting Alcatraz Island. The fee you play includes the round-trip ferry ride, entrance to Alcatraz, and the cell house tour.

 Visiting Alcatraz Island Day TourNight Tour Alcatraz Behind the Scenes Tour
Adult $45.25$56.30$101.30
Child (5 to 11 years)$27.55$33.00Not allowed
Junior (12 to 17 years)$45.25$55.10$97.10
Senior (62+ years)$42.65$52.25$94.25
Family pack (2 adults + 2 kids)$131.85

To purchase the tickets, you can head on to the Alcatraz City Cruises, check the availability of tours, and book your slot. Tickets tend to sell out quite fast as Alcatraz is an extremely coveted tourist attraction so be sure to book your tickets weeks in advance. 

Visiting Alcatraz Island – Starting the Tour

Pier 33

When visiting Alcatraz Island your journey will begin and end at Pier 33 on the Embarcadero. You can get there by either taking public transit, walking, or opting for a ride-sharing option. In case you are driving to Pier 33, you will be allowed to park at Pier 29.5 which lies adjacent to Pier 33, you can also park in a parking garage across from Pier 39, or behind the ferry building. There are several other parking spots available as well and each charges their own parking fee. 

At the boarding area, you will find a scaled model depicting what the island looked like when the prison was operating, as well as multiple informative displays. 

Arriving at Alcatraz – Visiting Alcatraz Island

Building 64

The ferry ride to Alcatraz is short about 12 to 15 minutes and is outlined by scenic routes. The first structure that will rise up to greet you will be Building 64, the upper section of which housed military barracks when the prison was operational. The soldiers guarding the prisoners and protecting the bay slept in the barracks of Building 64. 

Cell House Tour – Visiting Alcatraz Island

Visiting Alcatraz Island

From Building 64 you will move to the cell house. A Cell House Audio Tour is available in numerous languages, with actual correctional officers, and inmates narrating their experiences along with the history and events that took place in the various rooms of the cell house. When touring the cell block you will see everything from shower rooms to various cells including the ones from which escapes were attempted. You will also be taken to the Cell House mess hall, hospital, morgue, as well as exercise yard. While on tour you will have the opportunity to visit the D Block also known as Punishment Block, where problematic inmates were kept. 

Visiting Alcatraz Island Showers

The cells in D Block are bigger as compared to cells in other blocks, however, these were brutal confinement chambers, in which inmates were locked for 24 hours a day with the exception of two weekly showers. The only thing they were allowed to do was either read or talk to inmates next to them. From the upper tiers of D Block, the city can be seen in all its glory. However, the inmates didn’t find the views appealing at all and said that when the wind blew to Alcatraz, it carried with it the sounds of laughter and chatter from the city, making them all the more aware of their isolation.

As you walk down the D Block you will come face to face with the infamous confinement cells regarded as Prison within a Prison. These confinement cells were solid concrete, and housed nothing else but a sink, toilet, and bed. The cells don’t have windows and the prisoners that were kept there weren’t provided with any light source, so when the doors were shut, the inmates could neither see anything nor hear anything.

While visiting Alcatraz Island, you will also visit the prison library which is nothing more than a cage. When an inmate arrived at Alcatraz, they were provided with a library card and were allowed to borrow three books from the library. The prisoners weren’t allowed to roam in and out of the library freely and if they wanted a book, they had to fill out a slip and turn it in. The librarian would then review the slip, find the books, and deliver them to the inmates.

Alcatraz island cells

From the Library you will move on to Park Ave, in C Block. Park Ave harbors cells regarded as the Good-Times Cells and inmates of these cells were allowed various privileges like painting supplies. From here, you will round the corner and move to the visitation area, Peek’n Peace. This was the area where the inmates were allowed to talk to their loved ones through a phone and thick, glass barriers. During the two-hour tour, you will also be taken to see the room of Frank Morris and the Anglin Brothers, the three escapees who made it out of the island, but no one knows what happened to them afterward. 

Alcatraz island dining hall

From the cells, you will be taken to the dining hall, where hundreds of inmates used to gather for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day. Given only 20 minutes to eat, the inmates had to devour all the food on their plates or face the consequences which involved removal of privileges. Once the dining room tour is over you will be allowed to explore the island at your leisure. 

Top 10 Vacation Spots in the USA: The Ultimate USA Travel Bucket List

While visiting Alcatraz Island, make sure to check out other great vacation spots that the Land of Liberty offers. Refer to our article to know more.

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