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Exploring Alcatraz Island, San Francisco - Alcatraz Visit Part 1

San Francisco (Alaska Pre Cruise) . 2012 . September 13

This post is part of our Alaska Pre and Post Cruise Report and follow-up of our popular Alaska cruise series. Do check out our Alaska Cruise story too if this is your first time here! :)

Alcatraz Island, often referred to as "The Rock" is located in the San Francisco Bay, about 1.5 miles (2.4 km) offshore from San Francisco. It is best known for its days as America’s first maximum-security, minimum-privilege Federal Prision from 1934 to 1963 when it housed some of America’s most notorious offenders, escape artists, gang leaders and general trouble makers. These prisoners were held under the most secure and regimented conditions, in the virtually escape-proof environment on the rocky land in the middle of San Francisco Bay.


It is interesting to note that the inmates in Alcatraz were not sentenced there by the American court but were actually the most notorious prisoners transferred from other prisons. Thus, Alcatraz is sometimes called the “prison within the prison system”. With an average stay of 5 years, these prisoners are kept in Alcatraz until it was decided they could be safely returned to a less secured lock-up place.

Getting to Alcatraz Island


Today, Alcatraz's facilities are managed by the National Park Service and the island is opened to tourists and visitors daily.  Vistors to the island can reach the island by a ferry ride operated by Alcatraz Cruises (official ferry provider to and from the island) from Alcatrz Landing, Pier 33, near Fisherman's Wharf.






To avoid the long queue and possibility of sold out tickets for your preferred date and time (it do happens, we are told!), it is advisible to reserve your tickets online a few days before your planned date of visit to avoid disappointment. Tickets are priced at USD$30 per adult (as of 29 June 2013) and it includes the return ferry ride by Alcatraz Cruises, admission to Alcatraz Island and the award winning 45 minutes Alcatraz Cellhouse Audio Tour.


Do note that a photo ID is required for every person who purchase tickets to Alcatraz Island on the web or at the Alcatraz Cruises ticket booth and are also required at boarding. Photo ID’s are not necessary for every person in the party, but are required for the person who purchased the tickets.

The roads and walkways on Alcatraz are steep. The distance from the dock to the cell house is approximately 1/4 mile (400m) and the elevation change is 130 feet (40 meters), the equivalent of walking up a 13 storey building!  Comfortable shoes are a must while athletic or walking shoes are strongly recommended.

Alcatraz Tour Options

There are a few options that you can take when visiting Alcatraz Island. All tours include the award winning 45 minutes Alcatraz Cellhouse Audio Tour. Stay tuned as we will present an in depth review of the tour in Part 2 of our Alcatraz Visit coverage.


To beat the crowd or spend more time on the island, you might want to get the early bird tickets (8.45am) though there is no discount in price. Note that interval between ferry departures is around half an hour and the trip takes around 15 minutes to reach Alcatraz island from Pier 33.

For those of you who are more adventurous, you might want to take the night tour which departs at 5.55pm and 6.30pm (available from Thurs to Mon). This tour includes a personally narrated boat tour around the island; guided tours from the dock to the main prison building; “Doing Time: The Alcatraz Cellhouse Tour”. You can also attend one or tow of the several special programs and presentations that are offered only at night. A word of caution though, the Alcatraz cellhouse is known to be one of the most haunted places in USA!

There is also an option to combine your trip to Alcatraz with nearby Angel Island at USD$62. Do note that there are only 2 departures for this tour at 9.30am and 9.40am and is subject to seasonal availability.

For those undecided, you may want to check out this comparison table to make your final choice. :)





Although the ferry trip is only around 15 minutes, the ride is quite scenic as we travelled towards Alcatraz Island. So do get your cameras and video cams ready!



Tourists taking photos as we approach Alcatraz Island. You can see that the ferry is still quite full even though we were on a 1pm tour after our lunch at Hollywood Cafe.






Welcome to Alcatraz


Here we are, finally at Alcatraz! A place that many had always wanted to visit, especially after watching those movies and reading books that have used this island as the backdrop for prison escape stories.


When people think of Alcatraz, the first thing that comes to their mind would be that of a prison where the most toughest offenders are kept. But do you know that Alcatraz island was also the site of the first American lighthouse on the West Coast or that it used to be a huge harbor defense fort during the Civil War? It was then turned into a grim military prison when the fort became obsolete.


In fact, Alcatraz became the site of a American Indian protest movement after its years as the federal prison. On 9 November 1969, a group of Native Americans landed on the island and claimed it in the name of the “Indians of all Tribes”, which lasted almost 19 months. Thus, do not be surprise when one of the first signs that you see when you disembark from the ferry would be the red graffiti wordings of “INDIANS WELCOME” above the United States Penitentiary Sign.

Notice the crowd at the bottom left of the photo below. That's the waiting area for your return ferry back to San Francisco mainland.

Barricade for the return ferry queue. The queues are pretty long towards the later part of the afternoon. So do get into the queue early if you need to catch a return ferry at a particular timing.

Short Introduction of Alcatraz Island given by the park ranger in front of Building 64, a 3 storey residential quarters. We would recommend that you get a copy of the Alcatraz Map and Guide at USD $1 at the small counter as it provides a useful guide as you explore the island.




Exploring Alcatraz

Alcatraz is relatively easy to explore by foot. If you did not buy the map, you can also follow the signages on the small island.



Here are 2 maps that we found on wikipedia and alcatrazhistory.com for your easy reference.

Alcatraz Map (Souce: Wikipedia)
Alcatraz Island Map (Credits: http://www.alcatrazhistory.com)


You might wish to check out the highlights of Today's Program before starting your exploration.

 As you start walking along the footpath, you will see the Guard Tower followed by the Guard House.


There are some historical exhibits in the guard house, including a canon and a map of the military points in Alcatraz.

Walking on the East Road along the island coastline, we could not stop admiring the scenic view and took out our camera to snap some photos.

The Alcatraz Morgue was built in 1910 with three vaults and an examination table, with a double steel door and a grated skylight. It was documented that the morgue was only ever used once when a deceased prisoner was stored in it overnight, having missed the last boat run to the mainland of the day while the examination table was never used to conduct an autopsy.

We soon made our way to the entrance at the Main Prison for the Alcatraz Cellhouse Audio Tour.

Do stay tune as we bring you an in depth coverage in Part 2 of our visit to Alcatraz.

After our Alcatraz Cellhouse Audio Tour, we made our way to the New Industries Building where there were some exhibits from movies on show.


Movies about Alcatraz. Have you seen these movies before?





We found this interesting document that details a typical Alcatraz inmate's daily routine amongst the exhibits. 4.25pm? Isn't it a bit early for supper?


After half a day exploring on Alcatraz Island, soon it was time to say goodbye as we joined the queue on the Alcatraz ferry back to San Francisco. We didn't waste any time as we snap this photo from the waiting area.

Fantastic view of San Francisco Mainland from Alcatraz Ferry on the way back.



Alcatraz Ferry docked at Pier 33. After a short ferry ride, it was back to San Francisco Mainland.




We hoped you like Part 1 of our coverage on Alcatraz Visit! Do check out part 2 with an in-depth coverage of the award winning Alcatraz Cellhouse Audio Tour.

This post is part of our Alaska Pre and Post Cruise Report and follow-up of our popular Alaska cruise series. Do check out our Alaska Cruise story too if this is your first time here! :)


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