Nightfall on Alcatraz
Updated: Jan 29
Without doubt one of the highlights of our two-week trip touring the West Coast of the USA was a night tour of the world-famous Alcatraz Prison in San Francisco bay. A legendary “inescapable” maximum security facility, Alcatraz incarcerated some of the country’s most notorious criminals. The location has gone down in folklore for a daring escape attempt in 1962 by three prisoners, which to this day, has never been truly solved. Speculation and theories remain rife as to whether they survived or perished in the treacherous 1.25 mile stretch to shore amidst strong ocean currents and freezing cold water temperatures.
Alcatraz Island is located in San Francisco Bay, and was originally an island fort from the 1850’s, with the main prison building being built between 1910-1912. Upon acquisition by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, it became a penitentiary in 1934 operating until March 1963. It held some of America’s most notorious inmates throughout its operation, including Al Capone and Robert Franklin Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz”.
One of the most famous stories is the escape from Alcatraz by three prisoners in June 1962, who had cleverly concealed their disappearance in the form of dummy heads made from plaster and human hair. They had managed to painstakingly fashion an escape route by chiselling away corroded concrete around an air-vent at the back of their cell, leading into an adjacent utility corridor. Over the course of many weeks, they’d stolen over 50 raincoats in an effort to make an inflatable raft, stitching them together and “vulcanising” them via the hot steam pipes present within the building. On the evening of the 11th June 1962, the group made their escape, and even to this day, it remains a mystery as to whether they survived. Officially, the FBI closed the case 17 years later in the belief that they perished, pointing to the strong ocean currents, freezing cold water temperatures and no reports of car thefts around that time as purportedly planned by the prisoners according to an informant. It’s an exciting mystery that is well documented during the tour and provides an air of wonder throughout the experience.
How to book a night tour of Alcatraz
I’d highly recommend booking the night tour of Alcatraz in advance; you’re able to purchase tickets online up to 90 days ahead of your trip. There is a limit of just a couple of hundred visitors per evening and, having read how popular the former federal penitentiary is as a tourist attraction, we booked our island tour months in advance. It’s likely you’ll miss out if you're banking on last-minute tickets when you arrive, so my advice is don't risk the chance of disappointment!
The official source from which you can buy tickets is Alcatraz Cruises; you can find a link to their website here.
Ticket Prices (as of January 2020)
Senior (62+ years old) $44.00
Junior (12-17 years old) $46.25
Child (5-11 years old) $28.00
Toddler (0-4 years old) Free
Ticket prices include ferry transportation to and from this landmark which is officially designated as a US National Park.
The ferry’s depart from Pier 33 on the San Francisco Embarcadero; make sure you arrive with plenty of time to spare, unlike us! I would also suggest packing a coat or warm jumper. Even in September, when it had been very warm all day, the temperatures completely dropped as we made our way into the early evening.
Finally, bear in mind that this is a walking tour, so you will be on your feet for the duration of your visit. The tour is approximately two-and-a-half hours long and there are only two ferries returning back to the mainland on the evening; each departs at 20:30pm and 21:25pm respectively, so don’t miss them!
NB. At the time of updating this article (30th January 2020), the site indicates an earlier ferry schedule for return journeys of 18:40pm and 19:40pm until Sunday 8th March 2020. They will then return to the times above until Sunday 1st November.
Alcatraz - The Night Tour
We nearly didn’t make the night tour. Picture it. Tickets booked well in advance, with months of excitement building, only to mess it up right at the final hurdle. Pete had a stinker. He’d completely mis-read the departure time for our ferry over to the island, thinking it was 17:45pm. It was 17:15pm. Cue somebody double-checking last minute and a group sprint from Fisherman's Wharf down to the dock avoiding bemused onlookers. Thankfully, we just about made it on to the ferry; literally the last five people on the boat!
Taking approximately fifteen minutes from Pier 33, the boat ride to Alcatraz Island offers some wonderful views of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge and Sausalito. On approach to the dock, you circle around the back of the island providing views of prison infrastructure not included in the tour and hidden spots historically used for attempted escapes.
Upon setting foot on the grounds of this infamous maximum security prison, a park ranger greeted us and led us up the steep hill to the confines of the cell house, stopping every so often along the way to educate the group on the history of the island from pre-civil war through to it’s use for incarceration. One thing I particularly noted and took interest in was the “Indians Welcome” sign graffitied on to the walls of the facility; it was then explained by the park ranger that this remains from the 1969-1971 Native American occupation of Alcatraz. The 19-month programme of action, led by the group Indians of All Tribes, saw the island claimed as Indian land, before the government forcibly removed the group.
After collecting headsets, you’re then free to wander the facility along the guided route of the Alcatraz audio tour, which provides a rather haunting recollection of torrid tales and events told courtesy of the voices and memories of prisoners and guards. Amidst the eerie, imposing confines of three floors of cells rising either side of you, it gives you a good insight into what it must have felt like to be an inmate of this feared facility.
This isn’t just any old audio tour spewing facts in a monotonous tone; it was thoroughly enjoyable thanks to the creativity applied by the tour makers. Amidst sound effects and recollections, the self-guided tour takes you through a daring escape attempt when prisoners held guards hostage in their bid to flee, subsequently becoming known as the “Battle of Alcatraz”. You also walk past the cells of the famous three individuals who may, or may not (who knows?) have successfully escaped Alcatraz via raft after removing a vent in the back of their cell wall and leaving dummy heads in their beds to fool prison guards. They give a good insight into this event with a replica dummy in bed and the vent removed showing the size of the hole the prisoners had to use for escape. Furthermore, listen to the sound of each prison cells’ heavy steel door slamming shut with an ominous clang that reverberates into the air.
I haven’t done the trip during the day, but I’m told a great perk of the evening tour package is access to explore the hospital wing. This was a very dark, chilling area of the prison that had an eerie atmosphere; one of pain and suffering. Hospital stretchers stood still amongst the dimly-lit ambience, imposing yet silent as to what tales they could divulge from many years ago.
Outside of the confines of the prison is another great benefit of visiting Alcatraz on the evening, and one that sticks vividly in my mind. Walking out on to a terrace used by the prison staff, dusk had begun to settle on San Francisco, offering a beautiful period of time gazing out across the bay as the city lit up. This is the time when that coat I’d mentioned you’d need would very much come in handy; as the sun sets, the temperatures fall and it can get quite chilly. For me, the combined view of San Francisco city and the Golden Gate offered a psychological taunt to the prison population of Alcatraz - almost as if to say “look how close you are, but you’re not close enough”. This must have been tough when out exercising in the yard or looking through barred windows and seeing life go on in the outside world as you continue a miserable existence in the harsh confines of this environment.
After more than two and a half hours of touring this incredible facility, it was time to catch the boat back to the mainland. I personally don’t know many people who have been to Alcatraz; I know even less who have toured the facility at night time. Tourists from around the world flock to "Fog City" to include a tour of Alcatraz Island in their itinerary, but not many witness its magic at dusk. It was a truly special, unique experience which I will never forget, and proved to be one of the highlights of my trip. To witness the isolation of this island fortress so close, yet so far away from freedom was a privilege. I can understand why it has such a unique place in popular culture. If you're compiling a list of tours and activities for your forthcoming trip to San Francisco, I'd endeavour to prioritise this visit.