The National Parks TravelingMom has explored 39 of the 59 big national parks with her kids. Wanna know their favorite national park site in California? The obvious choice might be Yosemite, with its artist-inspiring landscapes. But no, her kids had to explore a creepy, dank, prison with peeling paint. Alcatraz, the infamous prison and home to Al Capone and other prisoners with nicknames like Birdman, Creepy and Machine Gun, topped their list. So hop aboard one of the Alcatraz cruises to The Rock for tour that might haunt your dreams.

Access Alcatraz Island via an Alcatraz Cruises ferry.

Alcatraz Island, or the Rock, sits in the middle of the San Francisco Bay, first as a military fort then as a notorious maximum-security prison. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker / National Parks TravelingMom

4 Reasons to visit a prison with kids and 1 Reason not to

Alcatraz topped my kids’ (ages 9, 12 and 14) to-do list for San Francisco. All day they asked, “When are we going to Alcatraz?”  Seriously. Their favorite tour of the summer, and we stopped at all the kid stuff in California during our trip.

The Views – on a clear day, the views of the San Francisco skyline from our Alcatraz Cruises boat couldn’t be beat, stunning. I booked the evening tour and the cruise doubled as a scenic ride.

An Alcatraz Cruises ferry takes families to see the national park site in San Francisco.

My three kids loved the sites and smells of Alcatraz though the tour might not be for every family. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker / National Parks TravelingMom

The Lessons – Alcatraz offered a teaching moment for my boys, who live in video game boy world where prison seems cool. As they explored the realities of Alcatraz, I pointed out all the reasons to live a good, honest life since Alcatraz is the definition of a hard-core prison. Not mean, just honest. It worked; they don’t want to go to prison.

The Experience – I had to see it for myself. Alcatraz is one of the places you have to walk through to experience. Pictures can be haunting but walking through the cell block as dabbled sun casts a ghostly light is eerie.

The Plants and Animals – Alcatraz offers a bird sanctuary and home to a historical garden. A relief after the gritty history lesson within the cell house.

If you are a germaphobe mom or have younger, anxious kids, this might not be a great fit. If the kids really want to go, send them with their dad, uncle or grandparents. Men love the prison too.

History of Alcatraz

Derived from the Spanish word alcatraces, or seabirds,  Alcatraz belonged to the birds for eons. In the 1850s, the island became a military fortress due to its strategic positioning in the San Francisco Bay.

Get to Alcatraz Island on an Alcatraz Cruises ferry for macabre history.

Alcatraz started as a military fort and later repurposed into a maximum-security prison. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker / National Parks TravelingMom

The gold rush prompted the building of the lighthouse since the shipping traffic increased from San Francisco. In 1854 the Alcatraz lighthouse became the first on the west coast.

During the Civil War, Alcatraz Island housed 400 soldiers and numerous cannons to protect the port. However, in 1907 the army decommissioned Alcatraz.

The island always housed prisoners from the early days as a military fort. And soon after its decommission, military guards began building the Cellhouse.

 

Walk inside the Cellhouse after an Alcatraz Cruises ferry ride and explore a national park of California

Alcatraz prison captures the imaginations of adults and kids alike. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker / National Parks TravelingMom

 

In 1915, Alcatraz was renamed the United States Disciplinary Barracks, Pacific Branch. During the Great Depression, Alcatraz transferred from the War Department to the Department of Justice. Soon after, it became a high-profile, maximum-security federal penitentiary.

The most infamous inmate, Al Capone, was incarcerated here. Inmates with nicknames like Creepy, Doc, Machine Gun, and the Birdman of Alcatraz all did time on The Rock. The worst of the worst were transferred to Alcatraz from other prisons due to their escape risks.

After the prison closed, Native Americans occupied the island in effort to claim it for all tribes. Support dwindled and in 1972, Alcatraz became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

The inside of the cell at Alcatraz, a national park in California.

Inmates had a small cell and very little time outside at Alcatraz. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker / National Parks TravelingMom

What to expect at Alcatraz

Upon arriving at the Alcatraz Landing off of The Embarcadero, I grabbed my tickets and took the kids to the bathroom. It’s easier on this side.

After queuing up and boarding our Alcatraz Cruise, the ferry ride went smoothly. And during our visit, the weather was perfect.

The Alcatraz Lighthouse lights the way in San Francisco Bay.

The Alcatraz Lighthouse still operates in the San Francisco Bay. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker / National Parks TravelingMom

At the ferry dock, visitors get a quick introduction from a guide and walk uphill to the Cellhouse. This portion of the tour is uphill so take it slow with younger kids and grandparents.

Built in 1912, the Cellhouse is the main attraction at Alcatraz. Many of the other buildings have been gutted over the years, like the Warden’s House, though the Alcatraz Lighthouse is still functional.

At the Cellhouse, we grabbed our audio tour headsets (in all major languages). This allows for a go-at-your-own pace tour that I liked. Plus my kids really liked their headsets and listened far more intently than I thought they would.

Explore Alcatraz prison after an Alcatraz Cruises ferry ride.

The inmates spend the majority of the day in their cells. Sunshine was a luxury. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker / National Parks TravelingMom

The audio tour took real conversations from guards and former inmates to describe important events at Alcatraz. And the audio tour walked us through the Cellhouse, describing as we went.

During my visit, I toured the hospital wing. I felt like I was walking through a set of a horror movie. With antique medical equipment and peeling paint, the experience was haunting. This portion of the tour is super creepy and not recommended for younger kids. My 9-year-old stayed with his sister while I ran through.

Alcatraz Hospital wing is macabre.

The hospital wing of Alcatraz reminded me of walking through a horror movie set. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker / National Parks TravelingMom

For the evening tour, park rangers demonstrate the working of the electric cell doors. Another favorite experience during our visit, the slamming of all the automatic cell doors on a block echoed though the concrete encased building and reverberated off every surface.

Explore Alcatraz with Kids

Alcatraz casts a creepy and eerie light in the evening so the younger kids might be frightened by the night tour. My kids, 9, 12 and 14, loved this tour.

Hard to believe, yet kids lived on Alcatraz when their prison guard fathers brought their families to live on the island. The kids of Alcatraz played in the gardens and their moms rarely locked their back doors.

Take an Alcatraz Cruises ferry to tour the prison

Kids and prison tours? Sure, the creepier the better for my three kids. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker / National Parks TravelingMom

Stop by the Ranger Station at the dock and pick up a Junior Ranger booklet. Finish the booklet and turn it back in to the ranger and take the Junior Ranger oath for a special park badge. 

The Gardens of Alcatraz

The most surprising feature of the former high-security prison is the garden. Sprinkled throughout the property, the gardens were first planted during the late 1800s.

The gardens of Alcatraz survive without tending in a national park of California.

The Gardens of Alcatraz required soil from the mainland and trusted inmates to tend them. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker / National Parks TravelingMom

With the help of reclaimed water, green houses and specially-trained inmates, the gardens flourished until 1963, when the prison closed. Over 230 species of ornamental plants in all, including roses, calla lilies, bearded irises, agapanthus and hydrangeas lived in the Alcatraz gardens.

Garden lovers need to grab the brochure, The Gardens of Alcatraz, at the kiosk after disembarking the ferry.

The Birds of Alcatraz

Birds were the first inhabitants of the island though moved on after humans occupied Alcatraz after the 1850s. When the prison closed in the 1963, the birds returned to the protected location that lacked predators.

Thinking about visiting the infamous prison with your family. I've got all details and one tip: buy tickets early.

The island offers refuge for over 5,000 birds today. The waterbirds include Pigeon Guillemots, Snowy Egrets, Western Gulls, Black-crowned Night-Herons and Brandt’s Cormorants. Some areas of the island may close to protect nesting birds that will abandon their nest if humans come too close.

Birders, remember your binoculars and grab the brochure, Waterbirds of Alcatraz, at the kiosk after disembarking the ferry.

Get the App!

The National Park Service developed a NPS Golden Gate App, covering Alcatraz Island among other NPS sites around San Francisco. The app includes an interactive map, hidden stories and up-to-date ranger information.

Food Service at Alcatraz

Got hungry kids? The Landing at Alcatraz, the ticketing and boarding area, offers a cafeteria with options for families along with rain ponchos and souvenirs. Food service is not available on Alcatraz Island.

Staying at Alcatraz for more than a few hours? Picnic near the docks when you disembark the ferry. Only bottled water is permitted on the tour.

Only Way onto Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Island is located in the San Francisco Bay and reached by Alcatraz Cruises only. The Alcatraz Ferry Terminal is located at Pier 33 on The Embarcadero.

San Francisco offers limited parking. I used public transportation during my visit. And left my car at my hotel during my stay.

Alcatraz Cruises Tickets

Ages Early Bird Pricing Day Tours Night Tours
Adult 18 to 61 $35.50 $35.50 $42.50
Senior 62 + $33.50 $33.50 $39.50
Junior 12 to 17 $35.50 $35.50 $41.50
Child 5 to 11 $21.75 $21.75 $25.25
Toddler 0 to 4 Free Free Free
Family Pack 2 Adults + 2 Kids $107.50 $107.50 Not Available

 

The Behind-the-Scenes Tour lasts 4 to 5 hours and not available for kids under 12-years-old.

Other National Parks in California

California features the most national parks than any other state. Grab a National Parks Pass and explore with your family.

I recommend:

Death Valley National Park

Mojave National Preserve

Joshua Tree National Park

Sequoia National Park

Yosemite National Park

Redwoods State and National Parks 

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Tips from a Traveling Mom:

  • Give yourself at least 2-and-a-half hours for the tour.
  • Bring a jacket and rain gear since the weather is unpredictable.
  • Make reservations for Alcatraz Cruises months in advance, especially for the evening tour and during the summer.
  • Mid-August brings the flies that hatch from the bird colonies and swarm.
  • The Self-Guided booklet, Discover Alcatraz – A Tour of the Rock, costs $1.
  • Cruise Ticket includes admission to the tour and audio tour headset.
  • Tickets go on sale 90 days in advance.
  • Alcatraz Island features steep hills. Motorized transportation is limited.
  • Luggage larger than a standard backpack is not allowed on the ferry or tour.
  • The purchaser of the tickets must present a photo ID.