Alcatraz, the infamous prison and home to Al Capone and other prisoners with nicknames like Birdman, Creepy and Machine Gun, is an educational – and unusual – National Park. Hop aboard one of the Alcatraz cruises to The Rock for tour that might haunt your dreams! Read on to learn why this park is like no other.
4 Reasons to Visit a Prison with Kids (and 1 Reason to Skip)
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.
Confidentially, it’s one of my favorites, too. Let me explain why:
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.
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 prisons 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.
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.
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.
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.
We queued up and boarded our Alcatraz Cruise. The ferry ride went smoothly. And during our visit, the weather was perfect.
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, although 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.
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.
The Night Tour
The Night Tour offers several extras that the Day Tour doesn’t.
It starts with a narrated tour to the island. Then when you arrive, a park ranger guides the group up the hill to the entrance of the cell block with a bit of history.
Visitors can tour 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.
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.
Alcatraz casts a creepy and eerie light in the evening so younger kids might be frightened by the night tour. My kids, 9, 12 and 14, loved this tour.
Explore Alcatraz with Kids
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.
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.
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.
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||Day Tours||Night Tours|
|Adult 18 to 61||$39.90||$39.90||$47.30|
|Senior 62 +||$37.65||$37.65||$44.00|
|Junior 12 to 17||$39.90||$39.90||$46.25|
|Child 5 to 11||$24.40||$24.40||$28.00|
|Toddler 0 to 4||Free|
|Family Pack 2 Adults + 2 Kids||Call for tickets||Call for tickets||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.
Yosemite 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.