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7 Things to Do On Your Day Trip to Alcatraz
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7 Things to Do On Your Day Trip to Alcatraz

Dive deep into the spooky secrets of the famous island. Here are 7 things to do in Alcatraz.

Roubina Al Abashian

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5 min read

July 04, 2022

A mile-and-a-half off the San Francisco waterfront is 22 acres of California history, and a spooky one too. Famous for its 29 years as a federal prison, Alcatraz Island is a San Francisco attraction that can’t and shouldn’t be missed, especially for the modern-day Sherlocks. The federal prison once housed notorious criminals like Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly — no, not the singer — whose stories still linger in the hallways. There was a time when escaping the island was highly desired yet humanly impossible, but today, visiting it is highly desirable, and escaping it… well, not so fast. 

The island opened its doors to the public in the fall of 1973 and it gets an estimated one-and-a-half million visitors every year. Just knowing a brief history of the island will make you realize that there are at least a dozen Alcatraz things to do and see. Now is the right time to book your trip to Alcatraz Island and tour the interesting California Historic Landmark.

Fights broke regularly at Alcatraz and the injured were treated at the prison’s infirmary.

Alcatraz Island: A Brief History

Alcatraz, San Francisco, plays a big part in the area’s history. For different generations of San Franciscans, the island played a different role, but a memorable one nonetheless. During the Civil War, the island was a military base, known as “Fort Alcatraz.” Soon after, it housed a military prison before becoming a famous federal prison between 1934 and 1963. During its 29 years, Alcatraz became known as the most feared federal penitentiary in the United States.

After the last prisoner left the island in 1963, it turned into the site of a Native American civil rights movement. In 1972, Alcatraz became part of the Golden Gate Recreation Area and opened its doors to the public the following fall. Three years later, in 1976, the island earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places, before becoming recognized as a National Historic Landmark in 1986.

The trip from Pier 33 to Alcatraz Island is a short 15-minute ferry ride.

The Available Tours at Alcatraz

If the history of the island intrigued you, then you should join the million-plus visitors who take an insider’s look at Alcatraz Island every year. After booking your ticket (preferably months ahead of time), you’ll meet your fellow detectives and history-buffs at Pier 33, from where the Alcatraz ferry will take you to the island. Ferries go back and forth every half hour, so your timing options are endless. That said, you have to be smart about which tour you choose, as the perks vary from one tour to the other.

The Early Bird Tour and the Day Tour: Both tours offer the exact same experience, except that with the Early Bird Tour you’ll be one of the first to arrive at Alcatraz and have the island all to yourself, at least for a while. The tours last between two to three hours and include the 45-minute-long self-guided audio tour guide, and the freedom to roam the areas open to the public on your own. The audio tour, which is available at all hours of the day, introduces you to the history of certain locations within the main cell block. It also tells you about the lives of ex-inmates and guards, narrated by them personally. Depending on the time of day, you might be able to join one of the guided tours with one of the volunteers. These tours cover interesting topics like  “Escapes,” “Famous Inmates,” and “Fortress Alcatraz.”

The Night Tour: This tour is pretty much similar to the day tour, except that fewer people head to the island at this time of day. In short, the only difference between the day and night tours is that the latter is spookier!

The Behind the Scenes Tour: The Behind the Scenes tour is probably the best Alcatraz tour ever. You get all that the others get plus a few too many extra perks. Before starting your self-guided audio tour, your tour guide will show you basement cells and hidden doorways that not many people get to see. This tour runs once a day in the late afternoon and lasts for about four-and-a-half hours. 

What Is There To Do on Alcatraz Island?

The Garden Conservancy worked for ten years in order to restore the Alcatraz gardens that were neglected for almost four decades.

1. Tour the Gardens of Alcatraz

Throughout the history of Alcatraz Island, soldiers, inmates, prison guards, and more have worked hard to cultivate the gardens of the rocky island. Despite being neglected for over four decades, the gardens were restored, and are now open to the public to enjoy. You can find roses, bush daisies, geraniums, and much more in the beautiful California gardens. This lively Alcatraz tourist attraction will take your mind off the island’s dark history, even if just for a little while.

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2. Admire the Wildlife at the Seabird Sanctuary

Another awesome Alcatraz tourist attraction is the nesting seabird sanctuary. You can see hundreds of birds resting at this bird colony at any one time. The most common nesting birds you’ll get to see on your trip to the island are western gulls, cormorants, snowy egrets, and black-crowned night-herons. No wonder the island attracts birdwatchers all year round.

Inmates were told that white sharks were constantly roaming around the perimeter of the island, in hopes that they won’t attempt to escape.

3. Visit the Recreation Yard

It is said that inmates often stood in the recreation and exercise yard while guards told them that sharks constantly roamed around the island – this was a way to induce fear. Standing in the same spot the prisoners stood in for recreational purposes is another Alcatraz thing to do. From here you can see how close San Francisco is and how much fear the inmates must’ve had not to attempt escape (even though a few tried to no avail). This spot also offers great views of the Golden Gate Bridge.

4. Explore the Ruins of the Warden’s House 

The Warden’s House is a three-story, 15-room mansion, constructed in 1921. The mansion housed four wardens during the 29 active years of the Alcatraz prison. It is said that the wardens knew how to throw a lavish party in their mansion. The structure caught fire in the year 1970 during the Indian Occupation of Alcatraz, and all that remains of it is the concrete frame. Stopping by the house gives you a better understanding of how life was on the island back in the day.

The Alcatraz lighthouse stands tall and proud on the island as the first-ever lighthouse on the West Coast.

5. Stop by the Oldest Lighthouse on the West Coast

Did you know that one of the most iconic Alcatraz tourist attractions is the lighthouse? Constructed in 1854, the lighthouse was the first lighthouse on the West Coast. For more than 50 years, this historic attraction served as a navigational beacon. Even though the S.F. Alcatraz lighthouse is closed to the public, you can’t really miss it standing tall next to the Warden’s House.

6. Buy Memorabilia at the Gift Shop

Before waving goodbye to Alcatraz Island, San Francisco, there’s one last thing you should do. You should buy some memorabilia for yourself, your family and your friends. Those are not just memorabilia, but bits and pieces of California history. At the gift shop, you can find books and movies that range from the lives of inmates, their personal letter collections, and their attempts to escape the notorious island. Visiting the gift shop is a top Alcatraz thing to do, and one you shouldn’t skip.

The “Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon” is a challenge even for the best of athletes.

7. Participate in the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon 

Every June, the brave-at-heart gather at Alcatraz Island to participate in the “Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon”. The race includes a one-and-a-half-mile swim from Alcatraz to the shore, a half-mile run from the bay, an eighteen-mile bike ride, and a final beautiful eight-mile coastal trail run. If you’re trained well enough and love a good challenge, your day trip to Alcatraz should be followed by an attempt to escape it.

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