Touring Alcatraz Island always fascinating but the night tour takes an extra special step back to the eerie maximum security days when ruthless criminals such as Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly strolled the austere cellblocks. The prison was open for only 29 years when the last inmate left in 1963. Since then, this desolate island rock in the middle of the San Francisco Bay has reinvented itself to an Indian reservation and now a bird sanctuary and National Park treasure.
After a 15 minute narrated ferry ride from Pier 33 to Alcatraz, we were greeted by a park ranger who continued the history on a slow meandering walk uphill to the main building. As the sun sets, twilight transitions to night and that’s when the real magic begins on this nocturnal journey few people get to experience. He briefly recounted the prison's brutal history with intriguing tales about its legendary residents while pointing out the red graffiti strewn across the island.
“Indians Welcome” read one sign.
“Peace and Freedom Home of the Free” and “Welcome to Indianland” were scrawled on the water tower.
An important historic preservation of the islands brief 19 month Indian occupation. Although fraught with controversy and a tragic ending, its lingering impact paved the way for Native American activism in government today.
As we continued uphill in the darkness, you can feel a savage awakening of the cold-hearted aura of the islands past in its current occupants. Seagull combatants fall from the sky locked in a brutal battle over dominant status. Or perhaps over a food. Or a mate. They squabble. They posture. They fight. Beaks become iron fist like past mammalian inmates. Now cormorants, seagulls, egrets and guillemots are the established ruling occupants of this rocky home. We stop a few times to observe one of the many bloody battles this possessed island encourages before continuing up the path.
First stop, the shower room. A chill flows through the stark eroding cement corridor of rusty pipes and shower heads. We slow down, take a moment to observe and imagine waiting in line like past incarcerated prisoners and current visitors. The peeling paint reveals the layers of vulnerability of the rows of naked men showering with notorious gangsters, robbers, murderers. Over 15 hundred of America's most ruthless criminals.
This is where today’s visitors funnel in to pick up the the award-winning audio presentation 'Doing Time: The Alcatraz Cellhouse Tour.' Time behind bars spring to life as personal accounts unfold with narration from actual inmates, correctional officers and residents. I hit play. A deep voice comes on, “The first thing you learn about Alcatraz is keep your mouth shut, walk with your back to the wall.”
I've been to Alcatraz many times, but this was my first time being there at night. The first time I visited Alcatraz my tour guide was ex-inmate Bill Baker, a former Alcatraz convict and now author. He was 24 during his time at Alcatraz, a thief with an aptitude for escape. Now in his 80’s and reformed from past, he gave us a fascinating and very personal account of his life behind bars.
He explained, “The beautiful clear nights were the worst. To be forced to see the twinkling lights of San Francisco and Golden Gate Bridge from a distance. I could hear laughter and music playing, it was all so close and a constant reminder of being stuck with my dull daily routine. It was enough to drive one mad.” I can hear Bill's hoarse voice replay in my head as I strolled the grounds enjoying a magnificent sunset on a clear moonlit night and the sounds of a bustling city swirling in my direction just as Bill recounted.
Other unique night tour attractions include a cell block locking demonstration, ample time in solitary confinement (a.k.a. “The Hole”), visiting the hospital in its state of arrested decay and Robert "The Birdman" Stroud's hospital room where he spent eleven of his seventeen years of wonted solitude.
As we continued to explore areas outside the prison walls to the sounds of bickering gulls, ocean swells and the occasional distant fog horn echoing in the darkness, we learned more about the extensive history of Alcatraz. From the Civil War to its lighthouse, the first one built on the west coast.
Alcatraz was designed to break the spirit of the most rebellious prisoners. Now those spirits haunt the island for visitors daring to experience it in the dark. For something truly unique, don't miss the Night Tour Experience at Alcatraz.
If you snag tickets to The Alcatraz Night Tour consider yourself very luck. A limited number of tickets are sold and they go fast so be sure to book it well in advance. To purchase Alcatraz tour tickets day or night call (415) 981-ROCK or visit Alcatraz Cruises.
I recommend taking the first night boat over to have the option to come back on either the first or second boat depending on energy and interest level. Always better to have extra time than not enough.
Another great experience is a behind-the-scenes tour on Alcatraz that is designed for small groups and includes 2-hr behind the scenes exploration of a number of "off the beaten track" areas of Alcatraz combined with the full Night Tour experience. It's designed for repeat local visitors who want a new experience and out-of-town visitors who are truly passionate about Alcatraz history.
Food is not allowed or served on the island. Fill your bellies before departure.
I would not describe this tour to be designed for families because of its vigorous pace and lengthy duration. I recommend age 12+ but it's great for kids who are not easily scared.
Add time to your travel for parking. Alcatraz Cruises recommend these parking lots but make sure to take note of closing time. There is off street parking however the meters run 2 hours. I parked at Imperial Parking Garage on Bay St because it's 24 hours and close to Pier 33 which opens at 8am....and not a minute earlier.