Why would you visit Alcatraz with kids? Well, Alcatraz topped the San Francisco to-do list for my kids, 9, 13 and 14. ALL DAY they asked, when are we going to Alcatraz. Seriously. And it was their favorite national park site of the summer after stopping at most of the national park sites on the West Coast, like Redwoods, Death Valley, Olympic, Mount St. Helens, Oregon Caves, Lassen Volcanic and Mt. Rainier.
A Prison with Kids?
I have boys and my boys are fascinated by prisons, along with a list of other things that most Moms don’t want to talk about. So I decided to tour the prison that defines hard-core prison life.
As a kid of the 80s, I’m all about scaring a couple of kids straight. A walk through Alcatraz at twilight is creepy and borderline scary.But tweens and teens love to walk the line of scary and creepy so it’s perfect for them.
Though it’s not all creepy. The views of downtown San Francisco can’t be beat, really stunning. I booked the evening tour and the ferry ride along with the sunset were top-notch. Though I think we were lucky, remember that San Francisco fog!
I had to see it for myself. Alcatraz is one of the places you have to visit to understand. Pictures can be haunting but walking through the cell block as the dabbled light casts a ghostly glow is eerie.
Alcatraz–What’s behind the name
Derived from the Spanish word alcatraces, or seabirds, the birds have called the island home for generations. In the 1850s, the island became a military fortress due to its strategic positioning in the San Francisco Bay.
Since the shipping traffic increased from San Francisco after the gold rush, a lighthouse was needed. In 1854 the Alacatraz Island Light became the first lighthouse on the West Coast.
During the Civil War, Alcatraz Island housed 400 soldiers and numerous cannons to protect the port. However, in 1907 the U.S. Army decommissioned Alcatraz.
The island always housed prisoners from the early days as a military fort. And soon after its decommission as a fort, military guards built a cellhouse.
In 1915, Alcatraz was renamed the United States Disciplinary Barracks, Pacific Branch, a military prison. 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.
Home to the worst of the worst, infamous inmates like Al Capone, along with others with nicknames like Creepy, Doc, Machine Gun, and Birdman of Alcatraz were all incarcerated on The Rock. Inmates that caused problems in other prisons, came to Alcatraz too.
After the prison closed in 1963, 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.
Explore Alcatraz with Kids
Alcatraz is creepy and eerie in the evening so the younger kids might be frightened by the night tour. My kids, 9, 13 and 14, loved this tour but tweens and teens love to be freaked out a bit. Actually Alcatraz was their favorite national park site from the entire summer.
Hard to believe, yet kids lived on Alcatraz as prison guards lived on the island and brought their families with them. The kids of Alcatraz played in the gardens and Moms rarely locked their doors.
Stop by the Ranger Station at the dock and pick up a Junior Ranger booklet. Take the tour, finish the booklet and turn it back in to the park ranger for a special badge.
We explored Alcatraz during the twilight hours for the Night Tour. A special feature of this tour is the cell house lock-down where a Park Ranger unlocks then locks all the cell doors on the cell block at once. A must if you take the Night Tour.
This tour is especially creepy since the setting sun casts deep shadows throughout the prison. The lighting is limited and the hospital ward is particularly eery in the evening. It might be too scary for younger kids, my 9-year-old decided to skip this portion of the tour.
The Birds of Alcatraz
The birds came first, though moved on after humans occupied the island in the 1850s. When the prison closed in the 1963, the birds returned to the protected location that lacked natural 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.
The Gardens of Alcatraz
The gardens that still bloom off the most surprising feature of the former high-security prison. Sprinkled throughout the property, residents first planted the gardens in 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 still flourish on Alcatraz, including roses, calla lilies, bearded irises, agapanthus and hydrangeas.
Garden lovers, grab the brochure, The Gardens of Alcatraz, at the kiosk after disembarking the ferry for more information.
Get the App!
The National Park Service developed an 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.
Where to eat at Alcatraz
Got hungry kids? The Landing at Alcatraz, the ticketing and boarding area off The Embarcadero, offers a cafeteria with options for families along with rain ponchos and souvenirs. Food service is not available on Alcatraz Island.
Picnics are allowed near the docks when you disembark the ferry. Only bottled water is permitted on the tour.
Getting to Alcatraz Island
Alcatraz Island is located in the San Francisco Bay and reached by ferry only. The Alcatraz Ferry Terminal is located at Pier 33 on The Embarcadero.
Parking is an issue while visiting Downtown San Francisco. During my trip, I used public transportation and left my car at my hotel.
Alcatraz Cruises 2017 Tickets
|Ages||Day Tours||Night Tour|
|Adult 18 to 61||37.25||44.25|
|Senior 62 +||35.25||41.25|
|Junior 12 to 17||37.25||43.25|
|Child 5 to 11||23.00||26.50|
|Toddler 0 to 4||Free||Free|
|Family Pack 2 Adults + 2 Kids||112.75||Not Available|
The Behind-the-Scenes Tour is 4 to 5 hours long and not available for kids under 12-years-old.
More Information about Alcatraz and San Francisco:
If you need more information about Alcatraz or San Francisco with kids, I recommend the Lonely Planet Guides, like the following.
Consideration for brands mentioned. This post includes affiliate links.
Know Before You Go:
- Tickets go on sale 90 days in advance.
- Parking is an issue for San Francisco. I used public transportation during my visit.
- Alcatraz Island, or ‘The Rock”, is hilly and requires climbing. Motorized transportation is limited.
- Luggage larger than a standard backpack is not allowed.
- Photo ID required for the purchaser of the tickets.
- 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 this popular tour months in advance, especially for the evening tour.
- In Mid-August flies that hatch from the bird colonies and swarm.
- The Self-Guided booklet, Discover Alcatraz – A Tour of the Rock, costs $1.
- The cost of the tour includes an audio tour headset.