It’s a top attraction in the U.S., yep a notorious prison in California’s San Francisco Bay is on everyone’s bucket list. Though shouuld you visit Alcatraz with kids? Well, on a recent West Coast road trip, my kids, 9, 13 and 14, asked all day when are we going to Alcatraz. Seriously. It was their favorite national park site of the summer after stopping at most of the national park sites on the West Coast. Here’s what it’s like to visit Alcatraz with kids.
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Alcatraz with Kids?
I have a girl and two boys and my boys are fascinated by prisons. So I decided to tour the prison that defines hard-core prison life. I had never been and I wanted to see it for myself. 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.
For younger kids, well the subject matter and the location might be too much for kids under 12. The facility itself isn’t stroller-friendly and the interior of the prison is poorly lit at times.
Though it’s not all creepy. In addition to the Alcatraz tour on the island, the boat ride is a treat, especially if the weather is clear. The views of downtown San Francisco can’t be beat, really stunning. If you book the evening tour and the ferry ride at the sunset is top-notch. Though remember that San Francisco fog!
History of the Alcatraz Island
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 in and out of 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. 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 Alcatraz island in effort to claim it for all tribes. Support dwindled and in 1972, Alcatraz became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Alcatraz Tours with Kids
Find three types of tours for Alcatraz, the day tour, the night tour and the behind-the-scenes tour.
Alcatraz Day Tour
The day tour is the most common and departs daily from Pier 33. It lasts about 2 and-a-half hours and includes the ferry ride to-and-from Alcatraz Island. Once on the island, the tour is led by an audio tour (available in most languages). Ferries start departing at 8:50 a.m. or 9:10 a.m. depending on schedule and last day tour ferry departs at 2 p.m. everyday.
Alcatraz Behind the Scenes Tour
A small group tour of less than 20 people with a one and a half to two hour guided tour by a Park Ranger. Explore areas that are typically off-limits to Day Tours. This tour also includes the audio tour and the total experience lasts about four hours. The ferry departs at noon on Thursday to Monday.
Note: Kids under 12 are not allowed on the Alcatraz Behind the Scenes Tour.
Alcatraz Night Tour
With only one ferry departure daily for the night tour, it sells out well in advance. The ferry for this tour departs at 4 p.m. on Thursday to Monday.
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.
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Night Tour 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.
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.
We explored Alcatraz during the twilight hours on the Night Tour. The audio tour get all three of my kids entranced as we explored the Cell House at our own pace.
A special feature of this tour is the Cell House lock-down. 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. (Note: The Landing at Alcatraz is not serving food in 2022.)
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. Alcatraz Cruises is the only ferry that stops at Alcatraz Island.
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 2022 Tickets
|Ages||Day Tours||Night Tour||Behind the Scenes|
|Adult 18 to 61||41.00||48.40||93.40|
|Senior 62 +||38.65||45.00||87.00|
|Junior 12 to 17||41.00||47.35||89.35|
|Child 5 to 11||25.00||28.60||n/a|
|Toddler 0 to 4||Free||Free||n/a|
More Information about Alcatraz and San Francisco:
If you need more information about Alcatraz or San Francisco with kids, I recommend the following guide.
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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 two-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 tour includes an audio tour headset.