Western, US Travel Diary

Day 7—Alcatraz and Beyond

This is more of a picture story. It’s hard to capture the feeling of being on Alcatraz at night with only words.

We had purchased tickets well in advance for the Alcatraz night tour. We were told it would sell out, so I think we bought them about 2 or 3 months in advance. They did sell out, so I’m glad we thought ahead.

We picked up our tickets at will-call and made our way to the boat line. It looked like there were a ton of people in line with us which confused me because I thought the night tour was supposed to be a smaller crowd.

Boat boarding started around 3:45pm and we were off to prison!

We thought we were smart by strategically placing ourselves inside the boat towards the exit door. But when we started crossing the bay, I realized where we really wanted to be was outside with the views. Despite the cold, I spent most of the boat ride on the bow of the boat crowded by lots of other people. It was worth it for the pictures!

The eerie island in the distance
The ominous looking San Francisco. That is not a tornado, just a crazy cloud.
Kudos to Eric for getting this picture
The back side of the island

I know it sounds cliche, but when we walked off the boat, there was such a sense of malice in the air. The sun was starting to set and the buildings looked so decrepit; you could feel the malevolent energy exuding from the island.

A park ranger met us at the base of the hill leading up to the prison. He gave us a rundown of the evening’s activities, then we were off on a hike up to the entrance.

Fun fact: The prison closed in 1963. After being fed up with their voices not being heard by the government, the local Native Americans took over the island from 1969 – 1971. There are many signs of them throughout the grounds and in the prison itself, like the red words in the picture below. You’ll see a few more in the rest of my pictures.

A park ranger giving us some history standing below the remnants of a penitentiary sign as well as an Indian welcome sign
Nothing really of significance; I just thought this staircase was eerily beautiful

While I had originally been upset at the amount of people on the tour with us, I quickly realized it wasn’t a large group at all for the size of this prison. We filed in to grab our headsets for the audio tour and made our way up the stairs to the cell blocks. Since we all started our audio tours at different times, we were only ever with, at most, 10 people at a time. It was great!

The audio tour was fantastic. Not only did they take you through the prison giving you history on everything you saw, but the entire tour was given by former guards and inmates. Taking a tour given by the people who knew it best made it that much better.

As you can see, not crowded at all. There was a little daylight left which you can see through the skylights. As soon as the sun went down, the prison got DARK.

Example of a typical welcome home set-up for a prisoner
Solitary confinement.

They let us walk in to the solitary confinement cells. This was so creepy. What made it feel even more sinister was the row of pictures of famous inmates who spent time in solitary on the wall facing the cells. The pictures brought those cells to life. I could almost feel the most notorious criminals of the 30’s & 40’s… really, of our lifetime… standing behind me, pondering their next victims… if they ever made it out of Alcatraz.

Just 2 bros hanging out in solitary
Example of some artwork done by an inmate

Moving on, we were brought to the administration portion of the prison. At this point, there was a door to go outside and I noticed the light fading fast. I paused my tour and ran outside to grab some pictures before the light was totally gone.

View of the Golden Gate Bridge from the island
Entrance to the Administration Building
Prison with a view

When I ran outside, I didn’t really say anything to Eric or Kevin, I just went. But they followed, so that was nice of them to indulge me!

After grabbing some great pictures, we continued our tour. Now that it was dark, the prison became even more menacing. Since we had paused our tour for pictures, there were even less people around us. It was so quiet and so dark I felt like we were the only ones there.

While Alcatraz was functioning as a prison, they had 14 escape attempts. The 13th, most famous, attempt involved 3 inmates who used homemade tools to dig out holes behind the vents in their cells. They then created “false bodies” complete with heads with real hair in order buy time for their escape. This escape was portrayed in the Clint Eastwood movie, Escape from Alcatraz.

One thing that wasn’t really talked about during our tour was the fact that the prison was built on top of a Civil War era military fortress and prison. While we were walking around after our audio tour, we stumbled upon the A block. Here, there were stairs that led down below the cells. We weren’t allowed down there, but the park rangers explained that there were dungeons meant for captured Civil War POW’s. Very interesting stuff!

Stairs to the dungeons

There was a cell demonstration that was going to happen right before we had to leave the island, so we took a few final shots of the city at night before heading that way.

Eric wanted to see solitary confinement again, so we stopped there for a few minutes. Now that it was dark, you couldn’t pay me to walk in those cells; there was zero light in there. As I’m sure you already assumed, Eric ran right in. Also, we were the only ones there. You could have heard a pin drop when we weren’t walking. The silence was deafening and a bit unnerving.

While we were waiting for the demonstration to start, a ranger walked over and asked if we had seen Al Capone’s cell. I realized we hadn’t, which I thought was odd, so he kindly walked us over to it. It’s unmarked, other than the fact that it was the only one open on that side.

Al Capone’s Cell

Next up was the cell demonstration. I wasn’t super excited about this, but it actually ended up being pretty cool. A park ranger showed us how they opened and closed the cells. First, he opened and closed one. It was so loud! Then he went to the 2nd level and opened and closed all of them in the row. That was SUPER loud. I couldn’t imagine living there and hearing that multiple times every day.

At 6:30pm, it was time to make our way back to the boat. The last boat of the day was leaving at 6:45pm. This meant that all the staff and park rangers on the island had to leave on this boat with us which was kinda of cool.

As we made our way down the sloping road, we stopped because I saw the morgue. I hadn’t seen it on our way to the prison, but now that it was dark, it looked so spooky I had to take a picture. The 2nd picture is the building to the left of the morgue. I have no idea if this is true or not, but my exuberant and colorful imagination tells me it’s where they brought the bodies out.

There was a small museum near the boat dock, so we ran in there quickly just to see what was there before we were forced on the boat.

A painting by the Indian’s of Alcatraz
Another sign by the Indians on a wall by the boat dock

We arrived back to Pier 33 around 7:00pm. We were going to go to The Stinking Rose to grab some appetizers, but after driving around for almost an hour trying to find parking, we gave up and parked on the steepest hill I’ve ever seen.* Oh and Kevin drives a manual so that was fun. We ended up having ice cream for dinner from Bi-Rite.


View from a neighborhood we climbed up to find a parking spot. How do people live up here!?

Where we ate dinner 🙂
View from Dolores Park near where we parked the car

Our day ended with ice cream and we were on our way home around 10:00pm. This day felt like a week, but I wouldn’t have changed a thing. We had so much fun!!


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