Alcatraz: Get the rap on the rock

May 9, 2016

For much of its cold, damp, bitter prison life, Alcatraz was a place you’d kill to leave, and many an inmate tried. They plotted elaborate escapes, took shivs to cell walls, mapped routes through crawlspaces and risked bullets and the icy brunt of the San Francisco Bay rather than bear another day on The Rock.

These days, it’s a different story. People kill (almost) to get in.

Since the onetime home of Machine Gun Kelly and Al Capone was turned over to the National Park Service in 1972, Alcatraz has been on the hot sheet of tourist attractions, and it’s only getting hotter. As part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Alcatraz sees about 1.3 million visitors — mostly out-of-town tourists — every year, making it the No. 1 landmark destination in the U.S. and No. 8 in the world on TripAdvisor’s 2015 Travelers’ Choice list.

The island’s main lure is its time served as a federal penitentiary from 1934 to 1963. But, as the tour boat announcer likes to say on your way over, "Alcatraz: It’s so much more than a prison." Indeed, it was a harbor defense port and military prison during the Civil War years. It’s the site of the first lighthouse on the West Coast, built in 1854. The American Indian Occupation took over from 1969 to 1971, making a political stand. It’s home to 30 species of birds. There are gardens and ghosts (debunked by tour guides) and grisly stories galore.

And while getting in isn’t as hard as getting out used to be, it’s also not as spontaneous as "Hey guys, let’s hop on a boat to Alcatraz!" Just give it a quick Google and you’ll feel flummoxed by a flood of ticket/tour sites. There’s really only one ferry service that’s actually allowed to dock at the island (the others take you around it).

Tours sell out fast, especially in the summer months, and if you want to take Aunt Ethel and Uncle Fred when they visit in July, you need to lock down some dates and book weeks ahead. Definitely book ahead. Did we mention book ahead?

So, with help from some pros in the know, we’ll guide you through the whole process, tell you about the tour options (daytime vs. night), advise you on parking, snacking, souvenir shopping and even tell you what (and what not) to wear.

You’ll be fine, if you just do the time (planning your visit, that is).

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ROCK AND ROLL

Tons of stuff comes up when you search online for Alcatraz tours. Most will be general bay cruises that just float close to the island. Others offer tickets to the official cruise/tours, but typically, those tickets were purchased from the official site and are now offered at a higher price. Still others offer combo tours to Alcatraz and various San Francisco attractions, which can be a good deal if you’re really doing the town.

But for straight-up Alcatraz tours, Alcatraz Cruises (www.alcatrazcruises.com) is the place to go. It’s the only ferry service allowed to dock at the island. So start there and book ahead. Did we mention book ahead? Buy tickets online or at their ticket booth at Pier 33 on the Embarcadero.

(Standby tickets exist, but they’re a bit like finding a shiv in a stack of, well, shivs. In the summer, people line up at the ticket booth in the wee hours, waiting for the booth to open at 7:30 a.m.)

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READY TO GO?

If you’ve already bought tickets, it’s time to get yourself ready. Alcatraz is on a rock, on a hard place to reach in the middle of the fog/wind-prone bay, so dress in layers and wear sturdy walking shoes — to get from the dock to the cell blocks, you’ll be trudging up a steep path, the vertical equivalent of climbing 13 stories. A tram is available for visitors with limited mobility.

Get to Pier 33 a half hour before your boat departs. Even the ferry trip through the brisk, salty spray is a treat. Most people rush onto the boat and climb to the top deck for the views. But if you want to disembark faster, stay on the lower deck. You can still see plenty from the big windows, and there’s a snack bar there if you want to nibble on the 15-minute trip. Warning: You’ll be on Alcatraz at least a couple of hours, there are no food sales on the island (only water), and munching on snacks you’ve brought is only permitted near the dock area.

Tours are offered during the day, of course, but there are two departures for "after hours" evening tours at 5:55 and 6:30 p.m.

Day and night tours are the same, sort of — but you really can’t go wrong. Your selection depends on your schedule and your mood. Whichever tour you choose, make sure you take the 45-minute self-guided audio tour of the cell blocks, the dining hall, the prison library and more, with great information on history and lore, the famous inmates and escape attempts. The tours are available in 11 different languages, and some of the narration — recorded in 1985 — is from former inmates and guards.

Audio tours make for an eerie scene as silent visitors — ears covered with headphones — wander around like zombies.

Short guided tours and mini-lectures are also available, provided by National Park rangers in the daytime and by docents from the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy at night. Be sure to take advantage of the knowledgeable guides. They love to answer questions. (Although they’re a little tired of, "Are there any ghosts?" You’ll be hard pressed to find a guide who admits to seeing one, darn it!)

Like anything, there are pros and cons to the day/night decision. During the day, you can explore more of the island, because more areas are open in daylight. Con: It’s a lot more crowded. Up to 1,500 people may be wandering around at any given time during the midday peak.

At night, the landmark is less crowded, with only about 600 visitors at a time. And "it’s different when it’s dark," says history interpreter Jim Nelson, who’s been working on Alcatraz for 18 years. "The atmosphere, especially when the fog comes in, it feels like a film noir out here." Indeed, moonlight filters through the barred windows, peeling paint makes weird shadows, fog horns moan in sorrow. Plus the hospital wing is often open (it’s not usually open during the day), and you can see the old X-ray and surgical rooms, eerily lit with floor lanterns. Kids like to make spooky "oooeeeaaooo" sounds. And every night at 8:45 p.m., they do a mock lockdown, slamming the cell doors — the clang heard ‘round the block.

Con: Some areas of the island, where the terrain is rougher, are closed off at night for safety reasons.

The coolest thing about either day or night tours is you can go where you want, when you want — you’re not locked into a formal presentation, and you can wander around at your leisure. "We have Alcatraz groupies who come and stay all day long," says 25-year veteran ranger John Cantwell.

Then you can take a later boat back. The last one departs to the sparkle of San Francisco at 9:25 p.m.

Inmates didn’t have that choice.

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ALCATRAZ BASICS

Plan ahead! Tours sell out weeks in advance, especially during the summer months.

— Buying tickets: Alcatraz Cruises at Pier 33 on the Embarcadero is the official concessionaire for Alcatraz tours, and it’s the only ferry service allowed to dock at Alcatraz Island. (Note: Other cruise offers you’ll find online either buy tickets from Alcatraz Cruises and resell them, usually at a higher price, or only take you on a ferry ride around the island.)

Purchase tickets at www.alcatrazcruises.com or at the ticket booth on Pier 33. Photo ID is required when picking up tickets. Basic prices range from $33-$40 for adults, with discounts for children and seniors.

(For procrastinators, some standby tickets come available at the ticket booth, but it’s a roll of the dice, and people start lining up around 5 a.m. for the booth to open at 7:30 a.m., particularly in the summer.)

— Parking: Street parking along the Embarcadero is metered and abysmal, but there are several commercial parking lots near Pier 33. Be advised, traffic along Embarcadero is thick, especially in the summer. And a lot of construction is going on throughout San Francisco right now, slowing various routes.

— Public transportation: Take BART to the Embarcadero station, then board the F-Line trolley toward the Ferry Building, get off at the Bay Street stop, and walk back a short distance to Pier 33. Or take the No. 10 Townsend bus, which stops at Pier 33.

— What (and what not) to wear: Even on a sunny day, it gets cold and windy out on The Rock. Dress in layers, and bring a jacket. Wear comfy walking shoes. No sandals, flip-flops or high heels. You’ll be trudging a steep quarter-mile path, climbing the vertical equivalent of a 13-story building. There is an electric tram available for visitors with mobility issues.

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ULTIMATE PHOTO OPPS

A visit to Alcatraz is not complete without getting your pic behind bars. And guess what? There’s even a special Instagram and Twitter hashtag just for the occasion! It’s #cellfie.

So grimace and say, "Welcome to The Rock!" at any of these spots:

1. Step inside the cells in D Block, where they let you step behind the bars, grab hold and glare.

2. Outside by the guardhouse, pose with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background.

3. Stand near the ruins of the burned-out warden’s residence, and claim you torched it yourself.

4. If you take the night tour, there may be no better view of San Francisco — the glittering lights of Ghirardelli Square, the Palace of Fine Arts — than the one from the entry to the Administration Offices building. It’s a sight of civilization that would have tortured the Rock-bound inmates.

 

 





 


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