Alcatraz by night

Alcatraz by night

After such a great experience on my day trip a few months ago, Alcatraz had become one of my favorite attractions in San Francisco. With hopes for another fun excursion, I booked tickets for a night tour of Alcatraz and brought along some friends who had never been before. We looked forward to a spooky evening of roaming the cellhouse and maybe get creeped out by imagined ghosts or just scare each other. I also wanted to check out the Ai Weiwei art exhibit, @Large that arrived at Alcatraz right after my last trip.

The first disappointment was the time that the “night” tour began: the ferry left Pier 33 at 3:50 pm, hardly night time. The next disappointment was that unlike the day tour, there was only one return ferry option (though the summer schedule differs and offers 2 return ferry times). Even more disappointing was that the one return ferry was scheduled for 6:40 pm – which is still barely considered night time.

The night tour begins with a boat ride around the island, with a narrated overview of the island’s history as a fort and a prison. There was still day light at this point, which was nice in a way, because it allowed for a better view of the island, but the entire evening would have been improved if the start time were shifted back and the boat tour happened around sunset. We’d have great views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge at sunset, and the tour would actually be a night tour.

Fog would have helped set the mood for a spooky evening, but we had a clear night (I know, who complains about a clear night in San Francisco?).

On the island, we had a short guided walk up the hill, with enough stops and chats to let you catch your breath, but not a lot of extra information, and nothing like the tour I received on my day trip. Our guide told us that our tour groups had about 100 people each, which made it difficult for everyone to hear her stories.

They offered the same 45 minute audio tour of the cell house that is available during the day, which I highly recommend. Since several hundred of us arrived on the island at the same exact time, we all began the tour at the same time, which meant we all crowded around the same parts of the cell house at the same time. My audio tour experience was much better during the day when the people were more evenly distributed around the island and we could take our time and break free from the crowds. The sun had set while we were on the audio tour, so we didn’t see it at all.

San Francisco skyline at dusk from the warden's office

San Francisco skyline at dusk from the warden’s office

When we returned our headsets, we checked the schedule for the evening’s programming. Programs included talks on escape attempts and the Sounds of the Slammer demonstration, and a 15 minute film down near the docks, in addition to the Ai Weiwei exhibits. The park ranger explained that we wouldn’t have time for everything, which again makes me wonder why they don’t allow us more time there if they know it’s not enough.

The Ai Weiwei exhibits were distributed around the island, including the dining hall and hospital ward of the cellhouse, as well as others in the New Industries Building. Ai Weiwei is a Chinese artist and political activist who has been a political prisoner in China for criticizing its government. He remains unable to leave China, and orchestrated the exhibit on Alcatraz from a distance.

Alcatraz hospital at night

Alcatraz hospital at night

We didn’t make it down to the New Industries Building to check out the other exhibits, but we did finally have one experience that felt worthy of a night tour of Alcatraz: the hospital was open for exploration. Located above the dining hall, the hospital was dark and creepy in the way that I’d hoped the whole night tour would be. The rooms of the hospital were illuminated only by strategically placed lanterns that make it look like a horror film. The paint is peeling off the walls, which signs warned us probably contained lead, and everything is grimy. There’s something about the old-fashioned wheelchair and the surgery table in a dark room that screams haunted. If it weren’t for the constant stream of people down the halls, it would be a legitimately scary place to visit at night, which, if we’re being honest, is the whole point of a night tour of Alcatraz.

The surgery table

The surgery table

It seems clear to me that the National Parks Service works to avoid allowing Alcatraz to become a haunted destination. None of the rangers admit to experiencing anything supernatural. Maybe it’s still too soon, or they decided it would make the attraction seem less serious (and they may be right, but would it hurt to indulge us a little with some stories?).

The hospital isn’t always included in the tour. Although it was the main residence of one of Alcatraz’s most famous inmates, Robert Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” the hospital is often closed to the public. On this day, the hospital houses one of the Ai Weiwei exhibits, Blossom. In several rooms of the hospital, the sinks, bathtubs, and toilets are filled with white ceramic flowers, like get well bouquets to hospitalized prisoners.

@Large - Ai Weiwei exhibit, Blossom

@Large – Ai Weiwei exhibit, Blossom

@Large - Ai Weiwei exhibit

@Large – Ai Weiwei exhibit

In tiny unlit rooms once used as the psych ward, visitors listen to the chants of Tibetan Buddhists and the Hopi Indians, connecting the struggles faced by those oppressed in China to those of the Native Americans who once protested for their rights here on Alcatraz.

Just below the hospital, a section of the dining hall is used for a postcard writing station. Visitors thumbed through binders holding the names and stories of political prisoners around the world, find postcards addressed to them, with images of birds or flowers from their country, and write messages to them.

We tried to head back up to take some photos of the San Francisco skyline, but by shortly after 6 pm, the rangers stopped us from going that way and herded us straight down to the docks, where we stood around, waiting to board, and then sat on the boat for our last half hour on the island. Frustrating, a huge waste of our limited time and totally pointless. We already have a short time to spend there, why cut it even shorter and make us stand around for so long waiting when we could have at least been enjoying the view of the city? I understand not wanting anyone to be left on the island, but maybe don’t start strong-arming us off until it at least approaches boarding time. That was an unfortunate way to end our trip to Alcatraz, and definitely detracted from the experience and tainted the great memories of my last trip.

The concept of a night tour of Alcatraz is fantastic, but it doesn’t live up to its potential. I have yet to see any explanations for why we can’t arrive when it’s dark (or at sunset, at least) and stay for long enough to see more than just bare minimum. It already costs more than the day tour, but for what? The summer hours might be a better bet, but if the program could fix its issues, it could be the best attraction in the city.

My bonus tips

  • A night tour of Alcatraz might be a fun date, but don’t bother with heels for this adventure (I saw you, girl!). The way up the hill is quite a trek and there are some stairs to climb.
  • Dress warm, but wear layers (general truism for spending time in San Francisco). It gets cold out there!
  • Be in the first group off the boat. Your time on the island is very limited, so getting up there earlier makes a big difference.
  • Make your choices quickly and wisely for what programs you choose after the audio tour. The current art exhibit is only open for an hour.
  • There’s no eating allowed on the island (except near the docks at the bottom of the hill), so have a snack before you leave or get something to eat on the boat.
  • Book early. And if you want to actually be there at night, check sunset times against the ferry schedule before you go. During the summer, the ferry trips are much later and there are two return ferries.
  • They sell booze on the boat on the way back to SF, but drink up because you may not have enough time to finish it. Many people hung around on board while they finished up.

Alcatraz Night Tour Information

Spring/Summer Departure: 5:55 pm and 6:30 pm

Fall/Winter Departures: 3:20 pm and 3:50 pm

Cost: $37 (Adult), $36 (Ages 12-17), $21.75 (Ages 5-11), $34.25 (Seniors 62+)

Map of Alcatraz Island

Map showing location of Alcatraz Island

Published On: Friday, December 19th, 2014