The new Alcatraz experience: Now is the time to escape to Alcatraz Island!


UPDATE, September 2021: Alcatraz Night Tours and Behind the Scenes Tours are back! Book one of these unique tour options to get a new view of Alcatraz Island and the Bay. No two tours are the same! 

Both tours allow time to enjoy the Parks Conservancy's award-winning audio tour, "Doing Time: The Alcatraz Cellhouse Tour." Use audio equipment provided to you onsite OR download the Alcatraz Experience app and use your own cellphone and earbuds during your visit!

There are lots of new items to check out on Alcatraz, including "The Big Lockup" exhibit. See our roundup of what's new here.

The following article was written in September 2020, and much of the info may have changed since then. Please check our Alcatraz park page for the most up-to-date info.

Standing at Eagle Plaza on Alcatraz Island, looking back at Nob Hill and the waterfront, San Francisco feels so, so close. 

But anybody who’s swam in those waters will tell you just how far away it is.

Right now, if you go to Alcatraz, you’ll get that photogenic spot almost entirely to yourself, no swimming required. With boats running at limited capacity and fewer crowds than ever, this is a perfect time to visit the island for the Bay Area’s most unique daytrip. Get your Alcatraz tickets here.

In this article, we’ll get you set up with some tips to explore Alcatraz like a seasoned park ranger. Visit for those views, for the lush gardens, and the history that ties into present-day social justice movements. You can take a deep dive into that history, learn about peregrine falcons on the island, and read special stories behind the colorful gardens, on our Escape to Alcatraz page

Here are some of our insider tips:

Tip 1: Get ready for a new experience

Your safety is the top priority for the Parks Conservancy and our partners at Alcatraz Cruises and the National Park Service (NPS). You’ll see social-distance markers at Pier 33 Alcatraz Landing and at the Alcatraz dock on the island side. Facemasks are required at all times at Pier 33, on the ferry boats, and inside all buildings including the Cellhouse.

When you arrive on the island, there are plenty of options to kick off your adventure. You can stop by the dock bookstore, get your “Discover Alcatraz” map at one of several stations next to the bookstore, or stop by the ranger station under the guard tower to chat with your friendly NPS rangers—from a distance. Sorry, they can’t take that selfie with your camera.

Tip 2: Take the cellhouse audio tour

The Parks Conservancy's award-winning audio tour, "Doing Time: The Alcatraz Cellhouse Tour" is back and tweaked to ensure safety of our visitors. 

The stories on the audio tour are based on interviews with those formerly incarcerated and correctional officers. Make sure you're ready to soak in this once-in-a-lifetime chance while you can!

Tip 3: Find views and history

Looking for some specific spots to track down? Check out the aforementioned Eagle Plaza, at the very top of the island on the south side of the Cellhouse, for great views of the city and the Golden Gate Bridge. Take the trail around the west side of the island to the Recreation Yard for a once-in-a-lifetime shot of the bridge. And make sure to stop along the path up to the Cellhouse for views of the Bay with the colorful Alcatraz Historic Gardens in the foreground.

As soon as you land on the Alcatraz dock you’ll start seeing political slogans like “Indian Land” that were first painted during the Occupation of Alcatraz by the Indians of All Tribes in 1969. The slogan at the dock was repainted in fall 2019 by original Occupiers during an anniversary event. You’ll also see political slogans on the water tower, and there is another slogan on the water-facing side of the storehouse. The Occupation was a turning point for Native American rights that has many echoes to present-day social justice movements. Now open, check out the exhibit Red Power on Alcatraz: Perspectives 50 Years Later in the New Industries Building.

Tip 4: Bask in the gardens

Another piece of history is all around you as you walk up to the Cellhouse: The Alcatraz Historic Gardens. These gardens were first planted around the turn of the 20th century when the island was a military fort, and have gone through various ups and downs since. Right now they’re colorful and thriving, thanks to 17 years of dedicated work by volunteers with the NPS and Parks Conservancy. 

Marvel at the dichotomy of bursting plant life amid the historic buildings all around. Even the award winning Alcatraz compost has its own special story to tell.

Tip 5: Prepare yourself for a great trip!

There are several ways you can prepare for your visit to make sure you have an enjoyable and memorable daytrip.

Bring your camera, bring layers for the wind, and bring comfortable shoes as the walk up to the Cellhouse is steep. There is a tram on the island for those with mobility impairments. That’s one of many accessible features, find out more on the NPS Alcatraz accessibility page.

Make sure not to bring food, as there’s currently no food allowed on the island. You should plan on about 2-3 hours total for your trip, at least, to enjoy everything the island has to offer.

If you do get some great photos on the island, tag us on Instagram with #EscapeToAlcatraz and #ParksConservancy. You can find us on Instagram @ParksConservancy, @GoldenGateNPS, and @AlcatrazCruises!

And remember, the only place to get tickets to Alcatraz is via Alcatraz Cruises. Get your tickets from Alcatraz Cruises and enjoy a wonderful day out on the island!

Peter Hockaday joined the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy in summer 2018 as Director of Editorial Content & Strategy.

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