At 24 years old, I was hoping I’d never have to set foot in a prison … but thankfully this was Alcatraz and I was allowed to leave the island after my visit. The Alcatraz night tour leaves Pier 33 at 6pm and includes a guided tour of the cellblocks, plus evening walking and information tours to join in with.
Arriving for the Alcatraz night tour
The boat trip for the night tour includes a video and audio introduction to keep you entertained on the ride over, and once you’re back on solid ground on the island you can follow a tour guide up the hill for a guided walk. We heard about a prisoner’s 10-year escape plan, security measures all around the island, and the hidden weapons that (fortunately) were never used.
The walking tour led us up to the door of the main cellhouse, where the audio tour begins. Slipping the headphones over my ears, I walked up the metal staircase to the cellblock level and immediately felt how bleak it must have been to see those walls every single day. The audio tour includes the real voices of ex-prisoners and guards, which makes the whole experience feel even more real.
The audio tour
Guided through the main building section by section, I expected the night tour to be a little spookier. Thanks to the summer the sunset wasn’t until almost 7pm, so if you like your night tours creepy and cold I’d advise to visit Alcatraz during the darker months.
As I listened to the stories of ex-prisoner’s escape attempts, riots and relationships with each other – the cell building felt cruel and grim. How would it make me feel to live in a cell like the one I was staring into, day in day out? Out in the recreation yard I stood at the top step and peered over to the San Francisco coast, Golden Gate bridge in plain sight. The voices continued through my headphones, telling me their stories, and I felt a little guilty for feeling sorry for them.
The main building itself is quite a bleak place, and as you’re looking at the cells and hearing the stories of foiled escape plans and violent riots, you can all but feel incredibly lucky that there’s a boat back to Pier 33. The prison has long been shut down and named as a National Park, but that doesn’t stop the Park Rangers from being as scary as the prison guards were back then. Questioning me suspiciously: “Where are you from?” “Do you smoke?”, one ranger had been given word that a visitor had been smoking in the yard – which was banned on the island. I fit the description, and even though it wasn’t me they were looking for the ranger did a really good job of making me feel guilty! It was a relief to hear that they don’t lock people up in the cells these days…
Rack ’em up!
Waiting until the last of the audio tour visitors had given back their headphones, three of the rangers showed a group of us how the cell doors worked. The prisoners had to be counted numerous times a day, sometimes it being the only time they got out of their cells, and so the repetitive noise of the doors opening and closing would have been a very familiar sound. After the counting, a guard would shout “Rack ’em up!” and the doors would clang to a close, locking the prisoners inside. It was interesting to hear what the clanging sounded like and to imagine hearing it numerous times a day. I don’t think I’d have stayed sane for very long.
Extras on the Alcatraz night tour
Even though it doesn’t feel any creepier, the night tour includes a booklet you’d usually have to pay $1 for during the day and walking tours up to the main cellhouse and talks on the way back down to the boat.
The guides on Alcatraz are extremely knowledgeable and open to questions or queries. They tell their stories with such details, which brings so close to home the fact that Alcatraz was a functioning prison just 49 years ago.
Hints and tips
- Hang back when getting off the boat. If you steam up the hill towards the main building, you’ll miss out on a really informative guided walk.
- Take your time around the main cellblock. There are two boats back from the night tour, so it’s worth catching the final boat to make the most of the talks outside the cellhouse.
- Take a coat, even in summer! It’s windy out there …
You can read more about the night tour, book tickets online, and compare other day and combined tours at the Alcatraz Cruises website.
*This post was made possible by Hornblower Cruises & Events and originally appeared on TheTravelEditor.com. Opinions are my own.