Updated August 9, 2023.
Alcatraz added the Behind the Scenes tour several years ago and it has become one of the more popular tours of Alcatraz.
If you can get these tickets, it's definitely worth it! You see a lot more than on all the other tours.
In a nutshell, the Behind the Scenes tour is a two-part tour of Alcatraz:
How long is the Behind the Scenes Tour?
Altogether, the Behind the Scenes tour takes 4.5 to 5 hours.
When you're ready to leave, you have the choice of any of the afternoon ferries to take you back to Pier 33.
The best way to get tickets for this tour is to buy them directly from City Experiences, the official seller of the Alcatraz tickets, at cityexperiences.com.
Youth 12-17: $97.10 (must be 12 to go on this one)
Senior 62+: $94.25
The tickets for the Behind the Scenes tour sell out almost as fast as the night tour, and during the summer are usually sold out a couple of months in advance, so book them as soon as you know your travel dates.
Winter is easier; you can probably get tickets a month in advance.
Behind the Scenes sold out? Unfortunately, there's no way to get tickets for this tour when they are sold out, other than checking for cancelations on the cityexperiences.com website.
So far, I haven't found them combined with other tours in packages.
Once I had an extra ticket for this tour and arranged to sell it to someone at Alcatraz Landing who wanted a ticket for that day. The arrangements were made through the ticket office on Pier 33, so ask at the ticket booth if any tickets are available. It's a long shot, but you might get lucky!
However, sometimes it's possible to get the day tour and night tour tickets on sold out days by doing combination tours. See my tips at Alcatraz sold out for how to do it.
Departures: this tour has one sailing from Alcatraz Landing each afternoon, five days a week.
Summer: Tuesday - Saturday, at 4:20 pm.
Winter: (Oct -Mar) Tuesday - Saturday, at 2:15 pm.
Return to Pier 33: You can take any of the afternoon return ferries.
Return times are posted at Pier 33 and on the dock on Alcatraz Island.
The ferry ride over to Alcatraz is quick, about 15 minutes.
This is one of the best boat rides on the bay, with great views of the San Francisco skyline, the Golden Gate Bridge, Bay Bridge and Angel Island.
Aside from sunblock and cameras, be sure to bring or wear a jacket, even on warm days. And the fog can roll in at any time.
It's colder and windier out on the Rock, plus the temperature tends to drop fast as the sun goes down; no balmy nights on San Francisco Bay!
Food: there's nothing to eat on the island, and the tour is fairly long, so you might want to bring a snack or a sandwich to eat after the guided tour's done (no time to eat when you arrive; the tour starts right away).
There's a cafe at Alcatraz Landing, on Pier 33, where you can buy food before you get on the ferry.
On the island, they discourage eating on the dock and there's nowhere to buy food on Alcatraz. Eating elsewhere on the island is prohitied now. (Years ago, they were selling almonds in the bookstore on the dock, but I haven't seen them recently.)
You can carry water bottles everywhere on Alcatraz, and they sell them in the bookstore on the dock and in the gift shop on top, but you won't have time to buy them on the island before the tour starts, so better to bring them with you.
There used to be a snack bar on the ferry, too, but it's been closed since Covid.
Your group of 20 or less will be met at the dock by the Park Rangers assigned to your tour (we had 2 rangers).
After an introduction, you're off on the tour.
Note. Where you actually go on your tour depends on what areas are open at the time (construction is ongoing) and what your guide chooses for the tour.
There is no way of knowing in advance which areas you'll be going into that day.
The following are areas in the prison and grounds that have been on previous tours and could be on your tour:
There are probably other areas that show up on the tours that I haven't listed, as well.
Conditions at the prison change daily, so there's no way to predict what you'll actually be shown on your tour.
However, the Behind the Scenes tour always allows you to go inside the prison where the cells are and do the audio tour after you're done with the guided tour.
The description below covers where we went on the day I was there.
We started off walking through a pretty prison garden, then walked through the brick passageways built during the Civil War period.
Then it was into the underground tunnel originally used by soldiers moving from one side of the fortified island to the other.
The tunnel now takes you to the lower level of the New Industries Building, used as a laundry and factory where prisoners of the federal penitentiary worked.
The factory building is appropriately decrepit and rusting, like the setting for a noir film or horror story. Lots of atmosphere.
Then it was back to the prison building. There's a staircase in Block D that goes down into the basement where the punishment cells were located.
This is a much older part of the prison; the federal penitentiary was built in 1933 on top of the previous prison and citadel.
The basement holds grim cells that kept prisoners in total darkness; very damp from sea water and inhabited by rats back in the day.
These cells weren't supposed to be used by the penitentiary, but Warden Johnson got caught putting prisoners down there. So the solitary cells you can see in D Block weren't the worst ones!
After seeing the Dungeon, as it's called, the tour came back up to Block D and we climbed up to the top two tiers of cells and look around.
Cellblock A was open that night but is usually kept locked and isn't open to visitors on the day tours.
All through the tour, the rangers will fill you in on interesting facts and anecdotes about the various places you're visiting.
Lot's of good stories about this place!
Alcatraz is supposedly haunted. Check out the Alcatraz ghost stories, plus 23 other haunted places in San Francisco.
Good news: the tour is not really strenuous. It mainly just requires walking up and down some stairs (but only one flight at a time).
City Experiences warns people that this tour is strenuous and limits it to age 12 and above.
I didn't know what to expect in terms of the fitness level required to do this tour.
Turns out you need to be able to climb up or down a flight of stairs, walk up hills, and keep a reasonable walking pace.
Anyone who is reasonably fit should be able to keep up. There's plenty of standing and listening to the ranger's stories in between the stairs and walks.
Normally you only go up one flight, then stand awhile, so it's not a question of climbing flight after flight of stairs.
They also warn you to go to the bathroom before the tour starts, because there aren't any potty breaks during the tour, but we did have an opportunity to use the restroom once we got up to the cellblock area, about halfway through.
Best to use the restroom at Pier 33 before you get on the ferry.
The guided portion of the Behind the Scenes tour finishes up at the entrance to the Alcatraz cellblock.
From there on, you are free to explore the island on your own, including the audio tour of the prison.
One of the cool things about the Behind the Scenes Tour is that it includes the Night Tour.
After your semi-private behind the scenes tour, you join the folks from the Night Tour and can participate in their activities.
When the guided tour ends, most people go into the cellblock to get their audio devices for the cellblock audio tour, do the audio tour of the prison, then go outside to explore the rest of the island.
At the entrance to the cellblock, and also in the gift shop inside the cellblock, you'll see a bulletin board with the special programs: talks by rangers, any extra ranger tours, and events like demonstrations of the opening of the cell doors.
You can plan your evening around the talks and tours you want to do.
People on the Behind the Scenes Tour return on the same ferries as the Night Tour folks.
Return times are posted on the docks (both at Pier 33 and on the Alcatraz dock).
If you want to sail around Alcatraz Island, and out under the Golden Gate Bridge, check out my recommendations for the best San Francisco Bay Cruises.
These don't stop at Alcatraz, but they're a lot of fun, and give you some of the best views of the city, bridge and bay.
One of the mostly highly-rated boat tours is the sunset cruise on a catamaran. You sail around the bay, past Alcatraz, and under the Golden Gate Bridge. View the San Francisco skyline all lit up after dark - beautiful!
See Sunset Sailing Cruise for rates and availability.