Alert. During the federal shutdown, the Alcatraz Day Tours are still running, but the Alcatraz Night Tours and Behind the Scenes Tours are not running. See the official website for current info and refund details.
Alcatraz added the Behind the Scenes tour several years ago and it has become one of the more popular tours of Alcatraz.
In a nutshell, the Behind the Scenes tour is a two-part tour of Alcatraz:
Altogether, the Behind the Scenes tour takes 4.5 to 5 hours. As with the regular night tour, you have the choice of the two evening ferries to take you back to Pier 33.
The best way to get tickets for this tour is to buy them directly from Alcatraz Cruises, the official seller of the Alcatraz tickets, at alcatrazcruises.com.
Youth 12-17: $86.50
Senior 62+: $84.25
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.
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 alcatrazcruises.com website.
They don't have same-day or standby tickets for this one, and I've never seen them combined with other tours in packages.
However, there are ways to get the day tour and night tour tickets on sold out days. See my tips at Alcatraz sold out for how to do it.
Departures: this tour has two sailings from Alcatraz Landing each afternoon, five days a week..
Summer: Thursday through Monday, at 4:20 pm and 4:50 pm.
Winter: (starts Nov 5, 2018) Tuesday through Saturday, at 2:10 pm and 2:40 pm.
Return to Pier 33: people on this tour become part of the night tour after the private tour is over, and can return on either of the night tour ferries, at 8:40 pm or 9:25 pm in summer, and must take the only night tour return ferry in winter at 6:40 pm.
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. On the island, the dock is the only place eating is allowed.
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's a snack bar on the ferry, too, but it would be a shame to miss the great views standing in line!
Your group of 30 (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. Where you go depends on the rangers, but usually you go through a pretty prison garden, then into the brick passageways built during the Civil War.
Then it's 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's back to the prison building. There is a staircase in Block A 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'll see in D Block weren't the worst ones!
After seeing the Dungeon, as it's called, the tour comes back up to Block A and you can climb up to the top two tiers of cells and look around. Cellblock A is 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.
The places you see on your tour may vary, since the rangers decide where to take you, but those are the places usually included.
Alcatraz Cruises 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 officially part of the night tour.
The night tour includes the audio tour of the prison, the talks and tours provided for the evening visitors, and time to check out the other buildings and areas of the island open to the public, some of which are only open at night (like Cellblock A, the night we were there).
In the past, they've taken visitors into the eerie prison hospital, but they're doing repairs in there at the moment.
The subjects of the special programs vary each night; there are usually three or four to choose from, and they're at different times, so you could do all of them if you wanted.
And of course, there are the beautiful views of the city and bridges as the sun is setting.
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.
I recommend going right in to do the audio tour when the private tour finishes. That way, you can just get ahead of the people arriving on the night tour boats and avoid some of the crowding.
At the entrance to the cellblock, and also in the gift shop inside the cellblock, you'll see a bulletin board with the evening's 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.
For all the details about the night tour and suggestions on what to see on it, see my page on the Alcatraz night tour.