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.
The night tour has been voted the best tour of Alcatraz, and it books up even faster than the day tour. So, how much better is the night tour, and should you make an effort to get night tour tickets?
In many ways, it's pretty similar to the day tour. But as the sun starts to go down, and the crowds thin out, it takes on a magical quality not present during the daytime.
I'd been out to the Rock many times, but seeing it at night had a very different feel; the prison was eerier and the island more charming somehow.
Plus, it was cool getting to see areas not open during the day and hearing stories about the prison and its inmates from the park rangers.
Visitors are also able to explore areas outside the prison, including the Civil War buildings, gardens and the area around the lighthouse and ruins of the warden's house.
There is also an interesting film about the history of Alcatraz, shown in the theater on the dock, which you can watch before or after the tours.
The night tour ferries leave from Alcatraz Landing on Pier 33. In summer, there are two sailings out to the Rock (Thursday through Monday) and in winter (starting Nov 5, 2018), only one sailing (Tuesday through Saturday).
Normally, the ride out to the island takes about 15 minutes, but on the night tour, the captain sails around Alcatraz before docking on the island.
On the trip out, there's a live narration about the history of Alcatraz and what's available on the island, but I have to say it was pretty hard to hear it over the noise of the engines.
It's fun seeing all sides of Alcatraz, which you don't see on the day tour.
When the boat arrives on Alcatraz, the passengers are divided into three groups so that the entrance to the cell block is staggered. The first group is assigned a guide, who gives a brief intro talk, then leads them up the hill.
On the way up, the guide gives a presentation about the island and what to expect on the evening's tour. Then the first group enters the cell block and gets their audio gadget and headset to do the self-guided exploration of the prison.
Same process for the second and third groups, so they don't all arrive at prison at the same time.
The tram is also available on the night tours for visitors with difficulty walking up the steep hill. They run about every 30 minutes, and meet the ferries at the dock.
When you enter the cell block at the top of the hill, you'll find yourself in the prisoners' shower room, where the audio tour gadgets and headsets are handed out. You can choose from English, French, German, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Japanese, Mandarin and Korean.
When you get your audio device, you are directed to a sign near the entrance to the cell block which says Tour Starts Here and told to turn on the recording. The whole audio tour lasts 45 minutes.
The gadget is delightfully simple: red and green buttons. It's either going or not going. Beautiful! You can pause it any time, and rewind or fast forward. You don't have to put in a number for a location like in many museums.
The audio narration tells you where to go and plays recordings of actual prisoners and guards from Alcatraz telling their stories. You'll hear the sound effects of the shoot-outs, clanging doors, etc. Very well done.
One advantage of the night tour is that only two boats go out to the island during the evening (and only one in winter), whereas 15 (!) boats go out during the day, and numbers can build up as the day goes on, since visitors can take any boat back. But all the day tour folks have to leave the island before the night tours start going out.
Even so, I found the crowds pretty intense, because the corridors are not that wide, and everyone in the group is trying to see the same cell at the same time.
One solution: (which I didn't think of until later)... be one of the last ones off the boat to be in the third group. Then once you get into the cell block for the audio tour, hang back and let the group start ahead of you. Start your audio tour after most of the group has moved on.
Otherwise, you may find yourself waiting for a turn to see each place on the tour and trying to peer over people's heads.
Another idea: head outside when you first get to the cell block, explore the island, then come back inside after 7:30 pm (summer schedule) when the visitors on both boats will have finished their audio tours.
Here's what the corridors look like later in the evening (after 7:30 or so) when most people are outside.
It's really cool to wander through the prison when there's hardly anyone around. You can go into the open cells and explore on your own; it's a bit haunting and you can get a better feel of the prison atmosphere.
The night tour gives you a choice of extra guided tours to areas not normally available during the day. It used to include the hospital, but they're doing repairs on it at the moment, so you'll see other areas like the second floor cells and A Block which is usually closed off. On one of our night tours, there was a guided tour of areas associated with Machine Gun Kelly.
There are also extra lectures on various topics. For our first night tour, there was a talk on the lives of the guards and families, and another one on a notorious kidnapper sent to Alcatraz. Tidbit: kidnappers of rich tycoons were looking at $250,000 in ransom money, quite a haul in the 1930's.
On our second night tour, a ranger gave a talk on the 1930's gangsters' method of robbing banks vs. the modern pattern (the gangsters were more organized, and more violent, and a number of them ended up in Alcatraz), and another ranger gave a talk on escape attempts.
The guide announces the times for these tours during the trip up to the cell block, and they are also posted in the building, near the prison entrance and in the bookstore/gift shop in the prison building.
When you finish the audio tour inside the cell block, you can head outside to the area where the Alcatraz lighthouse sits. From there, you can see the ruins of the warden's house and can follow the paths down to other areas of the island.
Other things to see: buildings from the Civil War era, gardens, and nesting areas for birds.
If it's a clear night, the views of the city and the Golden Gate Bridge are spectacular as the sun goes down.
Note: There's been a fair amount of construction going on at Alcatraz for the past year to repair the damage done by decades of salty air, but it's winding down now.
Consequently, the prison hospital is still blocked off and won't be accessible for awhile, but the rest of the areas normally open on the tours are available again, including the prisoners' exercise yard.
Alcatraz is a major nesting site for large numbers of sea gulls, snowy egrets, cormorants and other sea birds. It's not so obvious during the day, but as the sun goes down, the resident birds come in for the night and the numbers are impressive.
The squawking of the gulls and flapping of all the wings makes you realize just how many are living on the island.
The birds are building nests and laying eggs in April and May, and the chicks are born in June. There's a good map that shows their nesting areas on this Park Service publication.
Very few birds lived on Alcatraz while it was a prison (the Bird Man didn't keep any birds while he was here; that happened in Leavenworth).
The cormorants spend their whole lives out on the open ocean and only come to land during the spring to nest and raise their chicks.
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Alcatraz night tour tickets can be purchased 3 ways:
As the length of daylight changes during the year, the departure times change as well. The night tours run 5 evenings a week, year-round.
Summer: the night tour runs Thursday through Monday, with two sailings each night, at 6:10 and 6:45 pm.
Winter: the night tour runhas one sailing, Tuesday through Saturday, at 3:50 pm.
In spring and early summer, the night tours leave for Alcatraz at 5:55 and 6:30 pm .
The return times also vary with the seasons; they're posted at Pier 33 and on the dock on Alcatraz.
It can be a challenge. Alcatraz night tour tickets are the toughest to get because there are a lot fewer of them. By mid May, they are usually sold out two months in advance, often almost three months, and aren't included in most of the combination tours.
Tip: if you're up for a longer, a bit more strenuous, visit to Alcatraz, you can go on the Behind the Scenes Tour which includes the night tour. For details, see Behind the Scenes Tour.
These tickets get sold out in summer as well, but not as far in advance.
Another option: do the night tour together with another activity, in a combination package. Until this year (2018), it wasn't possible to find a combination deal that included the Alcatraz night tour.
One company, Incredible Adventures, has night tour tickets combined with lots of other things, like city tours, bay tours, wine tours, even Yosemite tours. Check with the incadventures.com to see what they have available, but these get booked up in summer as well.
Otherwise, you can book a Day Tour by itself or a Day Tour combined with other San Francisco attractions, like the popular Alcatraz/Muir Woods/Sausalito Tour, or the Alcatraz/Hop-On Hop-Off Bus city tour.
You can take either of the two return boats to get back to the city, but don't miss the last one! In spring and summer, the boats leave at 8:40 and 9:25 pm, but departure times vary with the seasons, so be sure to check the signs for the current times. The last, and only, boat in winter time leaves Alcatraz at 6:40 pm.
They blow a warning horn and do a search of the island each night before the last boat leaves to make sure there aren't any overnight visitors!
We went out on the 5:55 pm ferry and found 2.5 hours was plenty to see and do everything, so we took the 8:40 pm boat back. It was pretty dark by that time, but Alcatraz is well lit at night, so finding our way back down to the dock was easy. In mid-summer, you'll have to take the last boat back to see the city lights.
It was so pretty out on the island with the lights of the city sparkling in the distance. And Alcatraz seemed more intimate and magical after dark; not at all scary, but very welcoming and friendly. Almost like being on a private island. Highly recommended!
For information on the other Alcatraz tours available, see Alcatraz prison tours.
For more tips for visiting the island, including where to catch the ferry, transportation and parking, see visiting Alcatraz.
Is Alcatraz sold out, both the day and night tours? See my suggestions on getting the tickets; it can be done!