The Alcatraz Night Tour

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? 

I'd been out to the Rock many times, but this was my first time seeing it at night. In most ways, it was pretty similar to the day tour. But as the sun started to go down, and the crowds thinned out, it took on a magical quality I hadn't experienced on earlier visits.

Sundown on Alcatraz

Included in the night tour:

  • Transportation out to Alcatraz on the ferry.
  • A narrated tour as the ferry circles the island.
  • A guided tour up to the cell block.
  • Audio self-guided tour inside the prison.
  • Extra programs like guided tours of areas not accessible to the day tours. 

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.

City view before sunset

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.

How the tour works:

Getting there...

The night tour ferries leave from Alcatraz Landing on Pier 33. There are two sailings each night out to the Rock, but no tours on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Normally, the ride out to the island takes about 15 minutes, but on the night tour, the captain sails all 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. 

Alcatraz island building, new Indian signNew Sign on Alcatraz

On the island...

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.

The Audio Tour

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 tell you where to go and plays recordings of actual prisoners and guards from Alcatraz telling their stories. Very well done. Plus sound effects for the shoot-outs, clanging doors, etc.

Tips for avoiding the crowds...

One  advantage of the night tour is that only two boats go out to the island during the evening, 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.

Crowds in Alcatraz cell block corridor, night tourRather crowded in cell block halls

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 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.

alcatraz night tour, tiers of cellsQuiet at night

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.

alcatraz night tour, inside cellView from inside

Special programs

The night tour gives you a choice of extra guided tours to areas not normally available during the day. Often it's the hospital, but can be other areas of the prison, like the second floor cells. On our night, there was a guided tour of areas associated with Machine Gun Kelly. 

There are also extra lectures on various topics. For our 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. 

The guide announces the times for these tours during the trip up to the cell block, and they are also posted in the building.

Exploring outside the prison.

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.

Alcatraz after dark, couple on walkwayExploring Alcatraz at Night

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. 

alcatraz night tour, golden gate bridge view at sunset

Note:  There's a fair amount of construction going on at Alcatraz at the moment to repair the damage done by decades of salty air. 

Consequently, areas like the hospital and the exercise yard are blocked off and won't be accessible until early 2018.

The birds

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.

cormorants nesting, April on Alcatraz, night tourSpring on Alcatraz, Cormorants Nesting

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Tickets for the night tour

Alcatraz night tour tickets can be purchased 3 ways:

  • Online from Alcatraz Cruises (the official company that has the tour concession from the Park Service) at
  • By phone at 415 981-7625.
  • At the ticket booth on Pier 33, Alcatraz Landing.

Current night tour prices:

  • Adults: $44.25
  • Ages 12-17: $43.25
  • Kids (5-11): 26.50
  • Seniors (62+): $41.25
  • Under 5: free

Departure times:

The night tour runs five nights a week, Thursday through Monday, with two sailings each night.

 In spring and early summer, the night tours leave for Alcatraz at 5:55 and 6:30 pm, .

As the length of daylight changes during the year, the departure times changes as well. In winter, the first boats leave Pier 33 around 4:20 and 5:00 pm, returning earlier as well, and in summer they leave at 6:10 and 6:45 pm.

Getting night tour tickets

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 the combination tours with other attractions.

Also, they don't have night tour tickets set aside each day for walk-up purchases like the day tours (see last minute tickets for getting same-day tickets for the day tours).

Night tour tickets sold out?

Insider Tip:

There is a way to get last minute, same-day night tour tickets. It's a long shot, but most people aren't aware of this possibility.

When the ticket booth at Alcatraz Landing on Pier 33 opens (usually around 7:30 am) you can buy standby tickets for the night tour. Then, just show up at the departure times for the evening boats and wait to see if there are no-shows. If they have extra spaces,  they will let people board in the order the tickets were purchased.

If it's full, you can wait for the next boat and try again. If you don't get on either boat,  go back to the ticket booth and get a refund the same night.

Tip: if you're up for a longer, 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.

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.

Heading home

You can take either of the two return boats to get back to the city,  but don't miss the last one! In spring, the boats leave at 8:40 and 9:30 pm, but departure times vary with the seasons, so be sure to check the signs for the current times.

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.

alcatraz night tour, walkway under bridgeBack to the Dock

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 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!

SF dinner cruise, city and bridge lights.

If you want to experience the city lights at night from the bay, Hornblower Yachts has a fun dinner/dance cruise.

We had a great time on it. See my dinner cruise page for info and photos, or book it here.

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