Family Travel: Visiting (and Escaping) Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Island


Just one mile away from San Francisco’s busy shore, Alcatraz Island, once the infamous federal prison, waits ready for exploration.  Although visiting a federal prison might not seem up there on the top of your family vacation bucket list, school-age kids actually enjoy learning about the island’s history while exploring the grounds.  In addition to being known widely as a prison, Alcatraz Island served as a post in the Civil War, is home to the west coast’s first lighthouse, and even hosted a Native American Indian occupation during the 1960s.  Mix together all of this history with amazing views of the bay, wildlife, and city skyline, and you’ve got a great family day trip!

The island is maintained by the National Park Service and is accessible only by official charter through Alcatraz Cruises.  A fifteen-minute boat ride whisks you and your family to “The Rock.”  You’ll be greeted by a friendly park ranger when you arrive, who will debrief you on your visit and share a couple stories.  Ask about the junior ranger program, the perfect fit for reading kids, available for free in the visitor center and gift shops.  After hiking up numerous switchbacks to reach the top portion of the island (a shuttle is available for those unable to make the climb due to physical limitations), you will arrive at the audio tour start point.

The Cellhouse Audio Tour is self-guided and available in numerous languages.  It offers an inside look at the penitentiary’s history as told by some of the former inmates and prison guards.  Although smaller children are not likely to grasp everything being explained on the tour, kids as young as six or seven should be able to follow along with the tour quite nicely.  Despite the great presentation, the tour is not for everyone.  Although crime details are not discussed in exhaustive definition, the tour does mention a few grim details including discussing the Battle of Alcatraz, which included numerous deaths.

Spend some time on the island after the tour exploring the abundant wildlife.  The Junior Ranger activity booklet helps point you in the right direction.  In addition to touring the cellhouse, families can explore information on the Civil War post and Native American Indian occupation in the exhibits and video rooms below the main buildings.

Tours sell out well in advance in busy seasons, and reservations are more than highly recommended.

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