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Alcatraz Island at Sunset

If you’re anything like us, the cold winter nights are a perfect excuse to start planning summer vacations. We plan some of our best trips this time of year, since there’s plenty of time to do our ParkChasing homework. If the Golden Gate National Recreation Area made it on your travel itinerary, it’s time to start thinking about a trip to Alcatraz Island, the most famous penitentiary in United States history. Park Chasers has seen Alcatraz up close and personal twice, once in 2007 and once in 2012. Today we’re sharing the 5 things we wish someone had told us before we landed on “the Rock” in hopes that your Alcatraz tour is the highlight of your vacation.

Dock at Alcatraz

1. Read a little Alcatraz Island history before you go.

Most people know Alcatraz for its most famous inmates or the FOX TV series. However the island has a storied history beginning as a Civil War-era military outpost and the first lighthouse on the West Coast.  Two occupations by American Indians in the 1960’s also played a central role in the site’s history.

Many of the exhibits focus on the important people within these eras. On our first trip to Alcatraz it would have helped to have some background knowledge before diving into our tour.  Less time trying to put together the timeline and more time getting to know the characters of Alcatraz. We recommend the park website and the documentary Exploring Alcatraz.

Entering the Docks at Alcatraz Island

Entering the Docks at Alcatraz Island

2. Be prepared for the weather.

The Bay Area weather is notoriously unpredictable. In the two trips we have taken, one was so foggy most of the island was hidden (except when it was pouring rain) and the other was take-your-breath-away windy. While a bulk of the exhibits keep you protected from the elements, the cool concrete and historic buildings don’t offer much when it’s chilly and damp.

Watch Tower on Alcatraz Island

Watch Tower on Alcatraz Island

3. Do some bird watching.

When we first landed on Alcatraz, we had no idea that the current residents of the island are just as well-known as the lone-gone prisoners. Alcatraz Island was first named alcatraces or “Island of the Seabirds” by European explorers because it has long been the mating and nesting grounds for species like cormorants, egrets, herons, and gulls. Stop in the Visitor’s Center at some point during your trip and pick up the brochure and ask if there’s a chance you might catch a few photos of baby chicks.

Alcatraz Island

4. Meet up with a ranger-led tour.

Part of the price of your ferry ticket is an audio tour of the cellhouse on Alcatraz. While we were excited to hear about Birdman, Al Capone, and the infamous escapes, it also meant we spent part of our day wandering with our own headsets on without the chance to really talk or engage much. It should by no-means discourage anyone from visiting, but be prepared it may not feel like the experience at other historic sites in the NPS system. Ranger-led programs are offered daily on Alcatraz and are well-worth checking into if you are used to asking questions and visiting with a guide.

5. When they say “limited amenities,” they mean it.

3-4 hours is likely enough time for most visitors to make their way through the exhibits, check out the gardens, and pick a souvenir in the bookstore. That being said, if you go hungry or unprepared you may be surprised how little development is on the island. It certainly caught us off guard on our first trip!

The national park service has strict rules prohibiting eating and drinking anywhere on the island except on the dock. The ferry ride will have a small (and pricey!) selection of snacks, but who wants to spend time in line when you can be getting the best Instagrams of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge. And plan accordingly when it comes to the restroom. There are only two on the island, one by the dock and one at the top of the hill near the end of the audio tour. You don’t want to stop in the middle of your tour to walk down the 13 story hill just to use the bathroom.

Sunset on the way home from Alcatraz

Sunset on the way home from Alcatraz

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