Seeing the sights in San Francisco has all the makings of a great family adventure. The hardest part is often fitting in everything you want to do. Ride a cable car, Segway through Golden Gate Park, bike across the Golden Gate Bridge – the list goes on and on. But one attraction that’s near impossible to cross off for most family visits to San Francisco is Alcatraz.
Thanks to Hollywood, almost everyone knows Alcatraz as the home of federal inmates the likes of Al Capone and Robert “Birdman of Alcatraz” Stroud. But before it was a federal penitentiary it was a military fortress trusted to guard the San Francisco Bay and home to the first lighthouse on the Pacific Coast.
I’ve made the trip to Alcatraz a few times with my kids and friends visiting the Bay Area from out of town. The tour is wildly popular and fills incredibly fast. Nine months of the year you can’t get same-day tickets, so plan ahead if a trip is in your future. The tour includes the ferry to Alcatraz, a self-guided audio tour (my then 7-year-old did fine with it), and ferry back to Pier 33. I used to think you could do the island justice in a few hours. Now I know better. There is so much more to Alcatraz than what you see inside the prison building.
Being a parent has its many rewards, even on Alcatraz. My teenage daughter was among a group of 30 high school students chosen to spend the night on Alcatraz and I was lucky enough to be one of the parents picked to chaperone. Myself + four additional chaperones + 30 high schoolers = one of the most amazing field trips possible.
Tell someone you’re spending the night on Alcatraz and the responses you get are priceless. An unknown activity to most, sleepovers on The Rock are more the norm than the exception. There are 18 overnights per year, and the competition to get an invite is fierce. Only formally organized 501 (c)(3) non-profit groups are allowed to enter the lottery that’s used to randomly select the participants. Applications for the lottery are accepted during the month of November for nights scheduled during the following year. Depending on the year, 200 to 400 groups may throw their name into the lottery. Everyone in the group must be at least 9 years of age.
After the ferry ride to Alcatraz, groups roll up their sleeves and spend a couple hours doing community service on the island. When the work is done, groups receive a special guided tour by a Park Ranger. You could say our group won the lottery twice. Park Ranger John Cantwell was on duty. When he was 14 he was a volunteer at Fort Point. By his junior year of high school he was running the bookstore on Alcatraz. For the past 21 years he’s been a permanent Ranger on Alcatraz caring for and teaching visitors about island.
The focus of the overnight program is education, but don’t tell that to the 30 high schoolers I spent the night exploring the island with. The more we walked and listened, the more we learned about the human side to Alcatraz. Notorious prisoners were reduced to numbers here, but the prison guards who kept watch over them and their families called Alcatraz home too.
“It was a nice place to raise a family. They never had to lock their doors,” says Cantwell.
As you explore with the Park Ranger, you’ll come across locations like puppy steps, where the island’s gentler side peaks through. The steps were built when the island was a military penitentiary (long before it was a federal prison) to accommodate the Welsh Corgi that belonged to an army commanding officer. Short steps may be good for pups, but they’re a little tricky for folks to climb today, so hold on tight to the railing.
Just as the sun was setting over the Golden Gate Bridge, we took a break to cook hamburgers and hot dogs on a barbecue provided on the island. Talk about dinner with a view.
After dinner we were quickly on the move again, though the view of San Francisco kept stopping us in our tracks. Glowing bright orange in honor of the soon to be World Series Champions Giants baseball team, every few steps there seemed to be different angle worthy of another picture.
Our evening tour took us to the “Top of the Rock,” or the prison guards break room. Inside sits a pool table made in 1910 that used to sit in the Officers Club. At 5×9 feet it has the same dimensions as a prisoner’s cell on Alcatraz.
If living in a room the size of a pool table doesn’t leave an impression, seeing and hearing the cellblock doors in action will get your attention. Listen carefully and you may even notice a sense of familiarity.
It’s the same sound you hear when Darth Vader walks through doors on his Star Cruiser. George Lucas recorded it for Star Wars and liked the result.
“Lucas also confirmed the sound effect has been used as a good luck charm in every movie (that he’s produced) since Star Wars,” says Cantwell.
Spending the night on Alcatraz was one of those most-likely once in a lifetime opportunities. It’s something a majority of folks will never do, but I learned things the average visitor should know to make their day trip experience even better.
Get to the island as early as possible. Interpretive walks and programs led by National Park Service Rangers take place throughout the day, but there’s often a better selection to choose from earlier in the day.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions when visiting Alcatraz. Park Rangers love what they do and are happy to answer questions. Depending on how busy they are, they’ve been known on occasion to show off areas typically missed by visitors.
The weather on Alcatraz can change in an instant. Come prepared to be cold and be happy when you shed any layers. You’ll be doing quite a bit of walking while you tour the Island, so good walking shoes are a must.
Just for the record, all that walking and exploring made for a very tired group of kids. I slept in my cell, curled up in a sleeping bag for almost seven solid hours. That’s more rest than an average night at home.
Photos by Dana Rebmann
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