My Experience on the Behind the Scenes Tour of Alcatraz

Jill on a windy day at the Golden Gate Bridge

by Jill Loeffler  •

Published: May 9, 2024

The Behind the Scenes Alcatraz Tour is my favorite way to visit the island. It's a great option if your stay in SF is a little longer, if you are a HUGE Alcatraz history buff, or if you've already done the day tour.

I love this tour as it includes a small-group guided tour of the island, which allows you access to areas not open to those on the standard day or night tours.

This tour from San Francisco runs once or twice a day, depending on the time of year, and is only open to 30 people per tour.

This is one of the reasons why it is the most expensive Alcatraz prison tour.

After the guided Behind the Scenes tour, you will then get a chance to pick up your self-guided audio tour kit and visit the rest of the main prison building on your own.

You will then return to San Francisco with the rest of the night tour visitors.

This tour leaves from Pier 33 in the middle of the afternoon, and you will return mid-evening. You can choose from several ferries heading back starting at 8:30 pm.

Make sure to allow for at least four to five hours on the island when you book this tour.

This is a recap of my recent experience on this fun Alcatraz Island tour.

A look at Alcatraz from the ferry

Disclaimer: I receive a small commission from some of the links on this page.

What You'll See on the Guided Tour

When you arrive at Alcatraz, a ranger will gather your group and hand you a sticker indicating that you are on the exclusive Behind the Scenes tour.

The tour walks past some areas that other visitors are in, so you need to have your sticker showing so the ranger can easily confirm that only those who paid for this tour are on it.

This is the one I received during my last visit.

Sticker for Alcatraz Tour

The ranger will then tell you a little about what to expect on the guided tour, which will last anywhere from 1.5 to 2 hours.

The length of this part of the tour depends on the number of questions asked and how long it takes the group to gather at each new location.

Part of the tour is in the buildings where they used to do the laundry, the clothing store, the machine and electric shop, and other services needed to run the island.

The other part of the tour is in the main prison building, but in areas that others can't access.

On the day I took this tour, these are some of the areas we visited.

New Industries Building

Here, they gave us access to walk up and down the Guards Gallery so we could see what it was like to watch over the prisoners.

You have to walk down a steep staircase to get here, and there was quite a bit of glass on the floor, so be careful in this area on the tour.

New Industries Gun Gallery

Underground Tunnel

We walked through an underground tunnel connecting two of the Industries Buildings.

This tunnel might look familiar to some of you as it was used to film a scene with Nicholas Cage for The Rock.

Underground Tunnel Alcatraz

>> Visit my movies page to find out about this and other movies filmed in San Francisco

Solitary Confinement in the Main Prison Basement

One of my favorite parts of the Behind the Scenes Tour was when we went into the basement to check out one of the areas they used for solitary confinement.

These are the steps we climbed down to get there.

Steps to Solitary

Because this area of the main prison cell has been somewhat abandoned, we had to wear hard hats to protect ourselves.

Hard Hat Alcatraz Tour

The prisoners in the solitary confinement area were left in the dark most of the time. So, our guide allowed us all to step inside the cells and turned off the lights for 30 seconds.

It was a great way to help us understand what it was like having to be down there for days, weeks, or sometimes even years at a time.

They did allow us to opt out of this part of the tour if we wanted.

Al Capone's Cell

Another thing I loved about this Alcatraz Island tour was climbing up the spiral staircase to the second floor of the main prison to see one of the cells Al Capone stayed in during his imprisonment.

Al Capone Cell

It looks like a normal cell, but they did allow us each a few seconds to step inside.

Recreation Yard

Our tour concluded in the Recreation Yard. This is where the inmates were able to get some time outdoors.

It's also where you can get some views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Sausalito.

Recreation Yard at Alcatraz

These are just some of the steps you have to climb down to get to the Recreation Yard.

Steps Into Main Prison Building

This is a view looking back at the main prison building from the Recreation Yard. I love the lighting in this photo. It was at dusk when the colors were so beautiful!

Main Prison Building from the Rec Yard Alcatraz

Other Photos from the Behind the Scenes Alcatraz Tour

Behind the Scenes MachineryWe spent quite a bit of time in this room where this equipment was located. This is where we heard a lot of stories about the operations of Alcatraz when it was still a federal prison.
Solitary Confinement Cells in the Basement at AlcatrazThese are some of the solitary confinement cells in the basement at Alcatraz. We stood inside these when they shut off the lights.
Steep Steps on AlcatrazThis was another staircase we climbed to get to the main prison building. These are closed to general visitors and only those on the Behind the Scenes Tour get to use them.

Details on the Self-Guided Alcatraz Cellhouse Audio Tour

Once the guided portion of the Behind the Scenes Tour was over, our group returned to the main prison building to start the self-guided audio tour. This portion usually takes about 45 minutes.

It offers award-winning audio with the voices of some of the prisoners and guards who lived on Alcatraz. It takes you past some of the most important areas in the main prison where well-known events occurred.

You'll learn more about Al Capone's time on The Rock and the infamous 1962 escape attempt. You will hear all about what it was like to be a prisoner here and hear from guards who raised their families on the island.

You'll also visit the library, another area with solitary confinement cells, and the dining room.

Other Special Areas Open at Night

One of my favorite things about being on Alcatraz at night is that additional parts of the island are open since there are fewer visitors than during the day. With the Behind the Scenes Tour, you will also have access to these additional areas.

The main section that is usually open only at night is the second-floor hospital. It's an unusual opportunity to learn more about the medical care the prisoners received while still on the island.

Here are a few photos from my last visit.

Medical Room in the Hospital at Alcatraz
Hosptial Room on Alcatraz
Robert Stoud's Hospital Room on Alcatraz

>> Learn more about the Alcatraz Night Tour

Special Programs and Talks

I also love the ranger-led talks and special programs they offer. They're a great way to learn even more about this infamous prison and island. The schedule is posted in several areas, so you know what is being offered on the night you visit.

These special programs include more stories about the island. Here are just some of the topics for the programs I've attended over the years.

  • More details on the many escape attempts
  • History and details about the Indian Occupation
  • Alcatraz Island's original use as a military prison
  • Stories about specific prisoners and important events on the island

These are all free and included in the price of your ticket.

A Few More Things to Know about the Behind the Scenes Alcatraz Tour

Night Ferry Alcatraz

Age Limit

You must be 12 or older to go on this tour. It's the only Alcatraz Island tour with an age limit.

If you happen to buy a ticket for someone under 12, they will not make an exception for them to go on this tour. Unfortunately, you won't be allowed to board the ferry and you also won't get a refund.

Physical Effort Needed for this Tour

The Behind the Scenes Tour is a bit more strenuous than the other Alcatraz Tours.

  • First, you will be standing a lot during the guided tour. I recommend wearing comfortable clothing and shoes that allow you to stand for at least ten or more minutes at a time.
  • Second, there is quite a bit more walking on this tour. You will be walking from hidden spot to hidden spot around the island, which will take a bit more out of you. I've been on this tour a few times and am usually worn out after it.
  • Third, you will be climbing steep steps, walking through tunnels, and visiting areas of the island that are restricted because they are harder to explore. You won't have the option to forgo these areas because you visit them in route to other hidden spots on the island.

If you have trouble walking or standing for periods of time without sitting down, I don't recommend this tour.

This is another reason why they only allow those ages 12 and over to go on this tour.

Ferry Ride from San Francisco to Alcatraz Island

Your Alcatraz tour ticket includes your ferry ride over to the island. It's a short, fun cruise across the bay.

You'll get some great views around the San Francisco Bay as you cruise over, including the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island, the San Francisco waterfront, and the SF skyline.

>> Learn more about the ferries to Alcatraz Island from San Francisco

Leaving Alcatraz Island Early to Return to San Francisco

You do have a chance to head back right after the guided Behind the Scenes Tour on the last departure of the day tour ferry.

So, if you've been on the island before and really want to go on this special guided portion but don't want to stay for the self-guided audio tour (or are short on time), this is an option.

However, it cuts your entire visit really short, and you usually have to head back to the final day tour ferry even before the guided tour ends.

The last time I was here, one person left early. They had to leave about 30 minutes before our guided tour ended, and we were on the first guided tour of the day.

It really cut into their experience, and I'm not sure it was worth the ticket price.

One of the rangers left with them, and they had to jog to the ferry to make sure they didn't miss it.

Ticket Prices

The Behind the Scenes Tour is the most expensive tour.

Since it includes both the guided tour and everything you get with the Alcatraz Night Tour, it costs more than $100 per person.

Is it worth it?

I would say yes if you are really interested in learning even more about Alcatraz Island than you would on a regular day or night tour.

I would say this is for prison, history, or Alcatraz super fans.

It goes into a lot of detail and takes almost double the time the other tours take (4 to 5 hours), so you should really want to learn more about Alcatraz Island to go on this one.

>> Visit the official website at City Experiences to book your visit today

>> Learn more about the other Alcatraz Island Tours

Other Pages About Alcatraz Island to Explore

Behind the Scenes Alcatraz Tour Pin

Comments? Questions? Suggestions?

I would love for you to join me in my private Facebook group

It's a great place to interact with me and others who know the area well.

You can ask questions, get advice for your upcoming stay, and then share your photos and advice with others when you return home. It's a great community and the fastest way to get answers to those nagging questions about your visit!

Come join the fun here!

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