Looking to enjoy some island time close to home? Get your ticket on the ferry and set sail for Alcatraz or Angel Island. Both offer history, picnic spots, views like you could not believe and fun for all ages. We got the full scoop on how to make the most out of your visits so read on and plan your island adventure ASAP!
photo: Alcatraz Cruises
Alcatraz is the most famous of the islands in San Francisco Bay with thousands of visitors heading there each day. Not only is it a great place to take your out-of-town guests but kids will love learning about all of the island’s history.
Alcatraz Cruises mans the ferries to the island that leave throughout the day from Pier 33. You purchase a ticket with a specific departure time and line up at the pier to board your ferry. Getting to the ferry terminal early ensures that you can get a prime spot on the boat (at least 30 minutes before your departure time is ideal). The ferry will turn around after leaving the pier so spots on the left side of the boat when facing the front will give you the best views of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge. The ferry takes about 10 minutes to get to the island. If you think you might get hungry while you are visiting Alcatraz, grab a snack on the ferry or bring your own. No food is sold on the island.
Arriving at Alcatraz
Once everyone has had a chance to disembark, you’ll gather around to listen to a park ranger provide information about visiting the island. This is a great time to learn what special presentations might be happening that day. Before you head out to explore, swing by the Ranger Station to pick up the Junior Ranger booklet. The booklet gives kids a map to follow and different activities to complete along the way. Before you board the ferry home, swing by the Ranger Station. Kids can turn in their completed booklets and get sworn in as a Junior Ranger—an honor that includes a special badge!
The Cellhouse Audio Tour
Your ferry ticket includes admission to the island and use of the audio tour to guide you through the cellhouse. To get there from the dock, you’ll need to climb some steep streets to the top of the island (a tram is available for those who are unable to walk). While these streetsare stroller-friendly, it can get very crowded inside the cellhouse and strollers can become challenging to manage. Make sure everyone wears comfortable walking shoes.
The tour proceeds at your own pace and you can expect it to last about an hour. “Doing Time: The Alcatraz Cellhouse Tour” features the voices of former inmates and guards and walks you through all parts of the cellhouse. It includes information about famous escape attempts and what inmates did on a daily basis while incarcerated (spoiler: many learned to knit!). You can pause the audio recording at any time to take photos or sit for a quick break.
In addition to touring the cellhouse, there’s tons more to see on Alcatraz Island. The New Industries Building houses rotating exhibits and the Barracks by the dock are a cool spot to sit and enjoy a short movie about the island’s history before you head home.
Expect to spend at least 2 1/2 hours there. You can leave any time you’d like as long as you don’t miss the last ferry.
Tickets: $38/adults and kids 12 and up, $23.25/kids 5-11, kids under 5 are free. A family pack (which includes two adult and two child tickets) is $114.75.
Where: Ferry departs from Pier 33
This often-overlooked island just a 10-minute ferry ride from Tiburon offers state park features like hiking trails, wildlife and spots for picnicking—and much, much more. This “Ellis Island of the West” has a long history dating back to the Civil War.
Pick up a ferry in San Francisco or Tiburon and spend the day on Angel Island State Park. Your ferry ticket includes admission to the island. Make note of the return ferry times so that you don’t find yourself stuck on the island overnight (or paying the hefty fee for a water taxi to come pick you up).
A great spot to stop when you first arrive is the visitor center located near the grassy area just past the dock. Here you can learn all about Angel Island’s history and view artifacts from its military days. It was once the hunting and fishing ground for the Coastal Miwok Indians. From 1910 to 1940, it served as the processing center for thousands of immigrants arriving in the U.S. Then the military used it as a Nike missle site in the 50s and 60s.
While you are at the dock, you can purchase tickets to ride the one-hour tram tour that takes you around the island. While you enjoy the scenic views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Bay Bridge and San Francisco, you’ll listen to an audio recording that provides points of interest and historical references along the way. The tram stops at Battery Ledyard, one of the best photo opportunities in the Bay Area.
The tram tour also takes you to visit the old hospital building and you can get out and explore the grounds. Kids will especially like the crumbling stairs that lead to nowhere. Some say that this old building is haunted!
The tram tour costs $16.50/adults, $10.50/kids and under 2 are free.
In addition to the tram tours, you can rent bikes at Angel Island (or bring your own on the ferry for an additional $1 fee). They also offer Segway tours for adults. Primitive camping is available on the island but expect a two-mile hike to get to your campsite.
Tickets from SF: Blue & Gold Fleet Ferries leave from Pier 41. One-way fares: $9.75/adult, $5.50/kid 5-11.
Tickets from Tiburon: Angel Island Tiburon Ferry round-trip fares: $15/ages 13-64, $13/ages 6-12, $5/ages 3-5, under 2 are free.
Have you visited these two islands in San Francisco Bay? Let us know your favorite spot below!
Photos by the author except where noted.