This summer, my family headed out to California, to visit with family and check out a few touristy sights.  For reasons known only to her, Alcatraz Island topped my 11-year-old daughter's list of must-see locales.  This drew a fair share of furrowed brows from folks who were sure that a dark, dank rock of a prison would be a less than ideal place to take the family for some sightseeing.

But when my tween has her mind set on something, it's best to just go with the flow.  She knew a bit of the history of Alcatraz and wanted to see it for herself.  History, mystery, and a National Park Service site --- who was I to argue?  

So let me set the record straight by saying that Alcatraz Island is a fantastic place for the whole family to visit.  Both of my girls - the youngest at age 8 - thoroughly enjoyed the trip.  The highlight of the visit was the Junior Ranger program which both girls completed to earn a badge.  Most of the 401 National Park Service sites have these programs.  Some are free, some cost anywhere from $2-$5 for the supplies required to earn the badge.  But the idea behind the program is to give kids a better insight into the park with games, scavenger hunts, and questions that encourage them to search for answers - and learn all they can - about the site.

At a price of $3 for the booklet, the Junior Ranger program at Alcatraz Island was worth its weight in gold.  The program leads kids through a series of scavenger hunts, thought-provoking questions and games, that taught the girls not only the history of the island (which goes much deeper than its use as a prison,) but about the various seabirds that call Alcatraz home as well as how to identify the trees that were on the island and how to measure wind speed by observing the leaves of the trees.

All of this, combined with the site's 45 minute audio tour, which led you through the history for which Alcatraz is most famous, amounted to a full day of family fun.  Even at the site of a dark, dank, rock of a prison.  Oh, and the views from the ferry ride over to the prison were pretty amazing too.

Insider tip: Book your tickets early, as the ferry ride (the only means of transport to Alcatraz) books up fast. And if you're traveling with the kiddos, stop in the bookstore as soon as you get off the ferry to pick up your Junior Ranger books.  That way you won't have to make a mad dash back down the hill when your kids decide they want to do it.

Related posts on MNN:

Family day trip: Alcatraz Island
Can a visit to a dank old prison be fun for the whole family? Yes, yes it can!