The American Field Trip Guide to Channel Islands National Park

This off-shore national park protects five islands off the coast of southern California and has an incredible history: never connected to the mainland, the plants and animal species that swam, flew, floated or drifted to this isolated archipelago adapted over time to thrive in their unique environment. The park is a paradise for viewing marine wildlife, sea kayaking, snorkeling and diving, hiking, and finding solitude near one of the busiest population centers in the U.S.

Where it’s located:

Off the coast of southern California. The visitor’s center is located in Ventura Harbor, 70 miles north of Los Angeles and 30 miles south of Santa Barbara; this is also where the ferry to the islands departs.

Best for:

  • Wildlife
  • Paddling
  • Snorkeling/Scuba Diving

Features:

  • More endemic species than the Galapagos
  • World’s largest kelp forest
  • Some of the world’s largest sea caves
  • The oldest human remains ever found in North America

Getting there:

The only ways to reach the islands are by concessioner boat, private boat, or small aircraft. Island Packers is the park-approved ferry concessioner, and they run boats to all five islands.

Ferries run more frequently between April and November, but even during the high season, you’ll most likely want to book your ferry ahead—popular day-trips to Anacapa and Santa Cruz can fill up quickly and your camping schedule will depend on when ferries are available to go out and back. 

A note: the ferries, like all ferries that service national parks, are not cheap (see here for a list of fares). Get the most bang for your buck by choosing one island to explore and spending several nights there. Also know that the ferry is not just for transportation—on-board guides can give you lots of information about the islands and help you spot marine life (which is abundant in this area!)

Where to stay:

If you want to stay overnight on the islands, you’ll have to camp. There is a campground on each of the five islands in the park; all are open year-round. Reservations are required.

Campsites are $15/night at time of writing. Boats fill up faster than campsites, so check for availability of both as you’re planning, then book your transportation BEFORE booking your campsite.

Scorpion Ranch Campground on Santa Cruz Island.

Camping:

  • Campgrounds have picnic tables and pit toilets, but no other facilities.
  • Water is available at the Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz campgrounds, but not on Anacapa, Santa Barbara or San Miguel.
  • There are no trash cans; you need to pack everything out.
  • Bring a contained gas stove for cooking; no fires are allowed (the islands are very dry for most of the year!)
  • Food storage boxes are available at every campground, and you’ll need to use them to prevent your stuff from getting scavanged.
  • Getting from the ferry to the campground requires walking anywhere from a quarter mile to a mile and a half and some of the trails are steep. Make sure you can carry everything with you.

How long to stay:

You could get a taste of the Islands with a day-trip to Anacapa, only a hour’s ferry-ride from Ventura. You’ll be able to get beautiful sea cliff views and see some marine life. But we’d highly recommend taking a few more days and camping; you’ll have more time to hike, kayak, swim and explore, plus the solitude and open skies, so close to busy southern California, are really worth savoring. If you have the time, choose one island for camping and another for a subsequent day-trip so you can experience more than one island.

When to go:

You can visit the park year-round, but boats run more often between April and November. Spring brings wildflowers and green hills to the islands, summer is ideal for camping and swimming, and fall usually means the calmest winds and waters.

Pair with:

Southern California is a gorgeous part of America and a visit to Channel Islands would be easy to connect with time spent north, up the coast to Big Sur, or south to Los Angeles and San Diego. But if you’re seeking something remote and quiet, you might want to consider just adding more days on the islands; nothing else in the area evokes old California the way Channel Islands does.

Activities:

Hiking:

There are trails on each of the five islands. The longest hikes are found on the largest islands, Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa, but even tiny Anacapa and Santa Barbara have options, with two miles and five miles of trails, respectively.

Paddling:

Exploring the coastline of the islands and getting a closer look at the wildlife that ply the protected waters is one of the highlights of a trip to the Channel Islands. You have 3 options if you want to paddle:

Bring your own boat.

You’ll need to reserve space on the ferry for your boat. Check the Island Packers transport guidelines to make sure your boat meets the ferry’s size and weight limits.

Rent a boat on the mainland and bring it on the ferry.

Again, you’ll need to reserve a spot for it on the ferry.

Take a guided tour with Santa Barbara Adventure Company.

You won’t have to transport a boat or PFD’s, and many of the tours are friendly for beginners. Tours are available only on Santa Cruz.

Tidepooling:

Each of the islands has ample opportunity to explore tide pools and life in the intertidal zone.

The Five Islands:

Anacapa:

1 hour by boat

Itty bitty Anacapa is easy to see on a day trip, though campers will get to enjoy a quieter experience after the day-trippers have gone home. 

What to do:

  • Take a ranger-guided tour to learn more about the island and its abundant wildlife.
  • Hike to Inspiration Point, stopping at lookouts along the way to take in views of craggy rock formations and a sea lion colony.
  • A shorter hike will take you to the historic Anacapa Light Station.
  • Anacapa is also a stellar diving destination, with shipwrecks, marine life, kelp forest and clear waters. 

Santa Cruz:

1 hour by boat

The Channel Islands’ largest island is also home to its biggest campground, Scorpion Ranch. Surrounded by eucalyptus trees, it’s a lovely and popular spot to camp, protected by the island’s mountain ranges. The island’s shoreline is dominated by rocky cliffs dotted with sea caves and arches; it’s an ideal spot for kayaking, even if you’re a beginner.

What to do:

  • Take a ranger-guided tour to learn more about the islands’ human history and unique plant and animal life.
  • Take a long hike to Smugglers Cove or Scorpion Canyon, or an easier hike to Cavern Point or Potato Harbor.
  • Explore the coastline by kayak—bring your own boat or a rented boat with you on the ferry, or go on a guided group tour.
  • Snorkel around the giant kelp forest that surrounds Scorpion Anchorage.

Santa Rosa:

3 hours by boat

The ferry ride to Santa Rosa skirts around Santa Cruz, taking in its breathtaking craggy coastline, before landing you on the second-largest of the Channel Islands. White sand beaches, rocky canyons, historic ranch buildings, rare Torrey pines, and an ancient lava flow make this one of the park’s most varied and scenic islands. Since it takes so long to get here, you’ll probably want to camp, though it can be done as a day-trip too (just treat the long ferry ride as a scenic pleasure cruise :).)

What to do:

  • Play on the white sands of 2-mile long Water Canyon Beach.
  • Hike through Cherry Canyon up to Black Mountain for long views over Santa Rosa and the ocean. 
  • Hike the Torrey Pines trail to see one of the rarest pine species in the world.

San Miguel:

4 hours by boat

Farthest west from the mainland, San Miguel is renowned for its animal life: more than 30,000 sea lions and seals use its beaches to breed, birth and laze.

What to do:

  • Take a guided hike to Point Bennett for some of the most spectacular wildlife viewing in the country.
  • Explore the tide pools of Cuyler Harbor.
  • Take a guided hike to the caliche forest.
  • Bring along binoculars—this island is a birdwatcher’s paradise.

Santa Barbara:

3 hours by boat

South of the other islands, Santa Barbara is a great bet for a truly isolated experience, as this tiny island doesn’t see many visitors.

What to do:

Hike the island’s five miles of trails.

Watch seals and sea lions from the Sea Lion Rookery and Elephant Seal Cove overlooks.

Snorkel in the clear waters surrounding Landing Cove.

Paddle around the island’s sea caves and arches. Experienced paddlers can circumnavigate the island.

FAQ’s:

The following are all questions we received from readers about visiting Channel Islands National Park.

Are dogs allowed in the park?

Pets are not allowed in Channel Islands National Park, in order to protect the island’s wildlife.

How many days do you recommend camping on Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa to “see it all”?

Taking into account that you’ll spend a fair portion of your first and last days ferrying to and from the islands, setting up and breaking down camp, etc., we’d say you’ll have a fuller experience if you spend at least two nights in either place. That’ll give you time for a few hikes and some water-based activities. If you’re really intent on doing it ALL and you’re feeling ambitious, you can obtain a backcountry permit for either island and discover a side of the park that few people experience.

How old does a child need to be to take the ferry out to the islands?

There is no minimum age for riding the ferry.

How wild is the ocean there? I’d like to try paddling but I’m new to it.

Santa Cruz is the best island for beginning paddlers. Anacapa is also often a good bet, though it can have a strong current at times. Conditions vary widely, so you’ll want to check closer to the time you’ll be there. Summer is your best bet for calm water.

Many of the guided group tours that explore the coast of Santa Cruz are great for beginners; you’ll get a good paddling lesson in the process and learn loads about the islands. Kayaking around the outer islands (Santa Rosa, San Miguel and Santa Barbara) is recommended for more experienced sea kayakers.

How do you visit Channel Islands on a budget?

The cheapest way to visit Channel Islands would be to make friends with someone who has a boat and is willing to take you out to the islands for free. Otherwise, you’ll have to pony up for the ferry. It’s not cheap, but we do think it’s a great value considering the convenience, the on-board guides to give you information, and the sea life you’ll likely see along the way. Choose one island and spend several days there to get the most for your money.

Is Channel Islands National Park kid-friendly?

Yes! The islands are a remote wilderness, but they’re also well-visited and have rangers on-hand to help in case of emergency. Kids will enjoy exploring the islands’ trails, watching for animal life, and swimming on warmer days. Kids under 5 can’t participate in guided kayaking tours, but you can bring your own boat if you’re intent on taking the kids paddling (just be hyper-aware of water conditions before you go and remember to bring PFD’s!)

Another thing to be aware of: getting off the boat at most islands requires you to climb a short metal-runged ladder; concessioner employees are there to help and most kids won’t have a problem, but you might have to carry very small kids or pass them up the ladder to someone at the top.

Any issues with earwigs? I’ve seen multiple trip reports online about them getting into packs.

There are earwigs for sure. Be prepared to shake a few dozen of these creepy-crawlies off your gear when you pack up, especially if you’re camped beneath trees. You’ll want to keep all your stuff either in your tent or in your campsite’s fox box to avoid having your things piddled on—so your main encounter with earwigs in/on your stuff should be limited to your tent’s fly.

Any cool off-the-beaten-path areas on Santa Cruz to explore?

Compared to other national parks, Channel Islands doesn’t see a huge number of visitors, and you’re unlikely to feel truly crowded. But if you really want alone time, any of the longer hikes will take you farther from Santa Cruz’s main base of operations—try Smugglers Cove or Potato Harbor. For a true solitary experience, get a backcountry permit and explore Santa Cruz’s wilder side.

What are the approximate hike times so we don’t miss the boat?

This will depend very much on how long the crossing takes the day you go, when your boat returns and (of course) how quickly you hike. During your ferry crossing, talk to the ranger on-board to make a game plan of what you can cover in the time you have, taking into account the programs that are offered that day, weather conditions, etc.

Is there a place to put your packs between arrival and checkin at your campsite?

Yes. If you’re attending a ranger program before going to your campsite, for example, you can leave your gear at the ranger station.

Final thoughts:

A visit to Channel Islands National Park requires a bit more planning than a drive-in park. But don’t be intimidated—this is a great place for beginners to try their hands at a remote camping experience or sea kayaking. And truly, the wildlife viewing can’t be beat. Don’t miss an opportunity to explore southern California’s wild side and enjoy these wilderness islands.

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