The first time I heard that the Channel Islands was like the Galapagos of the United States, I couldn’t shake my mind from the idea of this place. How could something so ecologically rich and wild exist that close to Los Angeles?
The Channel Islands National Park is understandably one of the lesser-visited parks in the United States, because – as the name suggests – the park consists of a series of islands that are only accessible by boat or plane (more on this below!). But, the trade-off for making the trek out to the Channel Islands is the reward of getting to see landscapes almost completely untouched by modern meddling. In fact, the Channel Islands are home to a number of special ecosystems, as well as countless plant and animal species, many of which are endemic to the area (meaning they can’t be found anywhere else in the world).
During my two-day visit to the Channel Islands, I witnessed mega pods of dolphins, sea lions, leopard sharks, foxes, birds, and even a blue whale! It was surreal and almost unfathomable, that this much wildlife could exist in such blissful isolation, just a few short hours from some of the most populated cities in the country.
If I’ve convinced you so far that this place is well worth a visit, and you’re ready to start planning your trip, keep reading for everything you need to know before visiting Channel Islands National Park!
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Channel Islands National Park Guide: Everything You Need to Know Before
The 5 Islands Within Channel Islands National Park
The Channel Islands National Park is a series of five main islands off the coast of California near Ventura. It is a National Park, but the Channel Islands National Park Visitors Center can actually be found on the mainland, in Ventura, right next to the ferry company that will take you to whichever island you plan on visiting.
Each of the Channel Islands has something different to offer, depending on what you’d like to do, whether you plan on camping or day-tripping, and how much time you have for your trip. There is no “best” island to visit, but there may be a most ideal island to choose based on these factors.
One commonality each island shares is that your opportunities for wildlife viewing will be vast, which is one of the coolest parts about visiting this particular national park. Elephant seals, sea lions, island foxes, seabirds, dolphins, leopard sharks, kelp forests filled with fish, the occasional whale sighting, and perhaps even more await intrepid visitors. Each island also has its own selection of hiking trails and water sports opportunities, too.
Here’s a general overview of each of the five islands!
Santa Barbara Island
- Time to Get There: 2.5 – 3 hours by boat
- Accessibility: TBD. The island is currently closed because the pier is damaged. At the time of writing this article (2020), there is no confirmed reopening date yet.
- Campgrounds: One (10 sites)
- Recommended # Of Nights: 2 – 3 (due to ferry schedule)
- Potable Water On-Island?: No
Santa Barbara Island is the tiniest island within the national park. It’s one of the more remote islands and because of this, transportation to and from Santa Barbara Island may operate on a more limited ferry schedule (in fact, as of 2020, the island remains closed because the pier is damaged). Despite its small size, Santa Barbara Island is known for its abundant wildlife – think elephant seals, seabirds, and vibrant, colorful flowers – and five miles of hiking trails.
- Time to Get There: 1 hour by boat
- Accessibility: Year-round
- Campgrounds: 1 (7 sites)
- Recommended # Of Nights: 1 (though can also easily be done as a day trip)
- Potable Water On-Island?: No
Anacapa Island is actually a series of 3 islets, which in total make up about one square mile in size. One of the most incredible viewpoints on Anacapa (and arguably in the entire national park) can be found here at Inspiration Point, a short 1.5 – 2 mile, easy trail. There are also rich kelp forests at Landing Cove worth exploring, and some amazing vantage points for observing sea lions, sea caves, tide pools, and wildflowers.
Santa Cruz Island
- Time to Get There: 1.5 hours by boat to Scorpion Anchorage, 2 hours to Prisoner’s Harbor
- Accessibility: Year-round
- Campgrounds: 2 (31 regular sites at Scorpion Anchorage, 4 backcountry sites at Prisoner’s Harbor)
- Recommended # Of Nights: 1 – 2
- Potable Water On-Island?: Yes, at Scorpion Anchorage only
Santa Cruz Island is the largest island in the national park, easy to get to thanks to a consistent ferry schedule, and most abundant in terms of things to do. This island splits ownership between the National Park Service and The Nature Conservancy, which is private property but with some trail access for visitors to hike through and enjoy. There are two landing points on the island, Prisoner’s Harbor and Scorpion Anchorage, and two campsites – one of which is a backcountry site that requires 3.5 miles of hiking to get to. When it comes to backcountry camping in the Channel Islands, keep in mind that you’ll need to pack in your own water!
Santa Cruz Island was the island I visited, and often recommended for first-timers to the park. I stayed at the backcountry campsite here, and have to say that it was honestly one of the most spectacular views from a campsite I’d ever experienced. The campsite is high up and a bit of a trek, but you’re rewarded with beautiful coastal views and remarkable sunsets!
In addition to lots of hiking trails to choose from on Santa Cruz Island, you can rent snorkel gear here to explore more the island’s unique habitats underwater. If remaining above water is more your thing, rent a kayak ahead of time or schedule a guided kayaking tour of the island’s famous sea caves, including the famous Painted Cave (one of the largest sea caves in the world!). Just a quick heads up – if you choose to rent a kayak ahead of time versus booking an organized tour, you’ll need to reserve space on your ferry and transport your kayak to the island and back with you.
Santa Rosa Island
- Time to Get There: 2.5 hours by boat
- Accessibility: March – November only, subject to weather conditions
- Campgrounds: 2 (15 regular sites, backcountry beach camping also only available from August – December)
- Recommended # Of Nights: 1 – 2
- Potable Water On-Island?: Yes, at Water Canyon
Arguably one of the best islands for wildlife watching, Santa Rosa Island is the second-largest island in the national park. It’s also home to Torrey Pines (info needed) and one of the most beautiful beaches in the Channel Islands, Water Canyon.
As you move further north, the conditions on the islands changes a bit drastically. Santa Rosa island is often colder and windier than the other islands mentioned above, and water sports here are only recommended for more experienced individuals. Make sure to pack a windbreaker and some layers!
San Miguel Island
- Time to Get There: 3 – 3.5 hours by boat
- Accessibility: July – October only, subject to weather conditions
- Campgrounds: One (9 sites, all primitive)
- Recommended # Of Nights: 2 – 3 (due to remoteness and ferry schedule)
- Potable Water On-Island?: No
San Miguel Island is the most remote island in the Channel Islands National Park, and the northernmost, meaning it’s typically windier than the rest. The tradeoff is that San Miguel is home to one of the largest populations of seals and sea lions in the world, and can be viewed at Point Bennett, a 16-mile roundtrip hike. To get here, keep in mind that when arriving at Cuyler Harbor, you will need to take a smaller boat from the ferry to the shore, and you could get a little wet in the process.
Like Santa Rosa, water sports aren’t recommended here unless you’re highly experienced. Also, swimming is not recommended as the waters off the coast of San Miguel are a popular habitat for great white sharks, due to the colder temperatures and abundance of marine life.
It’s also important to note that in order to visit San Miguel, you’ll need to fill out an ‘Acknowledgement of Danger’ form because of the island’s remoteness, ruggedness, and frequently changing weather conditions.
How to Get to the Channel Islands
Cost of Entrance
This is one of the few national parks in the US with no entrance fee, but you’ll need to pay to get there, and the cost varies depending on the island and on whether you’re day-tripping or camping.
There are two ways you can visit Channel Islands National Park.
All of the islands are accessible by boat, via a company called Island Packers Cruises, which is located in Ventura. As mentioned above, some islands can be visited year-round (Anacapa, Santa Cruz), whereas others may have more varied boat schedules due to distance and weather conditions (Santa Rosa, San Miguel, Santa Barbara). All islands operate on different departure / return days throughout the week, so be sure to check ahead of time as you start to plan your trip. Also, because each of these islands is remote and takes upwards of an hour by boat to visit, it’s difficult to visit more than one island unless you have a private boat. There are very limited inter-island ferry routes, which you can find on the Island Packers website.
Prices can vary depending on the island, and depending on whether or not you’re camping. If you are planning on camping, it’s recommended that you book your campsite before your ferry, as campsites on each island are limited and can book up quickly.
For the most up-to-date information on prices and departure schedules for accessing Channel Islands by boat, visit the Island Packers website.
Santa Rosa Island and San Miguel Island can both be visited by a short plane ride (25-45 minutes). This is a much more expensive option than taking a ferry, but a good one if you have the budget and want to save time, or if you get seasick easily. However, because of the high chance of marine life viewing when taking a ferry, I strongly recommend going the ferry route if you can! In my 1.5-hour ferry ride to and from Santa Cruz Island, the dolphin, whale, and sea lion sightings made my trip.
For the most up-to-date information on prices and departure schedules for accessing Channel Islands by plane, visit the Channel Islands Aviation website.
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How to Get Around
Because of the remoteness of these islands, the only ways to go from one island to the next are by private boat, by kayak, or by booking one of the inter-island ferries offered by Island Packers (which operate on a limited schedule).
There are Three Ways to Kayak:
1. Guided Kayaking Tours (Available on Santa Cruz Island only)
2. Kayak Rentals (Suggested for Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands only, though you can take kayaks to Santa Barbara, San Miguel, and Santa Rosa if you’re really experienced)
3. Bringing Your Own Kayak
When to Visit
The national park is open year-round, and each season has its own magic to offer visitors. However, the park’s accessibility is really subject to ferry schedules and weather conditions, so keep that in mind!
- Spring is great for wildflower blooming season
- Summer offers the most ideal weather conditions but this also means that visitation is higher and campsites may be harder to come by (book far in advance!)
- Fall typically has the warmest and calmest water conditions, which is great if you plan on doing water activities or if boat rides make you seasick
- Winter brings its own special wildlife viewing opportunities, but rougher water conditions can mean a higher likelihood of ferry cancellation
For reference, I went in early October and actually found it a little hot (which can be a tough if you’re backcountry camping). However, the wildlife viewing was amazing, the ferry ride was calm, and the water was refreshing and swimmable by my Hawaii-born standards!
Where to Stay
All five islands have at least one established campsite, and every campsite can be booked via Recreation.gov. Regardless of where you’re headed, all campsites will cost $15/night per site.
Reservations can be made up to 6 months in advance, and depending on the time of year they will go pretty quickly! I oddly lucked out and planned a last-minute, one-night trip to Santa Cruz 1.5 weeks ahead of time, but this is definitely rare and not recommended. For good measure, try to plan your Channel Islands camping trip at least 2 months out!
Santa Barbara Island Camping:
Anacapa Island Camping:
Santa Cruz Island Camping:
Santa Rosa Island Camping:
San Miguel Island Camping:
Staying on the Mainland:
If you plan on doing a day trip to the Channel Islands and staying on the mainland, you can base yourself in Ventura or Santa Barbara!
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What to Do
Each island is going to have its own unique qualities, but in general, here’s what you can expect to be able to do when visiting Channel Islands National Park:
- Go hiking to take in the scenery and the coastal views!
- Visit some of the Channel Islands’ best lookout points, like Inspiration Point on Anacapa Island, and Bennett Point on San Miguel Island
- Take a kayaking tour of one of the Channel Islands’ many sea caves
- Rent snorkels and explore the area’s lush, rich kelp forest beds, which are home to countless species of marine life
- Go wildlife viewing and keep an eye out for birds, island foxes, and other little critters endemic to the islands
- Lay out and enjoy the beach!
- Learn about the Channel Islands’ history, as these islands were once home to Chumash Indians, European explorers, and Californian ranchers from lifetimes ago.
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- There are minimal services or amenities on the Channel Islands. Bring what you need with you, including water, cooking tools, food, and other supplies, and be sure to carry your trash back out to the mainland with you.
- Check the visitor’s center or the Island Packers office when you arrive for the most up-to-date information about the weather, trail conditions, water conditions, and more. You’ll usually be able to grab trail maps and other resources explaining the national park’s unique flora and fauna here, too.
- You are not going to be allowed to make campfires on any island. If you need to heat up water, bring a compact, self-contained boiler and propane with you.
- Pack as light as possible, especially if you’re backpacking! The Channel Islands can get hot during the day depending on the time of year you visit, and you might need more water than usual. Every liter of water is approximately two pounds, so don’t forget to take that into account when determining how much you can carry!
- Be extra careful and mindful of your surroundings when visiting. There are no bears in the Channel Islands, but that doesn’t mean you couldn’t get hurt in other ways, like tripping and falling or getting dehydrated on the trails. Take extra precautions and listen to your body, because medical attention is quite far away (back on the mainland!) and will be a huge hassle for the park rangers to orchestrate if anything happens to you.
- Respect the wildlife, pick up and carefully stow away your trash, and stay on marked trails at all times. The ecology here is special and many of the species are endemic, meaning they are found nowhere else in the world.
I hope this guide helps you prepare for (and get excited about!) your trip to Channel Islands National Park. If you have any questions, or if there’s anything I missed, let me know below!
Book Activities In or Near the Channel Islands Here:
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Hey all. Any recommendations for a couple that missed the window for an open reservation for may 7th at scorpion on Santa Cruz? I know the upper loops allow for up to 6 campers but im not sure how to find out who is using that and reach out. Email me if you have any ideas: [email protected]